Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Waterloo’

Wellington Boots

Posted by Admin on September 24, 2019

A while back, a friend of Idiomation asked why Wellington boots — which are sometimes referred to as Wellies — are called Wellington boots. Some of you may be wondering what a Wellington boot is in the first place, never mind the history behind the name.  Some people call them rubber boots while others call them galoshes. Still others call them muck boots, and a few call them rain boots. A few call them gumboots or gummies.

SIDE NOTE 1: In South Africa, gumboots inspired gumboot dances in the early 20th century. The dancers wear their gumboots and create rhythms by slapping their boots and bodies, stamping their feet, and singing.

Wellington boots were named early in the 19th century by Dublin-born Anglo-Irish soldier Arthur Wellesley (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), the First Duke of Wellington, who fell in love with the Hessian boots German soldiers wore. He had been sent to Flanders in late 1793 and fought at the Battle of the Boxtel in September the following year. His health was negatively affected by the damp environment, and the battle forced heavy losses and sickness on the men fighting with the Dutch and Austrian troops to invade France. The end result was that they were forced to retreat into Germany.

Hessian boots became incredibly popular during the reign of King George III after they were introduced in 1789. In short order, they became standard military issue footwear as popular with civilians as with military men. Some even took to calling them “Austrians” (with the word boot omitted) since they were originally a German boot made in the German state of Hesse.

Hessian boots reached nearly to the knees and had a a nice trim around the top. They were made of leather, and had semi-pointed toes and small heels as well as tassels at the top.

SIDE NOTE 2: The Duke of Wellington was famous for his victory at the Battle of Waterloo which ran from 15 June – 8 July 1815.

The Duke didn’t fancy the tassels all that much, so he charged his personal shoemaker with modifying the style of Hessian boots in 1811 to suit his own tastes. For one thing, those tassels were definitely gone as was the trim. He wasn’t impressed with the heel, and asked to have the boot made to be a bit more form fitting without the heel.

Aristocrats in England wanted to emulate the Duke, so they began asking their shoemakers to create Hessian-inspired boots that looked like the boots the Duke wore, and it wasn’t long before everyone with means to buy these boots were calling them Wellington boots. In fact, by 1817, everyone knew what kind of boot the Wellington boot was.

It was in 1853 that American industrialist Hiram Hutchinson (1808 – 1869) decided to introduce rubber to the Wellington boot. Hiram had bought the patent for vulcanization of natural rubber for footwear from self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer Charles Goodyear (yes, that Charles Goodyear). Goodyear (29 December 1800 – 1 July 1860) was using the process to make tires, so he saw no problem in allowing Hutchinson to use the process to make boots.

Wellington boots were sold to farmers looking for foot protection in their wet fields. The rubberized Wellingtons allowed them to work in their wet fields all day and still have clean, dry feet when the day was done. It’s easy to see how this impressed farmers everywhere. It wasn’t long before the rubber Wellington was a staple on farms and in cities throughout Europe.

SIDE NOTE 3: The Hessian boot inspired the creation of cowboy boots that became popular in American in the 1850s.

When the rubber Wellington boot left England on its way to the United States in the early 20th century, they also changed color. The British version remained the traditionally green while the version in the U.S. came in a variety of colors, with the most popular color being black boots for adults and yellow boots for children.

World War I provided soldiers in the flooded and mud-filled European trenches a chance to keep their feet warm and dry by wearing rubber Wellington boots, and so they did.

These days, Wellington boots are standard footwear for a number of jobs, mostly when the boot is reinforced with a steel toe to prevent injury as well.

It’s very easy to peg the year the term Wellington boots came into usage, so Idiomation has decided to share this YouTube video of gumboot dancing in South Africa with readers.

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