The Royal Armouries is one of the oldest museums in the world, founded in the 1400s in London’s famous White Tower, viewable by appointment only. By 1660, paying members of the public were invited to visit this extensive Royal collection of arms and armour. In 1991 a major shake-up was begun, and much of the collection moved to a purpose-built museum in the northern English city of Leeds, which opened to the public five years later. In recent years, the Armouries generated some controversy when they began to acquire weapons used on iconic TV shows and films, such as LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.
Purists complained that as a museum, the Armouries should be focusing on authentic historic artefacts, not modern fantastical replicas. But advocates of these new acquisitions argued that most people today encountered weaponry and armour via the screen. Furthermore, many productions employed skilled professional armourers, who often created the props inspired by, or even adapted from authentic originals. For example, the two STAR WARS blasters the Armouries wanted to acquire – one Imperial weapon and one Rebel equivalent – were basically modified 1950s Sterling submachineguns. They’re even still capable of firing blanks!
The enthusiasts prevailed, and the blasters were bought with the help of a 2018 Crowdfunding campaign that raised £47,000, becoming key exhibits in a new gallery curators dubbed the Make: Believe collection. In recent months, the Armouries have been hosting a season of films to highlight weapons and armour in their new gallery, including screenings of UNDERWORLD, DIE HARD, ALIENS, and EXCALIBUR. The final screening in the season, scheduled for the evening of February 27th, is the 2003 period superhero action movie THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.
Based on a hit comic by Brit writer Alan Moore, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN teams up some of 19th Century literature’s most celebrated heroes and villains to combat a dastardly scheme to bring about a worldwide war in 1899. While a modest commercial success, critics were less impressed, as were some of those involved in the production. Moore disowned the film (as he has with most other adaptations of his work), while its star Sean Connery, who played the League’s leader Alan Quatermain, accused its director Stephen Norrington of being insane. The Scottish actor even blamed the experience of making THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN for his decision to retire from filmmaking!
Despite this, the movie has acquired some cult status over the years, particularly among Steampunk aficionados. Steampunk is most successful as a fashion aesthetic and inspiration for elaborate accessorisation. Yet, unlike similar subcultures, Steampunk’s struggled to inspire many high profile bands or films to compliment the distinctive look. Enter THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, which for all of its shortcomings, successfully captures the blend of Victorian elegance and adventure, with 19th Century retro-tech cool, that encapsulates classic Steampunk.
Leeds Armouries has two pieces in their Make: Believe collection from THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, both are weapons attributed to Captain Nemo, to underline his status as the greatest inventor of the age. In the film and comic Nemo is a Sikh, so the designs were modified by the armourers to give them an ornate Indian look. The first is one of the submachineguns used by Nemo’s men. Like the STAR WARS blaster it’s based on a British design, and can still fire blanks. While the film’s set in 1899, in the real world such guns did not see action until 1918. The other weapon is Nemo’s personal pistol, modified from a Russian Tokarev TT33 pistol, also adapted to fire blanks.
If such details intrigue you, then before the screening of the film at Leeds Armouries, one of their expert armourers will be in attendance to deliver an introduction, lifting the lid on other secrets behind the weapons employed by THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN. Surely a must for any military-minded Steampunk! Even if you can’t make it for the February screening, there’s plenty in the museum to interest anyone looking for inspiration for Steampunk accessories, particularly in the 19th Century galleries. Needless to say, even if Steampunk leaves you absolutely cold, Leeds Armouries is one of the most remarkable museums in the country, a splendid day out whether you’re an expert military historian, or just enjoy a healthy curiosity about the past.
For further information, visit the Armouries website https://royalarmouries.org/
While we don’t make weapons (yet!), Alchemy are known worldwide for our Empire range of Steampunk accessories, all of which would’ve looked quite at home onboard Captain Nemo’s vessel the Nautilus in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN. Particular favourites include our Stormgrave Chronometer clock [V15], the Anguistralobe pendant [P188], and our Steam-head skull [V73].
Words by – Gavin Baddeley