The story goes back to the 18th century, when the Duke of Wellington instructed his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James’s Street, London, to modify the conventional tasseled Hessian boot that was worn over the breeches, to make a calf-length boot to wear inside his trousers. The resulting new boot was fabricated in soft calfskin leather, had the trim removed and was cut to fit more closely around the leg. The heels were low cut, stacked around an inch (2.5 centimetres), and the boot stopped at mid-calf. It was suitably hard-wearing for riding, yet smart enough for informal evening wear. The boot was dubbed the Wellington and the name has stuck in English ever since. In the 1815 portrait by James Lonsdale, the Duke can be seen wearing the more formal Hessian style boots, which are tasselled.
The Problem Beyond Fashion
In his biography, it is reported that Wellington noted that many cavalry soldiers sustained crippling wounds by having been shot in the knee – a very vulnerable and exposed part of the body when one is mounted on a horse. He proposed a change in the design of the typical boot by having it cut so as to extend the front upward to cover the knee. This modification afforded some measure of protection in battle.
These Boots Were Meant for More Than Walking
Wellington’s utilitarian new boots quickly caught on with patriotic British gentlemen eager to emulate their war hero. Considered fashionable and foppish in the best circles and worn by dandies, such as Beau Brummell, they remained the main fashion for men through the 1840s. In the 1850s they were more commonly made in the calf-high version, and in the 1860s they were both superseded by the ankle boot, except for riding.
Wellington boots were at first made of leather. However in 1852 Hiram Hutchinson met Charles Goodyear, who had just invented the vulcanisation process for natural rubber. While Goodyear decided to manufacture tyres, Hutchinson bought the patent to manufacture footwear and moved to France to establish À l’Aigle (“to the Eagle”) in 1853, to honour his home country. Today the company is simply called Aigle. In a country where 95% of the population were working on fields with wooden clogs as they had been for generations, the introduction of the wholly waterproof, Wellington-type rubber boot became an instant success: farmers would be able to come back home with clean, dry feet.
By the end of the war in 1945, the Wellington had become popular among men, women and children for wet weather wear. The black welly, which had been standard issue for many troops and played such a large part on the home front in “digging for victory”, had become the working man’s mainstay. Farm workers, labourers, miners, dockers, navvies and council workers all wore the thick soled loose-fitting “Argyll”, which, thanks to years of rationing, was effectively the only boot readily available.
However, the Argyll boot had a design fault, present ever since its introduction in 1856 – it got stuck in the mud. It also got stuck in the craw of gentleman farmers, gamekeepers and land agents who were enjoying a post-war agricultural boom. They wanted a dedicated field boot that was narrower and fitted better than the Argyll, one that did not get left behind. They wanted a boot that would hark back to the elegant leather Wellington, a boot that would distinguish them from hoi-polloi.
And it was the North British Rubber Company that grasped this marketing opportunity, with the simple idea of producing a green boot that didn’t stick in the soil. It called it the Hunter. The North British Rubber Company (now Hunter Boot Ltd) was asked by the War Office to construct a boot suitable for muddy, wet conditions. The mills ran day and night to produce immense quantities of these trench boots. In total, 1,185,036 pairs were made to meet the British Army’s demands.
In World War II, Hunter Boot was again requested to supply vast quantities of Wellington and thigh boots. 80% of production was of war materials – from (rubber) ground sheets to life belts and gas masks. In the Netherlands, the British forces were working in flooded conditions which demanded Wellingtons and thigh boots in vast supplies.
Green Wellington boots, introduced by Hunters in 1955, gradually became a shorthand for “country life” in the UK. By the mid-seventies the boots had become so much part of British life that Princess Anne, at the height of her royal fame, commissioned the company to make her a pair of bespoke black Hunters (the only person the company ever did this for). She was the Olympic equestrian champion and she wanted to ride in her wellies – only the boots had to be black and they had to be Hunters.
It was, however, Lady Diana Spencer who turned the rubber boots into a national style icon. When Prince Charles was courting her in 1980 she was photographed on the Balmoral estate in a Fair Isle sweater, moleskin breeks and pair of green Hunters. Its famous oblong black and white label edged in red was clearly displayed on the front of the uppers. It became the defining picture for a generation of young upper class woman.
Celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Madonna have sported them. Hunter boots tripped through the fields of Glastonbury on the feet of superstars like Kate Moss while her on-off boyfriend Pete Doherty and his rock friends signed the legendary footwear for “Children In Need” at the Reading Festival.
At the end, the Hunter boots, “gum boot” to many of us, remain iconic and useful, for farmers and miners, divas and dukes.
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