In rural New Zealand, every family has a collection of gumboots. When one boot gets a split, you keep the other in the hope that next time the opposite boot will fail so you’ll be able to reconstitute a pair. As every parent ruefully knows, kids’ feet grow fast, so as autumn beds in, it’s time to see what will fit for the coming winter. Experienced kids, like Max and Sophie Hindley, give the boots a good shake to dislodge spiders and the like before trying them on. These days, you can find a quality, cut and colour of gumboot to satisfy just about any taste.
Gumboots are boots made of rubber. All those cheap boots made from PVC and other plastics may look like gumboots, but they’re not—they’re just plastic boots impersonating the real thing. They’ll never (ever!) match the gumboot’s performance because they aren’t as durable, flexible or tough as rubber. So why not call gumboots rubber-boots, you ask? Well, the name started way back with the Egyptian word kemai, which begat kommi in Greek, which begat gummi in Latin, which begat gum in English, a precursor of rubber. So gumboots it is.
And you’d be flabbergasted at the types of folk who wear them, the different uses they put them to, and the inspiration that comes from this unassuming and unpretentious footwear. Gumboot throwing, gumboot country, gumboot theatre, even gumboot dancing I can understand, but I never thought to read about gumboots for peace, gumboot management, gumboot diplomacy, even gumboot politics!
Gumboot politics sounds like a politician who will swap his townie-shoes for gumboots but only if there’s a photo opportunity in it. Not like fishermen, who wear them because they like dry feet. Cow cockies wear gumboots because they know one end of a milker from the other. Firefighters wear them because they know what’s good for them. Surgeons wear them because they always have. Dancers wear them when they’ve got something to say. City slickers wear them as the footwear equivalent of a four-wheel-drive shopping trolley. The Queen of England wears gummies because her public-relations team tells her to. Models, as skinny as musterers’ dogs, wear brightly coloured gummies so we’ll notice them from far away.
Bizarre though canary-yellow gumboots may sound to a Southland cocky, gumboots did start their life as a fashion statement. One Arthur Wellesley, who was called more names than a shepherd’s dog, set the ball rolling.
An impressive fellow, Wellesley: 1st Duke of Wellington; a revered military man and war hero, having helped vanquish Bonaparte at Waterloo; British prime minister (twice, the second time for just three weeks); a bigwig in the House of Lords until he retired in 1846. Fortunately, he came with a number of quirks. He didn’t care much for his tucker, apparently eating a rotten egg on one occasion without realising its shortcomings, but he spent a tidy sum on grog. Classy wine, mostly. And he loved trousers—of the full-length variety, as opposed to knee breeches—which were just taking their place in a gentleman’s wardrobe at the time; and, like all men who wish to show off their legs, he wanted new boots to go with them. Not just a new pair, but a new design.
It was the cobbler Hoby, of St James’s Street, London, who turned the good duke’s bright ideas into his namesake boot. The heel was low, about an inch high. Calf leather, soft as a baby’s bottom, wrapped the leg halfway up to the knee. Gone was the Hessian-boot tassel, so the new creation could be worn under the trendy narrow-cut trousers without, most importantly of all, spoiling the line. All this, plus versatility. Wellingtons were sophisticated for social occasions but also hard-wearing for antisocial occasions like war.
Well, the British nobs went nuts. They loved these boots. Wouldn’t be seen dead without them, and many in uniform weren’t disappointed in their desire. Every man and his dog wore them through the 1840s and 50s, until a hideous little ankle boot took over in the 60s.
Wellington’s name lives on in New Zealand, gracing its capital city. Perhaps it should be updated to Gumboot, as that’s what New Zealanders have always called the wellington. Either way, the name is fitting, considering a session of Parliament can create more muck than a typical milking.
Anyway, a while after wellingtons had stolen the show, impoverished American inventor Charles Goodyear came up with the process of vulcanisation. Despite all the technical terms like polymer molecules, thermosetting and atomic bridges, vulcanisation is simply the curing, or cooking, of rubber to make it hard but flexible. Rubber that hasn’t been vulcanised properly perishes pretty quickly and becomes sticky—especially in New Zealand, where there’s an oversupply of rubber-destroying ultraviolet light. That’s one of the reasons why a cheap pair of gumboots will crack and fall apart before you can say, “But I’ve only just bought them.”
