The soldier and the boot
Exploring the history of the wellington boot and how this footwear got its name.
The waterproof wellington boot has become one of the most widespread and popular footwear designs in history. Why, though, are these boots called ‘wellingtons’?
Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was a British soldier and statesman, and was one of the major figures of the 19th century. He is famed for leading the armies which defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s French forces at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Dissatisfied with the footwear available, the Duke told his shoemaker to modify a ‘Hessian’ boot, which had been standard military issue since the previous century. The new design was made from soft calfskin leather with the traditional decorative trim removed. It fitted closely around the leg and featured a low heel of around an inch (25 mm). The leather was waxed to make it softer and more water-resistant.
The Duke’s new boots first appeared in public during 1817. They proved popular with combat troops, yet were comfortable enough for eveningwear. The style was quickly dubbed the ‘wellington’ – a name that has stayed in the English language ever since. Leather wellingtons soon became the height of fashion, with patriotic British men keen to emulate their new hero.
The arrival of rubber
In 1852, American businessman Hiram Hutchinson bought the patent to manufacture vulcanised rubber footwear, and established a company in France. A large proportion of the French people worked in fields, so the waterproof rubber boot he patented the following year (based on the Duke of Wellington’s design) proved an instant success. By 1857, the company was making 14,000 pairs of boots by hand each day. Another American – Henry Lee Norris – moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he began manufacturing rubber wellington boots in 1856.
Wartime demands and civilian use
Production of the wellington boot was boosted with the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, and the need for footwear suitable for the European battlefield’s flooded trenches. No less than 1.2 million pairs of boots were produced to meet the British Army’s demands. During the 1939-45 world war, vast quantities of wellington boots were again made for the armed forces around the world. By the end of the conflict, wellington boots had become popular with men, women and children, and had developed to provide more room, a rounded toe and a thick sole.
Today, waterproof wellington boots are normally made from rubber or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They are worn in many occupations, including heavy industry, mining, abattoirs, meat packing, electronics ‘clean rooms’, fast food production, emergency response, the chemical industry and in operating theatres, as well as for horticultural use and in construction.
Wellington boots are very popular with children, often being brightly coloured or bearing pictures of favourite cartoon characters. Adult boots are also manufactured as colourful fashion accessories.
Undoubtedly, Arthur Wellesley – the Duke of Wellington – would never have guessed the incredible worldwide popularity of the boot which has evolved from his first design, made over 200 years ago.
How can we help?
Please contact SATRA’s footwear team (firstname.lastname@example.org) for help with the testing of wellington boots and other types of footwear.
This article was originally published on page 14 of the April 2021 issue of SATRA Bulletin.