In the summer of 1813 all of London was abuzz with the news that General Arthur Wellesley, the Marquess of Wellington, had scored a decisive victory over the French Army at Vitoria – a triumph that ended Napoleonic rule in Spain and heralded the end of the Peninsular War. Hailed as a conquering hero back home in England, promoted to Field Marshal on the day of the battle and made a Duke as well, Wellington’s was a name on every lip – not least that of His Royal Highness Prince Edward – fourth son of King George III and the future father of Queen Victoria.
When His Highness called in for a fitting at the royal boot maker, George Hoby of St James Street, not long after news of the victory reached London, he shared the glad tidings with Hoby who was pleased to hear it – and swift to claim his share of the credit: “If Lord Wellington had any boot maker other than myself,” he assured his royal patron, “he would never have had his great and constant successes, for my boots and prayers bring his Lordship out of all his difficulties.”
Rather a cocky tone for a 19th century tradesman to adopt when speaking to the fourth-in-line to the throne, but then George Hoby was no ordinary tradesman. By the summer of 1813 he had made himself Regency London’s celebrity boot maker, the Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin of his day.
He drove around the city in a flashy black tilbury, pulled by a magnificent black cob. His bustling shop at the top of St James Street, near Piccadilly, was frequented by the great and good of both sexes. He was 54 years of age, pompous, arrogant, and fabulously rich, with three hundred craftsman working beneath him and a client list that included King George III, the Prince of Wales, Princess Charlotte, the royal Dukes of Cambridge, Cumberland, Sussex and Kent, and the foppish Beau Brummell. Like the newly created Duke of Wellington, George Hoby appeared to be at the very pinnacle of his career.
Fate, however, had grander things in store for both men – an epoch-marking victory at Waterloo for Wellington in 1815, and for his not-so-humble boot-maker on St James Street, a role in the creation of a boot style that would define an age, a prime minister, and become a household name in the 20th century long after the name of George Hoby has been forgotten.
The boot of course was the Wellington. Since the 1790s British military officers, and fashionable men about town had wore Hessian boots, elegant knee-high boots made out of soft calfskin, with a curved top and a V-shape cut in the front that was decorated with metal braid and tassels. The design was inspired by riding boots worn by the Hungarian cavalrymen known as Hussars, whose gaudy uniforms and swagger had cut such a dash in 18th century Europe that by the dawn of the Napoleonic Age virtually every country in Europe had its own regiment of Hussars. (The name ‘Hessian’ for the boots comes from the German mercenaries from the state of Hesse who fought along side British troops in the American Revolution and wore their traditional Germanic uniforms – and boots)
Fashion and military uniforms have always gone hand-in-hand, with smart regimental uniforms being designed to stand out, capture the imaginations of romantic young men and convince them to join up – and perhaps win the hearts of fair maidens in the process. With much of Europe at war, and celebrating war, it was no wonder that the fashions of the day took on a decidedly martial air. Hessian boots had serious cachet, both on the battlefield and off it.
Indeed paintings of Wellington around this time show the national hero resplendent in his crimson uniform and tall Hessian boots, with their distinctive ornamental tassels.
But fashion is a constantly evolving thing. Since the early 1800s officers serving in hot climates had been experimenting with lightweight linen trousers instead of traditional woollen breeches. They liked the feel and they liked the look. So did the folks back home in in England, where this new fashion for trousers caught on. As ever, the relentlessly fashionable style icon Beau Brummell lead the way. Wellington himself was an early adopter and, legend has it, was supposedly turned away from a fashionable London club for violating its strict traditional dress code by showing up in the raffish new style.
The trouble with trousers though – apart from their initial perceived inappropriateness by the doormen at London’s stuffier clubs – was that their longer legs interfered with the tassels and decoration on the tops of Hessian boots, which had been designed with knee-length breeches in mind. Most wearers too this inconvenience in stride, so to speak, by tucking their trousers into their boot tops and making the best of things but Wellington, a practical man, as well as a stylish one, felt there must be a better way.
Sometime around 1817 he went around to George Hoby with some design thoughts and instructions for a new style of boot he wanted made – one that would be cut lower and without all the fussy decoration on top, and have a more fitted look around the calf and ankle. One that would look smart with either trousers or breeches. Hoby duly made a pair to the Dukes specifications. The boots were winners: made of soft calfskin, with a one-inch stacked heel, they were both stylish and practical, suitable for wearing everywhere, from battlefield to ballroom.
Then as now celebrities set the tone in the fashion stakes and in Regency Britain nobody, but nobody, was more A-list than Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and the hero of Waterloo. His sleek new boots quickly set a trend and the so-called Wellington boot became a hot item. So closely associated was the Iron Duke with the boot he designed that after he became prime minister in 1828, political cartoonists took to satirising him as merely a head rising out of a tall black boot.
As for George Hoby, the celebrity bootmaker who’d crafted the first pair of ‘Wellies’, he continued to prosper even if his name is largely lost to history today, eclipsed by that of the famous boot he’d made for his illustrious client. It is hard to feel too sorry for him. When Hoby eventually died, in 1832, he left behind an estate worth 120,000 pounds – a staggering sum in those days and the equivalent of many millions today.
Wellington himself died at Walmer Castle in 1852 at the age of 83, and was given a state funeral – making him one of only a few British subjects ever to be accorded that honour. Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson being two others. (Wellington was also one of only two British prime ministers to have articles of clothing named after them; the other was Anthony Eden who lent his name to a style of black felt homburg that become known in the 1930s as the Eden hat)
After Wellington’s death the dress boot that bore his name went into fashionable decline as ankle boots gained in popularity. But even as the Iron Duke’s body was lying in state at St Paul’s, events were unfolding in France and America that would see the elegant calf-skin Wellington boot head down a more humble fashion path that would have astonished the late statesman and his pompous boot maker.
That same year American inventor Charles Goodyear, who’d invented the vulcanisation process for rubber, sold rights to the process to fellow industrialist Hiram Hutchinson who in turn moved to France and set up a rubber factory in Montargis where he began making rubber boots for French farmers. They sold well and four years later another American entrepreneur, Henry Lee Norris, came across the pond and set up a rubber factory in Edinburgh and also began turning out a range of rubber products, including gumboots. Capitalising on the selling power of the late statesman’s name, patriotism and the Iron Duke’s long association with boots, the company called these new waterproof boots ‘Wellingtons’.
The boots sold fairly well throughout the rest of the 19th century, but hit the big time with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Over the next four years, the company’s mills would be working overtime producing the 1,185,036 pairs of rubber Wellingtons the British Army purchased to protect the feet (and health) of its soldiers fighting in the muddy trenches of Flanders.
After the war, these tried-and-tested boots became a popular item with farmers, commercial fishermen, gardeners, indeed anyone working or walking in wet muddy conditions. Thigh-high versions were available for anglers working the trout and salmon streams in Scotland. Jump forward yet another century, to the bicentennial year of Waterloo, and the humble, practical Wellington gumboot has become a style icon in its own right, being made in a suite of designer colours and patterns and appearing on catwalks, high streets and trendy music festivals the world over.
The 200th anniversary of Waterloo last June, saw a pair of the Iron Duke’s original boots on display in an exhibition at London’s Wellington Arch, together with a host of other Wellington memorabilia. The National Army Museum has set up an on-line exhibition called 200 Object of Waterloo, including a pair of Wellington’s polished black namesake boots, while Walmer Castle, in Kent, where Wellington spent nearly every autumn, had its own Wellington exhibition – including yet another pair of the Iron Duke’s favourite boots.