These are the original “Wellington boots”, designed by the Duke of Wellington to be both practical and fashionable. After the Duke’s victory at Waterloo, this style of boot spread through London society, eventually inspiring the modern, more humble “Welly”.
At the start of the 1800s, at the top of St James’ Street, London, stood the bootmaker’s shop of George Hoby, as renowned for arrogance as he was for boots. “If Lord Wellington had any other bootmaker, he never would have had his great successes; my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all difficulties,” he famously declared. These boots were made by Hoby, some time between 1817 and 1852, of two-piece construction in polished black calfskin with a leather sole.
Most army officers and many civilians wore knee-length boots called Hessians, with a “V” cut into the top, decorated with metal braid and a matching tassel. In 1817, the Duke instructed Mr Hoby to cut his boots shorter and tighter, and to remove the trimming and the V shape. It is said that the Duke modified his boots because knee-length breeches had gone out of fashion, being replaced by long pantaloons that were too tight for tall, tasseled Hessians to be practical. In fact for the most part military men wore the new pantaloons tucked into their Hessian boots. It was civilians who sought something to fit smoothly beneath them. The practical advantage of the Wellington boot was that it could be worn either way. Wellington was nothing if not practical.
On a short sea voyage, in the middle of a raging storm, he was retiring to bed, when the captain of the ship announced: “It will soon be all over with us.” “Well then,” answered the Duke, “I need not take off my boots.”
From 1829, he spent each autumn at Walmer. On 13th September 1852, Wellington rode and dined as usual and went to bed at his usual time. In the morning, his valet found him gravely ill. Doctors were summoned but arrived too late. At four o’clock that afternoon, he breathed his last. This pair of boots can still be seen at Walmer Castle.
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This object is in the collection of Walmer Castle and Gardens – English Heritage