Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #3 of the Anglotopia Magazine in Summer 2016. Support great thoughtful writing about British History and Culture by subscribing to the Anglotopia magazine.
The Wellington Boot was born during the Napoleonic Wars when the Duke of Wellington wanted a more practical boot for his cavalry. The design was based on the Hessian boot worn by German soldiers, including those fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. The boot was re-imagined in rubber by an American industrialist in France and returned to Britain during WWI. By the middle of the 20th century, it had become standard footwear for all classes in the country, from nobility to farm labourers. Today it is worn around the world, especially in English-speaking countries, whenever it rains. Owning a pair of Wellies is a must for any Anglophile.
- Originally in leather and designed by the Duke of Wellington
- The rubber version was developed in France by an American in 1852
- Protected millions of soldiers during WWI and WWII
- The ‘Green Welly’ is the symbol of country life across the UK
The use of mercenary troops is as old as warfare itself, and the British have never been above hiring a foreign army if it was cheaper and available. Remarkably, during the American Revolutionary War, the British sent 30,000 German mercenaries to fight the American patriots. This was a quarter of all the troops sent to America. Most of them were recruited from the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, a state in the middle of modern Germany whose existence dated back to the Holy Roman Empire. In the late 18th century, the ruler of Hess was Frederick II, and his nephew was George III of England. So when George III needed some extra troops to help him squash the rebellious American colonists, Frederick II was happy to rent some to him. They came complete with uniforms, weapons, and officers, so this ‘rent an army’ arrangement was convenient for George III. These soldiers became known as Hessians, and one of the parts of their uniform was a distinctive boot. This had a low heel, a narrow toe came to the knee and had tassels on the top. The form made them ideal for mounting stirrups, so they became popular not just with soldiers (although they were the chief wearers) but also with upper-class civilians, who wore them for hunting and riding.
An interesting historical footnote is that around 5,000 Hessian soldiers remained in America after the British defeat and settled there as well as in Canada. The cowboy boot probably evolved from the Hessian boot.
A popular wearer of Hessian boots was Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington. Wellesley was an Irish Protestant who is best known for defeating Napoleon in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. He is also an important figure in the British conquest of India and fought in the Peninsular War against the French. In the very early 19th century, he had his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James’s Street, London (an area still known for bespoke shoes) modify the Hessian boot, removing the decoration, fitting it more closely to the calf and making it in soft calfskin for comfort. With a low heel it, was ideal for riding, but also smart enough to be worn in less formal situations (although Wellesley reverted to the full) tasselled version for formal occasions and official portraits. The simplified boot quickly became known as the Wellington Boot, and something very similar is still worn today by, for example, the Household Cavalry. These elite divisions are the most prestigious in the British Army and are the personal bodyguards of the reigning Monarch.
For his cavalry soldiers, Wellington had the upper part of the boot extended over the knee to give protection to this vulnerable area in a mounted soldier. The standard shorter version was quickly adopted by gentlemen, for both riding, and for leisure, as well as being favoured by the Dandies – a group of middle-class men who emulated the dress and manners of the aristocracy. They remained fashionable until the 1850s when ankle-boots became normal for everything except riding.
A leather boot is not what we think of today when picturing a Wellington boot, so where did the rubber come from? The answer lies with Charles Goodyear, whose name is, of course, associated with car tires. Goodyear was a self-taught American chemist, who around 1830 became fascinated with gum elastic, the newly discovered natural latex produced by the rubber tree. An early use of this material was for making inflated rubber tubes as life preservers for sailors, but the gum elastic quickly rotted, and the invention was on the brink of failure. By 1852, Goodyear had invented and patented the vulcanisation process, which turned the fragile gum elastic into durable rubber and the rest is history.
In the same year, Goodyear met Hiram Hutchinson, an Anglo-American industrialist, and Goodyear sold Hutchinson the rights to use this new product for shoe manufacture. Hutchinson emigrated to France, where he founded Le Compagnie du Caoutchouc Souple. In France, there were millions of farm workers wearing wooden clogs, and Hutchinson sensed a business opportunity. He made a cloth boot that was waterproofed with his new rubber product. The new boot was an instant success with farmers. His company went on to become Hutchinson SA, a multinational corporation still in the rubber business. The boot business still exists today as Aigle, making waterproof boots and clothing.
The new rubber boot returned to England at the outbreak of WWI, when the British Army asked North British Rubber Company (now Hunter Boot Ltd), to make boots for the troops. By the end of the war, they had produced almost 2 million pairs and protected many soldiers from the dreaded ‘trench foot,’ caused by constantly damp feet.
Production at Hunter Boots picked up again in WWII, and more boots and other waterproof items like ground sheets were made for the army. By the end of the war, the rubber Wellington boot had become a popular item in the rainy climate of the UK among farmers, children, and soon in industry too, where their low cost and waterproof properties made them ideal for dirty work. White ones were even worn by surgeons.
While the Hunter boot was proudly made in Scotland for the longest time, globalisation has changed that. The boots are now mostly made in China, but retain their ‘Britishness’, and the boots are now more popular than ever. They are a bit pricey these days – you’ll pay well over $100 for a pair but they last a lifetime so are worth the investment. They are easy to find in the USA, but I prefer to buy them from a local shoe store in England.
Today’s ‘country life’ classic, the dark-green Wellington boot, was introduced in 1955 by Hunter Boots, and became standard wear for country people across the country. Just add a Land Rover and a pair of Golden Labradors and your entry into the landed gentry is assured. What the Duke himself would have thought of his mutated boot we will never know, but being an immensely practical man, he probably would have approved.
Sites to Visit
A pair of original leather Wellington boots, worn by the Duke himself, can be seen among the exhibits at Walmer Castle and Gardens, Kent. The Duke of Wellington lived there as part of his duties as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The castle is closed during winter.
A good range of vintage rubber Wellingtons can be seen in almost any second-hand clothing shop in the UK, especially military surplus stores and shops in rural areas. Cheap ‘wellies’ can be bought at any store that will sell shoes. But you can buy a pair of authentic Hunter Boots at any good shoe store in the UK and most outdoors retailers. They’re also widely available in the US and other countries (you can order them online, too).
A pilgrimage of sorts is now the new official Hunter Boots Store located on Regent Street in London. The store features their entire range of boots, and other Hunter branded merchandise (like brollies and even outerwear). The store is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. and 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. on Sundays.