Peter's 200 hats

Just a few of a lot. Peter Williams and his cop hats. Photo: Chris Callinan.

Eccentric? – “Guilty!” Or obsessed? – “Mmm – probably not”.

But he is an old cop. And he does collect hats. Police hats and helmets. And they line his double garage in Bethlehem.

“I think I have got about 200,” says Peter Williams in his garage cum memorabilia museum. There’s a car in the garage but it looks incongruous; it doesn’t look as though it should be there.  

To put Peter and his hats in some perspective, Carol Vaughn in England collects soap bars, she has 5000 from all over the world. John Reznikoff collects locks of celebrity’s hair including Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe and Einstein. And Jens Veerbek has a toaster collector.

So Peter – a retired cop collecting police hats, caps and helmets – doesn’t seems that strange after all.

He got started in 1974. And it was another Policeman that got him started.

“My brother who lived in Nice on the French Riviera introduced me to a friend who was a local Policeman. He gave me my first two hats.”

One was a carabinieri – worn by the national military police of Italy and the other was a French gendarme’s kepi, a cap with the flat circular top and horizontal visor.

A passion was born.

“Over the years I have stayed with fellow members of the International Police Association.” They would swap stories and they would swap hats. “Eccentric behaviour I know.”

And each hat has a story of course.  

One was supposedly owned by Hendrik Egnatius Botha – we remember him as ‘Nasty Booter’ or Naas Botha, the legendary Springbok five-eighth. “He was apparently a Policemen” says Peter. A Policeman before Botha slipped into New Zealand on the infamous 1981 tour.

“And this next one makes me feel a bit uneasy,” says Peter.

It’s a Policeman’s cap from Chile. “Round the time of the military junta presided over by General Pinochet – the 1970s perhaps.”

So it could have been worn by one of Pinochet’s henchmen who were responsible for the torture and disappearance of thousands of dissidents. “Pretty grizzly,” says Peter.

There’s also a Mexican one, and another from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “And my original hat from the Police in Auckland in 1966.”

Then the piece de resistance. “It’s probably the most valuable one as far as collectors go.” And a bit ghoulish too.

It’s a shako – the tall cylindrical World War 2 German Police hat – a hat introduced by Hitler himself. It was worn by Police licensed to investigate and silence enemies of the state. Now it’s sitting on a shelf in perfectly respectable Bethlehem.

Then there’s a black hard hat. It was given to this retired cop by another retired cop, an old British cop who wore it on the frontline during the bloody race riots in Brixton, 1981.

There are many stories and a lot of history going on here.

What does Peter’s wife say about his obsession. Pardon me, collection? “She’s quite encouraging. But she thinks we need a bigger place to show them. She reckons they’re wasted out in the garage.”

Not like Robert Rowe’s wife. Robert was a Michigan cop and he was obsessed. He collected all sorts of cop paraphernalia – uniforms, guns; the works. “He had racks of stuff.” Eventually it consumed him and his house. “And his wife divorced him,” says Peter. But Robert still had his collection to occupy his time.

Every time the New Zealand Police Force issued new gear Peter would get their old helmets.

“They would become swapping stock on my overseas trips. “Once I took 18 helmets in a bag. A customs guy in Hawaii tried to commandeer one.

“But I had to tell him they were all marked for collector cops in America.”

So Peter isn’t the only mad hatter. “Nuh, they’re everywhere.”

And what becomes of 200 Police helmets hats and caps, the spoils of 42 years’ collecting?

“I don’t know where they will end up. The family doesn’t want me to get rid of them. “Possibly a bar or a café?”

In the meantime Peter spends two days a year dusting the hats. Time to ponder.

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