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Shanghaiceltic BS: RIP The Green Wellie (7) BS: RIP The Green Wellie 13 Apr 06

An icon of British footwear and much used by festival goers, the Green Wellie company Hunters is going into receivership. Does this mean my collection will become more valuable I wonder?

These were the boots that shaped the world
(Filed: 13/04/2006)

The company that makes the iconic rubber footwear has gone into administration. Adam Edwards traces the Duke of Wellington's legacy

Yesterday was a black day for those of us to whom the green welly is much more than an anonymous piece of rubberised footwear. Hunter, the company that invented and produces the classic style icon, has gone into administration. The news spells the end of another glorious chapter of a boot that has indirectly helped to shape the modern world.

Wellington asked his shoemaker for boots to wear inside his trousers
It was only last year that the green welly celebrated its 50th birthday. Hunter produced a set of brightly coloured Wellingtons in aid of charity to mark the anniversary. The company seemed as enduring an institution as Barbour, Land Rover and Aga. Celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Madonna sported them. Hunter boots tripped through the fields of Glastonbury on the feet of superstars like Kate Moss while her on-off boyfriend Pete Doherty and his rock friends signed the legendary footwear for "Children In Need'' at the Reading Festival.

Now, the future for the Hunter boot that was as revolutionary in its time as Tupperware and the Roberts radio looks bleak. Despite healthy sales, the Hunter Rubber Company - the most recent incarnation of the old North British Rubber Company - has mounting debts. High manufacturing costs at its Dumfries factory, where 100 people are employed, have made it uneconomic to produce the boot, which was designed as a throwback to the leather boot invented by the Duke of Wellington after victory at Waterloo.

Almost two centuries ago, the great British general asked his shoemaker, Hoby of St James, to make a calf-length boot to wear inside his trousers - contrary to the trend of the day, which was to flaunt tasselled Hessian boots outside breeches.

The duke's popularity and influence were so great that his low-heeled boot was quickly embraced by Beau Brummel and the Regency beau-monde, and soon afterwards, and for the next half century, became standard kit for the gentry. It was also adopted by the Armed Forces, the police and was the template for the modern cowboy boot.

Then in the 1850s it was turned into a crude rubber boot that was a faithful, if less elegant, reproduction of the duke's creation.

A century later, at the end of World War Two, that black welly, which had been standard issue for many troops and played such a large part on the home front in "digging for victory", had become the working man's mainstay. Farm workers, labourers, miners, dockers, navvies and council workers all wore the thick soled loose-fitting "Argyll'', which, thanks to years of rationing, was effectively the only boot readily available.

However, the Argyll boot had a design fault, present ever since its introduction in 1856 - it got stuck in the mud. It also got stuck in the craw of gentleman farmers, gamekeepers and land agents who were enjoying a post-war agricultural boom. They wanted a dedicated field boot that was narrower and fitted better than the Argyll, one that did not get left behind. They wanted a boot that would hark back to the elegant leather Wellington, a boot that would distinguish them from hoi-polloi.

And it was the North British Rubber Company that grasped this marketing opportunity, with the simple idea of producing a green boot that didn't stick in the soil. It called it the Hunter.

The original Hunter inspired many welly variations
"There was a dream team at the North British factory then," says Terry Sturgeon, a company stalwart who was there when the prototype boot was unveiled. "The company knew there was a need for a purely agricultural boot. It had already decided on a name, Hunter, and had started to design it the year I joined.

"It was the time when, because of the war, everything was out of date. There was a mood for change. Ironically, it wasn't the younger generation but the war generation that wanted something different from the great big wide Argyll Welly they had all been wearing for years.

"Even so, and it is difficult to believe it now, a green Wellington was revolutionary in those days. That war generation was very conservative in the way it dressed. We had a lot of ice to break getting the new boots into shops. We stuck our necks out."

Unfortunately, the boots didn't sell. The problem was not that they were green but that the only lasts (wooden blocks in the shape of feet around which the boots are formed) available to the company were those that had been used for the old black Argyll boot. "Nobody was going to buy a green boot the same shape as the wide black boot just because it was green,'' says Terry.

That first year, 1955, the company sold just 36 pairs. Only after the arrival of new lasts designed and made from aluminium in Sweden did the boots begin to move from the shelves.

At first, as anticipated, it was keepers who wore them (it was, incidentally, keepers who pioneered waterproof boots fashioned from bullocks' bladders in the late 19th century). Then the grandees who shot and fished began to ape their skilled employees.

And soon through word of mouth the feet of those who ran the estates of England were clad in the boot, including those of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Special boots were then made for the keepers at Sandringham, and the Queen and the Duke gave the company the Royal Assent.

By the mid-seventies the boots had become so much part of British life that Princess Anne, at the height of her royal fame, commissioned the company to make her a pair of bespoke black Hunters (the only person the company ever did this for). She was the Olympic equestrian champion and she wanted to ride in her wellies - only the boots had to be black and they had to be Hunters.

It was, however, Lady Diana Spencer who turned the rubber boots into a national style icon. When Prince Charles was courting her in 1980 she was photographed on the Balmoral estate in a Fair Isle sweater, moleskin breeks and pair of green Hunters. Its famous oblong black and white label edged in red was clearly displayed on the front of the uppers. It became the defining picture for a generation of young upper class woman.

"Sales took off after that photograph,'' says Terry Sturgeon. "Before then the company was working one day a week producing the boots. That picture turned the company around overnight.

We suddenly started working a five-day week again plus overtime. It made Hunter a household name.''

Two years later, The Sloane Ranger Handbook was published. It dubbed the now Princess of Wales "Super Sloane'' and reported: "London Sloanes sprout green wellies in wet weather like a plague of frogs.''

By the end of the century the Hunter "Green Welly'' had come to define the English rural idyll.

And by 2004, when the Countryside Alliance organised half a million demonstrators to march along Whitehall in support of hunting - the largest demonstration Britain has ever witnessed - they were known across Britain and rest of the world as "the green welly brigade''.

And now those boots that have shod Britain's grandees for generations and whose footwear forefathers have crossed every river, marsh and wetland of every country on earth to help build and maintain the British Empire may soon be no more than a fond memory.

The good news is that it is rumoured that approaches have been made to the administrator to buy the company. The bad news is that after two centuries of history the direct genealogical link from the green welly to the great Duke of Wellington will finally be broken.

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