When slipping from boots to shoes was a matter of growing up
PUBLISHED: 07:46 03 March 2018
As we reflect on the chilliest week of the year, here’s a classic 1950 EDP essay from the pen of Jonathan Mardle (Eric Fowler), inspired by a snowy day...
I thought to myself as I waded trough the slush this morning while passing cars hurled great gouts of snow and mud at the legs of people on the pavements, that this was the sort of thing that made the Victorians and the Edwardians wear boots. The abandonment of boots as unfashionable, and the almost universal adoption of shoes, did not, I believe, come about until the 1920s.
When I was at school nearly all of us wore boots, for half the boys were country boys, and the rest were the sons of steady, economical, old-fashioned town tradesmen, who wore boots themselves, and considered
shoes effeminate and unserviceable. Hobnails were common among us, and in the early days at any rate corduroy breeches contributed to the characteristic odour, as hobnails to the clatter, of the classrooms.
I have an impression that as I advanced to the dignity of the Fifth Form corduroys had become extinct, hobnails were rare, and there were certain exquisites in the Sixth who wore shoes, and pulled up their trousers to display gaudy socks. These were the sons, no doubt, of wealthy and decadent parents - the sort of boys who disposed of the fabulous sum of half a crown a week or more in pocket money. One of my first extravagances after I left school was to buy myself a pair of shoes. They were a symbol of emancipation and independence. I seem to remember that my father disapproved of the purchase as unpractical, and I believe it was another five years before he himself lapsed into shoes. Soon afterwards he was seen, for the first time in the memory of his family, to be wearing a soft collar.
The custom of wearing shoes instead of boots can, of course, be dated by the decline of horse traffic and the construction, for motor traffic, of clean, smooth asphalt roads which are only wetted and not muddied by rain. I had almost forgotten, until I was reminded of it by the slush following a snowfall, the time in my early childhood when the streets in rainy weather had a coating of mud an inch or two deep, which was swept up daily by Corporation workmen with big brooms and long shovels, yet always renewed itself before evening. I suppose it was in the main composed of horse-droppings, with an admixture of soil and grit brought in on horses’ hoofs and cartwheels from the untarred to the tarred roads. The Corporation workmen plied their brooms only in the main and central streets, and I am told that until 1914 a humble representative of private enterprise - the last survivor in Norwich of a long line of crossing-sweepers and horse-holders - kept a path swept clean across St. Stephen’s Road, near the hospital, and touched his cap for pennies from the ladies with trailing skirts and the gentlemen with shiny boots. For while men saluted the clearance of the streets from mud by emancipating their ankles from boots, women went the other way about it - wore long skirts while there was mud and dust to soil them, and shortened their skirts and abandoned petticoats as soon as the streets were clean.
We have at least to thank motor cars that, although the streets are more perilous since their coming, they are cleaner; and the smell of petrol fumes is no doubt preferable to the clouds of dust which used in the days of horse traffic to blow about the towns in dry weather, even as the mud clung about them in winter. It also comes to mind that garages, unlike stables, do not breed flies.
These changes have come about, almost unremarked, within the last thirty years. As for the troubles of an older generation, that knew not motor cars nor even County Council roads, I have come across an account, written in 1869 with Victorian heartiness, of the pleasures of a country walk on a frosty day in January. It reads very prettily - cherry-cheeked Patty issues from the snow-covered cowshed with the smoking milk-pail on her head, the old carrier’s cart creaks along the hard road, the blacksmith’s forge casts a glow on to the drift outside the door - but, says the writer: Let a thaw come, and few persons, unless they have lived in the country, can know the state the roads are in that lead to some of our out-of-the-way villages in the clayey districts. A foot-passenger, to get on at all, must scramble through some gap in the hedge and make his way by trespassing in the fields.
In the lane, the horses are knee-deep in mire every step they take, and as for the wain, it is nearly buried up to the axles in places where the water has lodged. In vain does the waggoner keep whipping or patting his strong well-fed horses, or clapping his broad shoulder to the miry wheels; all is of no avail; he must either go home for more horses, or bring half-a-dozen men from the farm, to dig out his waggon. It’s of no use grumbling, for, perhaps, his master is one of the surveyors of the highway.
Most of us who live in towns still have little idea what the country roads are like in a thaw after a heavy snowfall, but in comparison with that picture, it would appear that even the rubber-booted countrymen have something for which to thank the County Council and the exigencies of motor traffic.