Chelsea boots, with its elastics on the sides making them easy to put on and take off, are one of the most popular boots models around today, used both for casual country make-ups and very elegant dressy stuff, and of both men and women. Here’s the history behind the boot model from its invention about 180 years ago until today.
For many shoe models that I’ve written about in these history articles here on Shoegazing, the actual birth of them are unknown or debated. With chelsea boots, this is not the case, here we know exactly when and where they were invented. “J. Sparkes-Hall’s Patent Elastic Ankle Boots” was the official name used by its inventor. J Sparkes-Hall was the shoemaker to Queen Victoria in England in the 1800’s, and he was also the one who developed the first balmoral boots for her husband Prince Albert. It was when Sparkes-Hall continued to work on the balmoral boot design and incorporated elastic gussets, that the new boot model was born. This was in 1837, and according to J. Sparkes-Hall “She (Queen Victoria) walks in them daily and thus gives the strongest proof of the value she attaches to the invention”. Also other authorities who started wearing the boots meant they were the most comfortable footwear ever to be made. The fact that the the boot’s upper was made from soft kid leather made them very supple. Not only the comfort have been with the model from the start, it’s also always been considered a unisex shoe model, and always made in both casual and dressier make-ups. They were worn, and are worn, both for horse riding and at parties.
The first years the elastics weren’t that good though, but in 1939 Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanised rubber, and it obviously made all the difference. There were two types of elastic fabric used in the 19th century. One was a more contemporary version called “shirred goods” and was made of stretched rubber threads, running horizontally, that when “released” drew up the fabric they were sewn into for a shirred or puckered look. The other was the true elastic web made from vulcanised India rubber thread, which soon became the common method since it had better stretch and durability, and this was more similar to what is used in chelseas today.
One important thing to know is that the name chelsea boot is relatively new. During most of its existence the model has been called congress boots, or congress gaiters, since they were so popular among American politicians. Also on sea they were a common sight. During the 19th century crew members to ships were often recruited or Shanghaied barefoot, and got to buy a pair of these sturdy boots where costs were deducted from their wages, and through these ships the boot type were spread around the world
It was during the 1950’s and 60’s in Swinging London, and it’s popularity around King’s Road in the Chelsea district, that model became known as Chelsea boots. They were worn on celebrities like Rolling Stones, Jean Shrimpton and of course The Beatles (another name popularly used especially at that time was Beatle boots). But chelseas was the name that stuck, and is more or less the only thing it’s called today.
The largest maker of Goodyear welted chelsea boots today is the Australian brand RM Williams. A brand founded by Reg Williams, a man who went on various adventures early on in his life, and among other things learned leather craftsmanship from a talented saddler named Dollar Mick. The two developed a wholecut chelsea boot model, good against water and easy to make, they managed to make boots of excellent quality at a low price. During the Great Depression Reg started selling his boots by mail order. The sturdy well-made boots were excellent for the tough conditions on the Australian countryside, and became incredibly popular, and still are today.