We learnt a little ditty as kids, which I vaguely remember now:
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost
For want of a horse, the knight was lost
For want of a knight the battle was lost
All for want of a horse-shoe
If shoes can cost you the battle, boots can win wars too. At least one cobbler ardently believed so.
In the early 19th century, Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington was a very famous military commander. He had even defeated the ‘invincible’ Napoleon. He carried himself well and dressed elegantly; and shoes were almost an extension of his personality. Story goes that Wellington was on a sea-voyage, and was preparing to retire for the night. A fiery, life-threatening storm was raging outside. Suddenly, the ship’s captain burst into his cabin and exclaimed that they might perish in the storm. Wellington is said to have famously replied, “Well then, I need not take off my shoes”.
Wellington patronised the most highbrow shoe-maker of his times: George Hoby of St. James Street, London. He fitted out shoes for HRH the Prince of Wales, no less! His clients included many British aristocrats and high-ranking military officers. At his height, he employed 300 workmen, and even had mail order customers. He was pompous and egoistic too. A customer once complained that the riding shoes that he had bought had split as he walked to his stables. Hoby dismissed the complaint derisively: “I made the boots for riding sir, not walking!”. Despite his arrogance, the elite sought him for their footwear.
In those days, it was customary for British officers to wear what was called Hessian Boots. It was made of stiff leather, with a low heel and a pointed toe, and a decorative tassel on top. Ideal for a cavalryman.
Wellington wanted something more functional: No decorative tassels, aperture wide enough to tuck in the baggier pantaloons that contemporary soldiers wore, and a soft calfskin protection right up to the knee. Wellington personally knew that many cavalrymen suffered bullet and cut wounds below the knee. Hoby understood exactly what his Lordship wanted and produced it to perfection. The new boot was more flexible and comfortable, stronger and way smarter. Wellington loved it and regularly wore it on duty. The boot was dapper enough to be worn at cocktail parties. Wellington, a regular invitee to London’s high-end society parties, casually wore the same shoes to these parties. Young officers admiringly copied their commander; and London’s fashionistas fell totally in love with the General’s natty shoes; the boots, now known as “Wellingtons”, became the rage!
Hoby basked in the glory of Wellingtons. One day, he was summoned by the Duke of Kent for a fitting. When he arrived, the Duke broke the news of Wellington’s triumph in the Battle of Vitoria. Hoby, never the one to miss an opportunity to gloat, crowed, “If Lord Wellington 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”!
Hoby died a rich man. His estate was worth 120,000 pounds. In 1832, that was a fortune beyond some of his elite customers! The original Wellington (the boots, not the General !) is exhibited at Walmer Castle, Kent.