The Real Man Behind The Wellington Boot

My son was inconsolable when it came to dog walk time, because he had a hurty toe.

What to wear into the forest? His trainers would pinch, and I forbade his new sandals.

Because it’s muddy out there, right now. The heavens have tipped unbelievable amounts of rain on an incredulous English population. We are all hot under the collar about it, but there is absolutely no-one to whom we can complain in triplicate. In the forest, the soil has had enough, thank you very much. Peat has become mire. Purchasing sandals, it seems, was a foolhardy course of action.

What a good thing there was a roomy pair of bottle green wellies waiting for Felix in the porch. He popped them on to reveal they protected the toe, and  were a passport to all the best puddles.

Felix might as well have had seven league boots on. He requested the muddiest route and investigated every quaggy mire with the application of a professional surveyor.  He sought out broad puddles, deep puddles, sticky puddles and shallow clear pools. He contrived to become stuck, grinning like a delighted orangutan and elongating the drama as his concerned parents asked him: did he need towing out?

He sloshed and sploshed and diced with welly levels, daring the puddles higher and higher, every further towards the top of his boots.

It is easy to forget that, while wellies have become the staple of children and women on relentless soggy British days out, they began as an unmistakably blokey thing.

We all know who designed them: Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. He had long admired the boots worn by the Hessian soldiers, the 18th century German mercinaries who often worked for the British Empire. He wanted something softer, more close fitting, but which could be used one minute on the battlefield and the next at dinner that evening.

How very British. Keep calm and carry on, and all that.

But Wellington didn’t make the boot.

At the top of St James Street, on the corner of Picadilly, next to the old Guards Club, there once stood a stood a renowned bootmaker’s. It belonged to George Hoby, bootmaker to the stars; or at least, to the great and good of his time.

His boots were the best. There was no disputing it. But according to celebrated diarist Captain Rees Howell Gronow,his manners were famed for being arrogant and irascible.

When an early Churchill stormed into his shop to complain he would never patronise Hoby’s again because of the poor quality of his boots, Hoby turned with a sardonic pastiche of defeated loss to his shopman and said: “John, close the shutters. It is all over with us. I must shut up shop; Ensign Churchill withdraws his custom from me…”

One day, as he was with the Duke of Kent fitting him for boots, someone brought news that Wellington had trounced the French at Vittoria.

Hoby retorted: ““If Lord Wellington had had any other bootmaker than myself, he never would have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties.”

Magic boots. Seven-league boots: Hoby died leaving a fortune of £120,000, and his legacy has outshone the fortune by far. It stretches throughout English life,through all our rainy days.

All the way to a rainy forest puddle, where a small boy plays at adventures.

Who knows where Hoby’s boots will carry him.

Image source here


38 thoughts on “The Real Man Behind The Wellington Boot

  1. and these days wellies in all sorts of patterns and colours are available. I keep thinking I need a wild pair for gardening, but then my shabby old gardening clothes would look even worse by comparison

      1. I was thinking more of the cheap ones 😉 all “cheep and cheerful” as a friend puts it (I think she means a cross between cheap and squeaky)

      1. I did wear them in the snow, and I’m sure the stuff they put on the sidewalks ate through them. With wool socks, they do make great snow shoes. 🙂

  2. And an entire 21st Century industry has sprung forth, full-blown from that basic boot! Nothing, but nothing must escape the “designer” label! That said, I’d love to have several pair of those with varied floral or abstract patterns, if my pockets were only a mite deeper! They’d likely just gather dust in the closet though — I NEVER wear boots!! 🙂

  3. My wife still has the wellies she picked up when we lived in England from 1989-1993. They’re still in great shape. I had a wonderful wax coat, as well, but gave it to my son. It’s probably long gone by now. 🙂

  4. What’s interesting about classic items like these is their reinvention for new times and their adaptation for new uses. As well as designer wellies, and the upper class resonance of green wellies, I think of that phrase from the 1990s, “Give it some welly!” (well, I know what it signifies, but why a welly?) and that spurious ‘tradition’, the Throwing the Welly competition (through the legs and backwards I seem to remember). Even its familiar abbreviation speaks of affection, so I’m looking forward to future variations on the theme.

  5. How left out I feel! I have never owned a pair of Wellies! I have always wanted to, admired them, loved the name and would enjoy puddles! We just don’t have enough rain to even own rain gear…does that sound insensitive while you’re under a deluge? Truthfully, and I mean this, I’m really a bit envious! I love the history behind the name, and even more I enjoy hearing about your remarkable Felix! Debra

  6. Puddles are in cahoots(conspiracy) with Satan. They have magnetic power to draw young children right to them and have the children slosh around in the deepest part of the puddle. Especially when they are wearing their very best “Sunday” shoes.

  7. We do love our rainboots, too, though we’ve had quite the opposite stretch of weather. While they’re not actual Wellies, they are quite the thing for puddle-jumping.

  8. If the English are incredulous towards their rain, Canadians are incredulous to long winters of snow, sleet and wind. I wonder with Olympics not long to get underway, if the 50 metre Wellie dash will be new event. Funny until the other day I didn’t know what Wellies were. With global warming creating strange weather patterns Wellies may in vogue.

  9. the only thing to better that experience is to jump into puddles barefoot! I have seen the most amazing wellies here – real fashion items not meant for mud 🙂

    1. They can be really stylish, Tandy. I like to be able to forget they are on my feet and do what I want, though. Jumping in puddle in South Africa. Must put that on my bucket list.

  10. They are wonderfully practical but I don’t like the rude noises they make when one walks in them – perhaps they’re just not well suited to the Australian east coast climate…

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