Unfortunately, Goodyear found, as have many others since, that atomic bridges are as tough as gumboots, and no one has managed to depolymerise vulcanised rubber. That’s why there’s nothing to do with an old gumboot but punch a hole in the bottom and plant a geranium, unless, as Queensland’s Gumboots4peace encourages, you paint gumboots for world and inner peace. A big ask, mate.
Goodyear did meet Hiram Hutchinson, however, and, in one of the dumbest business decisions in history, sold him the rights to manufacture rubber footwear. Hutchinson moved to France, set up La Compagnie du Caoutchouc Souple (The Flexible Rubber Company), established the brand A L’Aigle (To the Eagle, a tribute to the American bald eagle), and made the first rubber wellington, or gumboot, in 1853.
In 1853, France was 550,000 square kilometres of paddock, in which 95 per cent of inhabitants toiled from dawn to dusk. To make matters worse, the footwear du jour was the wooden clog. So when Monsieur Hutchinson pulled into the village touting rubber boots that kept your feet dry and warm all day long, people immediately flung their clogs aside—those who could afford to, at least. So popular were these boots that if some French songwriter of the time had written “S’Il N’etaient Pas Pour Vos Wellies, Où Seriez-Vous?” (“If It Weren’t For Your Wellies, Where Would You Be?”), it would have become the Gallic national anthem.
Since then, gumboots have walked around the globe, spawning subspecies in many countries. In Canada, black gumboots come with woolly linings for the nippy winters, and being more adventurous with their dress code than Kiwis, Canadians can choose between red and green soles. Those hardworking country folk in the United States favour black gummies with yellow soles. In Britain, where everybody used to know their place, green wellingtons were a status symbol until every Tom, Dick and Mary got their feet in them. The Irish refer to their black gummies as “me top boots”. We like our gummies as black as the inside of a cow but, more often than not, with a red band. Aussies like gummies as much as we do but, being Aussies, their Red Bands are knee high and called Cluthas.
In South Africa, gumboots kicked off a new dance. Labourers in the Witwatersrand gold mines used to suffer from skin and other diseases from having their feet constantly submerged in water. This must have affected production because the bosses decided to do something about it, but rather than pumping out the mines they issued workers with gumboots. Then, being forever clobbered for chatting on the job, the miners took to singing instead about their lives, loves and losses—slapping, stamping and splashing their gumboots the while, and so developed a new style of dance. Out of this a musical has now grown, called Gumboot, performed to audiences around the world.
With the exception of Taranaki, where legend has it that cow cockies shake dung off their boots with a stamping movement called the Taranaki salute, and the occasional piece of street theatre, gumboot dancing is a non-event in New Zealand. Nonetheless, the image of cockies performing a ritual gumboot dance in a great circle at, say, the Dannevirke sale yards does have a certain charm.
Ever since gumboots made their first appearance in New Zealand, in 1875, generations of cockies have worn them for the same practical reason as the Anzacs did when repairing front-line trenches in WWI—to keep out the muck.
Ironically, some farming families, before they could afford gumboots to keep their feet out of cow pats, actively searched for pats to put their feet in. Writer Frank Sargeson recorded this practice, which wasn’t uncommon, in his 1937 Cow Pats:
…some mornings there’d be a frost and our feet would be pretty cold. But one of my brothers found out a good way of warming his feet up. He stuck them into a cow pat that had just been dropped, and he said it made his feet feel bosker and warm. So we all stuck our feet into cow pats, and after walking over the frost it was bosker and warm sure enough… So on cold mornings we’d watch out, and whenever a cow dropped a nice big pat we’d race for it, and the one who got there first wouldn’t let the others put their feet in.
After being ankle deep in it, or not, there’s no forgetting your first pair of gummies on the farm. Nola Sole, now 86, remembers visiting her grandfather’s dairy farm as a child with only canvas shoes. She says:
“Well, that wasn’t good enough for him. So he set up the horse and gig and took me to Manaia, about three miles away. It took most of the morning to do all that and just to buy me a pair of gumboots! He also gave me my own treacle tin with a No. 8 wire handle so I could help sluice down the cowshed after milking. It was wonderful.”
