I know it’s nowhere near mud season, but it rained the other day, which got me thinking about gum boots.
You can buy cheap ones or expensive “fashionable” ones and no matter which you chose they will inevitably let you down. You will notice, once ankle-deep in a puddle, that they’ve sprung a leak and they will absolutely get stuck in the mud leaving you to traipse around in stocking feet.
Despite these fond memories being behind me I did wonder how these rubber boots came to be.
Here in North America, we tend to call these gum boots, but I believe the term wellies has become more widespread thanks to the burst in popularity of the tall Hunter Wellington boots.
Believe it or not, the history of these boots goes all the way back to the 1800s and the Duke of Wellington.
I did not know this, and there is no reason why I should have, but military uniforms were designed, in part, to lure young men into signing up. The added bonus when dawning such finery was of course attracting the ladies. How can any human resist a uniform?
In the late 1790s, the British Army wore Hessian boots. They were soft highly polished knee-high leather boots made with a decorative ‘V’ shape front and center and came complete with a tassel. These boots were paired with woollen breeches, which was fine in cooler climates, but those that were stationed in hot climates traded in their woollen breeches for linen ones and that V shape and tassel became a problem. Though I’m not sure how or why.
In the early 1800s Viscount Wellington, who was not yet a Duke, was fed up with the tassel issue and commissioned Mr. George Hoby of St. James’s Street, London to design new boots that would fit better with the trendy linen pants.
Hoby removed the V shape, tossed the tassel and cut the boots lower to make riding more comfortable. A short boot does not scream comfort to me when riding, but I’m not a Duke and therefore my opinion on the matter means little. Fair.
By 1813, two years before Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, our friend the Duke was gaining popularity due to his victory at the Battle of Vittoria. The victorious Wellington was well admired by the public and as such he became a bit of a fashion icon and the worthiness of his short tassel-free boots became the look of the times and were aptly known as Wellingtons.
Wellington boots remained popular until the Duke’s death in 1852 whereupon their appeal waned until falling out of favour altogether by 1860.
In 1856 the North British Rubber Company began making Britain’s first rubber boot, which they named Wellingtons because even though the Duke of Wellington had died a few years prior, his patriotic pull was still alive and well. And nothing sells better than patriotism.
In 1916 the rubber company was commissioned to produce millions of rubber boots as standard winter wear for soldiers to prevent the dreaded trench foot.
When the war ended in 1918, soldiers brought their army issue boots home with them and the popularity of the boots sprang into life as other members of a rubber-boot household quickly caught on to their practicality in the garden and around the farm.
Who knew rubber boots would have such an interesting past? And a century on they are still going strong even in households where there are no gardens or muddy paddocks in which to contend.
Long live the Welly.