Long boots and half boots, Hessians, Hussar, top boots, and for the ladies, low cut shoes or pumps – if you wanted them in the age of Hornblower, you went to the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s Street and the establishment of George Hoby, boot maker to George III. The king was not alone. The Iron Duke thought so much of the man that he worked with the bookmaker to modify a Hessian boot a bit higher up than was standard, and so created the Wellington.
Which gave him particular interest in the battles the Iron Duke was waging in Spain. He was fitting the Duke of Kent when news of the victory at Vittoria came in. “If Lord Wellington had 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.”
Clearly no forelock tugging tradesman here. And yet it could so easily have gone bad and from a very early age. Hoby’ s father Richard gambled away the family fortune and then died when George was all of four years old. Odds could well have been for a downward spiral for young George, but instead he seems to have, well, pulled himself up by his bootstraps. By the time Napoleon was hitting on Europe, George’s boots were desirable enough that he was fitting the British military (officers, that is to say, the ones who could afford him) with necessary foot-ware for taking on the French. At his height he was said to have over three hundred people in his employ.
Not all customers were happy. Not that Hoby cared. Captain Gronow writes of the time when “Horace Churchill, (afterwards killed in India with the rank of major-general,) who was then an ensign in the Guards, [entered] Hoby’s shop in a great passion, saying that his boots were so ill made that he should never employ Hoby for the future. Hoby, putting on a pathetic cast of countenance, called to his shopman, “John, close the shutters. It is all over with us. I must shut up shop; Ensign Churchill withdraws his custom from me.” Churchill’s fury can be better imagined than described.
On another occasion the late Sir John Shelley came into Hoby’s shop to complain that his topboots had split in several places. Hoby quietly said, “How did that happen, Sir John?” “Why, in walking to my stable.” “Walking to your stable!” said Hoby, with a sneer. ” I made the boots for riding, not walking.”
The anecdotes seem to record the exception to the rule. Absent those two, he seems to have satisfied the customer, not least of all the fastidious Beau Brummell (one wonders if that man ever paid, or was Hoby one of many tradesmen forced to chase down the elegant deadbeat). Hoby did well enough to have his own tilbury, useful for getting to his Sunday gig as a Methodist preacher in Islington.
He also did well enough to leave an estate worth a hundred and twenty thousand pounds. Not bad at all. By way of comparison, Mr. Darcy had an income of ten thousand a year.