Lucy Iremonger, now 94, was farming in the back of beyond in the 1930s. She remembers, “We wouldn’t go outside without our gumboots.”
Robert and Rae Blyde, semi-retired cow cockies in north Taranaki, were born on dairy farms down the line in the late ’30s. Rae says: “We wore gumboots all the time. I wore gumboots to school on the school bus.” These days, they wear them nine months of the year, and always when milking. Robert adds: “I’ve got a pair I wear to the letterbox to get the mail and for wearing to town. They’re my ‘going out’ boots. I have another pair for work. But I take them off when I put the vacuum cleaner through.” And they both laugh heartily.
Deer hunters like Ken Tustin favoured ankle gumboots in the early ’70s, particularly in dryer areas, such as Canterbury. He says “ankle gummies were great for bush-hunting because they were quiet and you could ‘feel’ the surface with your feet when trying to move silently on rough ground”.
Being innovative, like most outdoor people, Ken made a number of modifications: “In wetter areas, we’d fix a ‘horseshoe’ on the heel with large horseshoe nails, which protruded to improve the heel-grip, like a miniature crampon. That was good for keeping a grip on steep downhill sections of bush or tussock. We always put a hole in the instep for drainage after creek-crossing and for comfort, so they didn’t squelch. Often, too, laces were abandoned in favour of a single U-shaped loop of high-tensile wire which was fixed on the eyelets one side and bent to engage an eyelet on the other.”
But there was also a downside to deer hunting in ankle gummies: “After you shot the deer, they were a bit soft in the sole for staggering around with 50 kg on your back!”
Yet gumboots, like the duke’s wellingtons, can add a touch of class to an outfit. Down on the West Coast, locals make jokes about blokes dressing in their formal attire: black jeans and black jersey, set off with a pair of white gumboots.
White gummies are almost a breed apart. Surgeons wear them so their feet can’t be nailed to the operating-theatre floor by some falling instrument, and because they’re easy to clean (not that a surgeon would actually clean their own boots). A surgeon’s name is written on the back of their boots, and, as general surgeon Stephen Kyle says, “Junior doctors beware getting caught in a surgeon’s boots!”
Because the meat and cattle industry also favours white gumboots, a surgeons’ can raise eyebrows. As obstetrician and gynaecologist Jeremy Smith explains:
“When I wear the gumboots and pop into a delivery, anyone who works in the stock and meat trade generally takes a keen interest in my footwear, and it usually creates an interesting conversation point from whence to build a good relationship with the customer. I, of course, am unaware how many times it has put customers off and of any adverse comments that may have been thought but not spoken.”
Things didn’t go unsaid on Stewart Island in the prefishing-quota days: the gumboot said it all. Squizzy (a.k.a. Richard Squires) grew up on the island, has been fishing since he was knee-high to a cod, and was a commercial fisherman before the quota system decimated the local industry. He explains that a plain white gumboot signified a fish-shed worker while a white gumboot with a black rubber strip hanging around the ankle indicated a fishing-crew member.
“You used to have a piece of inner tube from a car tyre or something around the ankle of your gumboot, because when you put your leggings on, you put that piece of rubber up and it stopped the water running up them. So you could kneel down on the deck and that sorta thing.”
Lastly, a skipper wore black gummies, often with the tops folded over.
Stewart Island gumboots are mostly grey or black now, but still worn everywhere, including the pub. Says Squizzy, “Be a bit of dynamite going out to have a pee with just your socks on.” A bit like going fishing in your Gucci shoes. But that happens, says Squizzy, who now runs a charter fishing boat, Lo Loma. “Tourists just don’t think about water on deck. We carry gumboots and that saves people being miserable with wet feet and salt water rotting the stitches in their expensive shoes. But we take a hell of a lot of farmers out and just about every one of them carries a pair of gumboots.”
