When you live in the real countryside, ’sensible’ outdoor footwear is something of a necessity. True Devonians will always smile and say you can ‘spot the incomer’ a mile off by their inappropriate choices of heels, open toed or pale coloured shoes. You can buy all sorts of fancy boots but, at the end of the day, the wellington boot is the countryman’s footwear of choice!
I shared this fun photo (right) on Facebook this week as it made me smile and think that Albert, the lead male in our Swaddlecombe Mysteries, would find this a good use of a leaking welly. In contrast, Victoria, our leading lady, would probably use a pair of old wellies as planters for some organic herbs…
So what’s the history of the wellington boot? How did this rubberised footwear come into being? The wellington boot is associated with Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). The Iron Duke, as he was known, instructed his shoemaker, George Hoby to modify his hessian 18th-century boot and make it out of calfskin leather.
Wellingtons first appeared in 1817 and proved popular with the troops because they were hard wearing for battle, yet comfortable for evening wear. The boot leather was treated with wax to make them softer and more waterproof. The new boots became a very popular fashion accessory for gentlemen. Considered fashionable and foppish in the best circles, they remained the main fashion for men throughout the 1840s.
American, Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), who invented a vulcanisation process for rubber, began making rubber boots. Hiram Hutchinson saw the potential for agricultural workers in France and bought the patent from Goodyear in 1852. The new waterproof boots were quick to become established and sold well within the large rural population. Amazingly, by 1857 the company were hand–making 14,000 pairs of boots per day!
Fellow American, Henry Lee Norris, moved to Edinburgh and started producing rubber wellington boots in 1856. Norris believed Scotland was a good place to manufacture wellingtons because of the country’s high rainfall – good decision! He founded the British Rubber Company and four former boot–makers from New York trained the Scottish workforce The company went into production first making rubber shoes and boots and then quickly expanding to produce an extensive range of rubber products, included tyres, golf balls and hot water bottles.
Come the outbreak of the First World War (1914- 1918) the trench war ensured high production of rubber boots and again, in the Second World War, the armed forces used vast quantities of rubber wellington boots.
And so to today, when the Wellington boot has gone full circle and become highly fashionable again. When I was a child, wearing wellies was deemed very boring. They were always plain black and not very comfy and you would go out of your way to avoid wearing them. Now, when we are so sophisticated with technology coming out of our ears, I find it amusing that something as simple as old-fashioned as a boot made out of rubber is so much in demand. You can have them in various designs and in any colour and, if you choose green ones, you can even spend a fortune on them!