Why Are Wellington Boots so Called?
Wellington boots are based upon leather Hessian boots and take their name from the first Duke of Wellington. They were worn and popularised by Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington. This novel “Wellington” boot became a staple of hunting and outdoor wear for the British aristocracy in the early 19th century. They are no longer associated with a particular class and are common in contemporary society among farmers, hunters, outdoors enthusiasts and others.
The duke had a special pair designed for him to suit the conditions of his campaigns through Spain and Belgium. No doubt the changes in climate and, in particular, the muddy Belgian fields prompted his desire for tougher footwear. The original boots reached as far as the knee and were impregnated with waterproofing materials, probably with a rubber base. They were equally suited to walking and to riding.
The Duke instructed his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James’s Street, London, to modify the 18th-century Hessian boot. The resulting new boot was fabricated in soft calfskin leather, had the trim removed and was cut to fit more closely around the leg. The heels were low cut, stacked around an inch (2.5 centimetres), and the boot stopped at mid-calf.
It was suitably hard-wearing for riding, yet smart enough for informal evening wear. The boot was dubbed the Wellington and the name has stuck in English ever since. In the 1815 portrait by James Lonsdale, the Duke can be seen wearing the more formal Hessian style boots, which are tasselled.
In his biography, it is reported that Wellington noted that many cavalry soldiers sustained crippling wounds by having been shot in the knee – a very vulnerable and exposed part of the body when one is mounted on a horse. He proposed a change in the design of the typical boot by having it cut so as to extend the front upward to cover the knee. This modification afforded some measure of protection in battle.
Wellington’s utilitarian new boots quickly caught on with patriotic British gentlemen eager to emulate their war hero. Considered fashionable and foppish in the best circles and worn by dandies, such as Beau Brummell, they remained the main fashion for men through the 1840s. In the 1850s they were more commonly made in the calf-high version, and in the 1860s they were both superseded by the ankle boot, except for riding.
Wellington is one of the two British Prime Ministers to have given his name to an item of clothing, the other being Sir Anthony Eden whilst Sir Winston Churchill gave his name to a cigar, and William Gladstone (twice prime minister between 1868 and 1894) gave his to the Gladstone Bag, the classic doctor’s portmanteau.
Wellington boots were at first made of leather. However, in 1852 Hiram Hutchinson met Charles Goodyear, who had just invented the vulcanisation process for natural rubber. While Goodyear decided to manufacture tyres, Hutchinson bought the patent to manufacture footwear and moved to France to establish À l’Aigle (“to the Eagle”) in 1853, to honour his home country.
Today the company is simply called Aigle. In a country where 95% of the population were working on fields with wooden clogs as they had been for generations, the introduction of the wholly waterproof, Wellington-type rubber boot became an instant success: farmers would be able to come back home with clean, dry feet.