The Boot that Changed History

Wellingtons in Victoria Falls sounds as unlikely as Trump in the White House! With record rains this season and the Zambezi’s steady expansion the river bank is a mud bath, my daily walks are now a careful negotiation through a swamp! Cold and damp feet in trainers that wouldn’t dry compelled me to trade Nike for Wellies a.k.a. gumboots. The ability to walk through water and not feel that cold rush of liquid hit the comfort of your cosy foot snug in its warm sock, is true elation. With childlike wonder I seek out the flooded path and jump mid-stream in utter delight at my water proof boots! Come mud or high water my feet are dry as a bone.

Such was my gratitude for these rubber boots I began to wonder who had invented them. As I waded through muddy waters I couldn’t help but think what an ingenious invention! It turns out as most words in English, the answer is in the name. The humble welly was first introduced by the Duke of Wellington in the early 1800s. Much like fashion icon Coco Chanel whose greatest creative endeavours were inspired simply by practicality in a time of war, necessity truly being the mother of all invention, the Iron Duke designed himself a pair of boots that were trouser friendly and literally without the frills – replacing a tasselled boot that was designed for breeches, making them uncomfortable with the newly fashionable trousers.

Even before his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 the Duke’s new style of boot, the Wellington, had hit The High Street. By the mid 1850s an Edinburgh-based rubber company started to manufacture Britain’s first ‘gum’ boot, patriotically naming them Wellingtons. Their popularity didn’t spread until the First World War when the North British Rubber Company was commissioned to make millions of pairs to prevent ‘trench foot‘ in Allied soldiers fighting in the near-freezing European winters. Caused by extreme damp and exposure to the cold, with similar symptoms to frost bite, this agonising medical condition affected 75,000 men in the Allied Forces alone, with many losing a foot or leg.

German troops, kitted out with standard military footwear in the flooded trenches, have been quoted as saying that the advantage of these rubber boots in preventing trench foot in the Allied Forces was such that it cost them the war!


***A new exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London on March 12th marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

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