I suspect my father had some sort of shoe fetish for every Sunday afternoon you would find him on the back verandah polishing his shoes until ‘you could see your face in them’. His particular trick was to keep spitting on them as he brushed and brushed. There was also a ‘right’ way to brush so you covered the optimum shoe area without wasted strokes – something, he said, that he learnt in the army. However enthusiastically I spat and religiously brushed I could never quite get his ‘face in the mirror’ result.
Like most kids in the fifties I knocked around bare-footed. We knew where the most vicious Bindi-eye patches were and could criss-cross Scarborough Park with scarcely a hop and a jump. I suspect that after years of running around without footwear my soles were like iron plates. Lord knows I couldn’t do it now. In my late teens I became an avid bushwalker and boot wearer. An annual trip to that hiker’s Mecca, Paddy Pallin’s Bathurst Street store, yielded another pair of boots, each one being remarkably lighter than the year before. These were boots that could walk mountains in Tasmania, go canoeing down the Colo River, slush through leech-infested bogs in the Megalong Valley and cross salt-caked plains of the inland. It was a common rule: look after your boots and they’ll look after you. In truth they did become part of you and many the bitter night I refused to take them off in fear of frostbite on my tootsies. A good pair of boots had to withstand water and also the intense heat of the campfire because you really could never quite get close enough to those gloriously comforting red-hot ashes. Every camper recognises that distinctive smell when they got too hot and it was time to withdraw to allow them to cool down.
Australian bush workers, especially drovers, fencers, shearers, timber and cane workers would never had been able to work without a good pair of boots. Bluntstone and R.M.Williams have been making them for years and they know the importance of good sturdy footwear just like a good hiker.
One exception was the turn-of-the-century legendary bushman, Matt Robinson, who was better known as ‘Barefoot Harry of Louth’. Robinson never wore boots and it was said that he could ‘walk on the bindies as good as any native’. One story tells of ‘Barefoot Harry’ arriving at a teamsters’ camp and standing around the fire yarning to the men. After a few minutes one of the men said, “What’s burning? Smells like hide.” “Why,” answered another, “it’s Harry’s foot! he’s standing on the oven lid that’s just come off the fire.” Harry sniffed, stepped back and reached down and touched the still red hot metal. “Cripes! It’s hot all right,” he agreed.
During the hungry years of the 1890’s depression the sundowners and swaggies didn’t have money for socks let alone shoes so they wore ‘Prince Alberts’, any piece of cloth large enough to wrap around the feet and so called because of the suggestion that when he married Queen Victoria he was so poor that he wore ‘toe-rags’. Whilst they looked unwieldy they were in fact practical because they were actually more comfortable than barefoot and they could be washed clean. A case of necessity being the mother of invention.
The image of Saltbush Bill, Crooked Mick Of The Speewah or Dad and Dave Rudd would not be complete without their bush boots even if the laces were made of stringybark or fencing wire. Pioneering life was unbelievably hard and boots, along with your wide-brimmed hat, horse and dog were your best mate as you kicked and stomped doing battle with Mother Nature. Hours in the stirrups, the bracken, the river beds and in the dark loam soil followed by the slosh of the chook yard, pig pen and dairy demanded strong footwear. Snakes were another reason for sturdy boots and many the poisoned fang snapped at a pair of solid boots to reptilian frustration.
Years back I remember yarning with a boundary rider who had spent countless years checking the endless fences of the outback. He told me of the isolation and loneliness and how his dogs were his only company. “We would ride all day, repairing broken fences, shooting at dingoes and riding some more. At night the dogs would join me around the campfire for a song and a yarn. I also had to repair and sew their dog shoes. I made little leather dog shoes with lace-ups so they could run on the burrs. They looked a bit silly but they certainly knew why they were wearing them.”
The drovers who worked the long grass wore concertina leggings on their boots. These cowhide leggings, so called because of their corrugated concertina bellowing, were important to prevent bruising and burrs digging into the legs. Without the hard yet flexible leggings the burrs attached to the socks and itched their way into the boots and skin. Their boots tended to be high-heeled as to allow good stirrup control.
The drovers looked after their boots as best possible. The Bulletin of 1898 reports that: ‘On the Palmer River, when boots ran from two pounds a pair for ‘cossacks’ to three pound ten shillings for Wellington’s, leather, tools and grindery were impossibilities; so the diggers did not wait for their boots to wear out, but protected them in time. They cut out a piece of greenhide that would overlap the sole and heel of the boot by an inch or two and pierced it all round with a knife, and then laced it across the upper and around the heel with strips of the same hide. Cheap efficacious and easy to renew.’ Another correspondent to the Bulletin suggested that the best way to keep your feet warm, whilst in the saddle, was to wear socks outside your boots. Mind you, I have also heard of soaking new boots in cornbeef water to waterproof them!
It has been said that the best way to describe a stockman is to look at the boots he is wearing. The true stockman always wore the elastic-sides boot as opposed to the city fashion of the ‘thirties and ‘forties for lace-up riding boots. The R.M.Williams boot became the most popular amongst bush workers and especially horse riders however the Koorelah brand of ‘laughing side’ with its high Cuban heel also gained some popularity.
No cattleman ever rode without his goose-neck spurs which were long in the shank. At night the drover slept with his boots by his head so that he could quickly grab them if the herd moved or a curious dingo got too close for comfort.
If you look at today’s bushman or woman you can spot the difference from the city-living would-be squatter. Once again the footwear tells the story and it’s easy to identify if the R.M.Williams boots have spent their time in the saddle or in the Range Rover. A good bush boot will be lacerated, grime-covered and creased and even after a decent brushing they still look ‘worn in’. Most jackeroos refrain from ever cleaning their boots claiming it to be bad luck. They make an annual exception to this rule when they head for the B&S Balls.
The Australian Digger also relied on a good pair of ‘Daisy Roots’ and if you have ever seen film footage of our soldiers slogging it across the Kakoda Trail you would realise how necessary strong waterproofed boots were for sheer survival. Unlike the stockmen these men were obligated to polish their boots whenever in the Barracks.
In Australia today boots have very much become a fashion statement. Companies like Doc Martin and Airwave produce all manner of boot footwear to suit the fashion personality of the young. They have conventional lace-ups plus an array of loops, clips, buckles and bows. They have coloured stitching and coloured laces. The biggest development has been in the comfort zone for these boots now offer ‘magic carpet’ cushioning and even ‘air conditioning’. You can look high camp, bovver boy, skin head or whatever you fancy. Gay boys also adopted the boot, especially those yellow-hide numbers, and the sight of a so-called ‘Muscle Mary’ resplendent in tight body shirt, even tighter shorts and these huge worker’s boots looked simply ridiculous. Be assured that boots are not just for males and young women, echoing Nancy Sinatra’s musical call ‘Are you ready boots?’, also wear them to achieve a certain Gothic look that suggests a cross between a bricklayer and a Sydney Swans player. Of course there is that other image of women in high boots – a simply wouldn’t look right is anything else!
For my money you still can’t beat a good pair of R.M.Williams boots. I prefer the standard drover’s style with the elastic-sides and that handy rear loop so you can yank them on and off with ease. Wear them with a good pair of moleskins and a shirt and you’ll be wearing the ‘Australian uniform’ that has stood the test of time.
© Warren Fahey