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History of Wellington Boots: From Battlefields to Potato Fields

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Photo: Jonathan Page

From the sodden trenches of World War I to the puddles on your sidewalk, the wellington boot has kept our feet dry for well over a century. With utilitarian roots in the British military of the early-19th century, the wellington boot has become a household staple that we call upon in the wettest of days.

But how did this vulcanized rubber boot become a wet-weather mainstay? We’re taking a moment to trace the history of the Wellington boot right back to its British beginnings.

Military Beginnings

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Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, wearing Hessian Boots via Fashion History Timeline

Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, was one of Britain’s leading military and political figures in the 1800s. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Wellesley went on to become the Duke of Wellington and one of Britain’s most respected war heroes after his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. In the early 19th century, the Duke of Wellington’s go-to boots were a pair of Hessian boots he was gifted by the Hessians, a group of German soldiers who served as auxiliaries to the British Army. A painting by James Lonsdale even depicts The Duke wearing a pair of tasseled Hessian boots as he stands victorious at the Battle of Waterloo. When asked the most important part of a soldier’s equipment, The Duke famously replied: “firstly, a pair of good shoes, second a pair of good shoes, and thirdly a pair of half-soles”.

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The Duke of Wellington’s Hessian Boots via Fashion History Timeline

As well as being sturdy enough for battle, these tall, polished leather boots with ornamental details were also formal enough for evening wear. The Duke of Wellington was so inspired by these German boots that he tasked his shoemaker, George Hoby of St. James’s Street, London, to modify the 18th Century Hessian Boot to bring them up to date. Hoby crafted a Hessian-esque boot from supple calfskin leather treated with wax. The boot’s form was modified to fit more closely around the leg, and the ornamental trims were removed for a more utilitarian look. The Duke was extremely satisfied, and the boot was christened ‘The Wellington Boot’. Keen to imitate one of Britain’s most respected figures, British gents would sport the Wellington boot as a fashion item, a trend that would continue until the early 1850s.

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Original Leather Wellington Boots via Pinterest

Rubber Update

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Charles Goodyear via Pinterest

Until the 1850s, Wellington boots were made from leather. However, Charles Goodyear’s revolutionary discovery of the vulcanization of rubber saw the wellington boot style crafted in a whole new way. Goodyear, a seasoned chemist, famously discovered the vulcanization of rubber by accident on a trip to a rubber factory in 1839, after realizing that combining rubber and sulfur over a heat source would cause natural rubber to harden. Goodyear acquired a patent for this process in the same year and went on to use vulcanized rubber to make tires.

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Hiram Hutchinson (left) and an original A L’Aigle (right) via Sina

A British industrialist named Hiram Hutchinson saw the potential for vulcanized rubber to create waterproof footwear and acquired rights to this process from Goodyear in the early 1850s. Upon acquiring rights to the patent, Hutchinson moved to France and started a rubber boot company in Montargis called La Compagnie du Caoutchouc Souple (The Flexible Rubber Company). In 1853, Hutchinson introduced a brand of rubber Wellington boots that he called A L’Aigle and sold these boots to French agricultural workers. Having worked outdoors in wooden clogs for decades, the introduction of a rubber, Wellington-style boot was revolutionary for French farmers, who could now return home with dry feet.

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Image via Hunter

The Wellington boot went from honorable leather military boot to vulcanized rubber work boot in just a few years. In January 1856, Henry Lee Norris, an American entrepreneur from New Jersey, and his friend and partner Spencer Thomas Parmelee of Connecticut, moved to Scotland to produce rubber overshoes and boots. After acquiring a lease for a mill in Edinburgh, Henry Lee Norris established Norris & Co., a brand that would go on to become the now-famous Hunter Boot Ltd.

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Wellington Boots worn in World War I via Tommy 1418

Hunter Boot Ltd. was contracted to produce vast amounts of rubber Wellington boots for troops in WWI. Soldiers in saturated trenches needed sturdy boots that would keep their feet as dry as possible to avoid ‘trench foot’, a painful tissue-damaging condition of the feet caused by long exposures to cold water or mud. The boots were a success, and Hunter Boot had to run its mill day and night to keep up with a demand that exceeded 1,185,000 pairs. Hunter’s boots were so dependable for wet conditions that the British army returned during WWII and again contracted Hunter Boot Ltd. to produce large quantities of Wellington boots.

By the end of the Second World War, the Wellington had become popular among civilians for wet weather wear and laboring. Cheap to produce, entirely waterproof, and comfortable, the Wellington boot was an answer to many post-war questions. Labor intensive industries adopted the Wellington boot, adding steel toe caps where necessary. In 1956, Hunter Boot Ltd. introduced ‘The Original Green Wellington’. This new colorway was adopted by middle- to upper-class Brits who resided in rural areas. To this day, the image of a green Wellington boot evokes images of the British countryside.

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Princess Diana in Hunter Boots and Prince Charles via Fenwick

Sales of Wellington boots remained steady over the years as they slowly became an iconic piece of British footwear. The Wellington boot’s first foray into the world of fashion was when Princess Diana was photographed wearing a pair of Hunter Original Green Wellington boots during her courtship with Prince Charles. Hunter boot sales skyrocketed thanks to Diana’s iconic status, with people across the United Kingdom keen to emulate the newly crowned princess of Wales. All of a sudden, Wellington boots weren’t always just a means of keeping your feet dry, and people would find excuses to rock their “Welly’s” in the lightest of rain showers.

Wellington Boots Today

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Kate Moss in Hunter Wellington boots via Fenwick

Wellington boots are still hugely popular in many western countries, especially Britain. Hunter still produces Wellington boots and have enjoyed a recent sales-boost with ever-growing music festival culture sourcing a need for waterproof boots. Festivals in the U.K. are notorious for becoming extremely muddy, and a pair of Hunter boots is a surefire way to keep your feet clean and dry. Hiram Hutchinson’s company still exist to this day, now known simply as Aigle. Aigle Wellington boots are known for their high-quality construction and 95% of the Aigle collection is still handcrafted in France.

Hunter Original Tall Boot

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Hunter’s archetypal Wellington boot was introduced in 1956 and remains one of Hunter’s best selling core products. Built from thick natural vulcanized rubber, the Original Tall Boot is 100% waterproof and comes with an adjustable calf buckle. They’re also lined with polyester to make them easier to slip on and off, and feature the iconic Hunter emblem on the shaft of the boot.

Available for $155 from Hunter.