You’d think that with so many different types of gumboot wearer it would be a tricky thing to keep them all happy. And you’d be right. Joe Gawler, technical manager of footwear at Skellerup, says, “Gumboot making is like a black art.”
Skellerup made their first gumboot in September 1943, in Christchurch, and their last locally produced boot in September 1987. They now manufacture in China. Examine one of their boots and you’ll notice there are ridges, lumps and bumps running all round it. Each one of these features is fashioned from a separate layer of rubber. There are about 20 components in a Skellerup gumboot, each made from rubber with specific qualities (strength for the soles, flexibility for the uppers, etc.). The different parts are made separately, many by hand, and each boot is assembled by hand. Producing a pair of gumboots involves a lot of money, a lot of labour, a lot of accuracy and a lot of lingo, e.g. pigs, slugs, lasts, but we’ll keep the recipe simple.
Mix 100 kg of concoction for each component. Caution: be sure to add the various agents in the correct proportions and order. Mix thoroughly to the right consistency. Stand and allow to cool. Take each of the resultant large floppy masses and force it slowly through various rollers; it should look like dough going through a mangle. Coil the long sheets of rubber so produced on big drums each capable of holding 10 tonnes. Unroll the sheets and cut out all the necessary pieces, using big mechanical cutters or by hand as appropriate. Place each piece on a trolley. Squeeze canvas and doughy rubber through rollers together so the rubber impregnates the canvas (canvas will not bond with rubber on its own). Expel all air from any joined pieces. Assemble boot by hand. Lacquer. Vulcanize. Test for air leaks (if air can get out, water can get in). How well all this is done makes the difference between a pair of gumboots that costs $15 and one that costs $70.
Skellerup’s concoction wizard, Brian McFall, has been with the company for 48 years. “I have absolutely resisted any change in the traditional Skellerup gumboot,” he says. “It ain’t broke, so we don’t fix it.”
And as the boots work, we wear them. They’re practical and unpretentious—just as Kiwis like to think of themselves. So it’s hardly surprising we’ve raised the gumboot to the status of icon. Gumboots had become so important to the country by 1892 that we no longer had to pay customs duty on them. A century later, gumboots came in at number 11 in a Listener top 20 “emblems and icons” of New Zealand—higher even than pavlova.
Peter Cape’s 1958 ditty, Down the Hall on a Saturday Night, showed how gumboots had become part of our social landscape:
Soon as I’ve tied up me kuri,
Soon as I’ve swept out the yard,
Soon as I’ve hosed down me gumboots,
I’ll be livin’ it high, and livin’ it hard.
From 1977 to 1985, Hokianga locals got all the goss from a newsletter with a title they could relate to: The Hokianga Gumboot Express.
Songwriter Ken Avery remembers how, in the late 1950s, he went “for a skate on the mud while I was hacking and hewing around the house in my gumboots and involuntarily said, ‘I nearly did the gumboot tango then.’” The song he subsequently wrote, with that colourful phrase as its title, about a man meeting his future wife at a Taranaki woolshed dance, was recorded in 1963 by Ash Burton and the Nightcaps. A group of Taranaki musicians use the song title as their name today because, as singer/guitarist Mike Harding says, Gumboot Tango “is a song with a bit of Taranaki in it, with the suggestion of the rustic and the sophisticated”.
Gumboots, or Southland Slippers to some, took on even greater roles in the 1980s. The National Business Review wrote, “Big-city trends may not go down too well in this neck of the woods [Hawke’s Bay], where ‘gumboot management’ methods have been the norm.” Metro moaned about “gumboot diplomacy”. The Dominion had trouble telling farmers and gumboots apart when it reported that Prime Minister David Lange “ran the gauntlet of gumboots at the Federated Farmers annual conference”. The same paper reported in 1990: “[The] Manufacturers’ Federation president…said Federated Farmers’ ‘antics’ over the policy betrayed unsophisticated ‘gumboot politics’.” By 1993, Gumboot became a language in the Listener: “Kiwi comedians only have to master Gumboot, the language of roustabouts, fishermen and sportscasters, and they are away screaming.”
Stewart Island comedians Pete and Nikki Davis somehow managed to combine all of the above in a play, A Day in the Life of Stewart Island, at their Gumboot Theatre early this century. They nailed red, green and blue gumboots to the exterior of the island’s ex-fruit-and-vege shop, threw 20 seats from Invercargill’s defunct Regent Theatre inside, and, through the summer months, performed up to four 30-minute shows a day, attracting both visitors and locals. As Nikki recalls:
“All the girlies came first and they started talking about how pro-woman the show was, so the guys all came to see how badly we were slagging them off. The theatre is such a bizarre concept in such a bizarre village in such a bizarre place of the world, curiosity draws people in.”
Just as the bizarre sight of turkeys in gumboots once took people in. In the 1960s, television programme Town and Around found a farmer who said that fitting his female turkeys with black gumboots had failed to arouse the right kind of interest among the males.
Farmer: “We’ve found that the attraction is not there so this season we’re going into pastel shades.”
Reporter: “This would be pinks and blues and creams and even heliotrope I suppose.”
Farmer: “Yes. As long as they are a fairly bright pastel shade.” Gumboots were allowing New Zealanders to explore their sense of humour.
We still laugh at that 1970s farming caricature, Fred Dagg. The social upheaval of the 1960s brought New Zealand’s stereotypes into question. The backblocks bloke wearing a crumpled hat, tatty shorts, a black singlet and gumboots became an anachronism. When Fred Dagg, the alter ego of John Clarke, appeared on our televisions, we loved it. We were funny! We laughed at ourselves! Remarkably, Dagg’s screen-time career was only three hours. We laughed at his (and so our) get-up, speech and yarns, but mostly we laughed at the The Gumboot Song (“If it weren’t for your gumboots, where would ya be?”). This was adapted from Scottish comedian Billy Connolly’s The Welly Boot Song (“If it wasna for your wellies, where would you be?”), which borrowed the tune of the traditional song The Work of the Weaver.
And what about Footrot Flats? Where would Wallace “Wal” Footroot and Socrates “Cooch” Windgrass be without gumboots? And where would New Zealand Post’s 1994 kiwiana issue have been without its gumboots-and-blacksinglet stamp? No stamp issue has been more popular. Well, not until the Lord of the Rings came along. Russell Watson, general manager of stamps at NZ Post, enthused in a television documentary:
We normally print about one million booklets and leave them on sale between four and six months. With the kiwiana issue, we printed two million booklets. They sold out in just two-and-a-half months.”
That’s a daily sales average of almost 270,000 stamps. The issue, according to NZ Post, “enabled us to laugh at ourselves while appreciating and celebrating our special identity”. Will we do it again with the release, in mid-2007, of another kiwiana-themed issue featuring gumboots? And will the gumboots outsell the hobbits?
The “stereotypical perception of a rural woman” is what prompted a group of country ladies to set up an organisation in the late 1990s called Not Just Gumboots & Scones. Their website (www.notjust.org.nz) allows rural women to learn about and share views on all sorts of issues, but, in fine country style, it was launched in a woolshed with gumboots and scones much in evidence.
It’s all gumboots and no scones in Taihape. The small rural town halfway between Bulls and Turangi has taken the gumboot one step higher by promoting itself as Gumboot Capital of New Zealand. Every Easter Tuesday since 1985, the townsfolk have held a gumboot festival, at which, among other gumboot games, an attempt is made on the world-record gumboot throw. The Taihape record is an impressive 38.66 metres. Unfortunately, that’s over 25 metres short of the world record, 64.35 metres set in Finland.
The citizens and businesses of Taihape commissioned artist Jeff Thomson to build a four-metre-tall gumboot from the ubiquitous rural building material corrugated iron. A perfect match. The gumboot sculpture now stands, well, reclines really, in Gumboot Park, just opposite Gumboot Manor Tearooms, on the northern outskirts of the Gumboot Capital. It’s such a compelling object that a steady stream of travellers pauses to take its photo (or pay homage).
Even if rubber were superseded today, the gumboot would remain near to our hearts. It’s as if its atomic bridges have vulcanised with our cultural bridges, and you can’t undo that in a hurry.