Shoes and maritime history

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am currently travelling around the country visiting museums as part of my project ‘Shoes and the Georgian Man’, funded by the Society for Antiquaries. I am studying surviving examples of shoes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to explore the social significance of footwear in this period, focusing in particular on ideas about masculinity and the body.

I have long been interested in military shoes, and indeed I got into the study of material culture while researching my book on the Georgian militia, which included a chapter on uniforms. The challenge here is that so few of them survive. Whereas millions of shoes were produced for the armed forces, those worn by common soldiers and sailors were invariably worn until they wore out, and were then discarded. To study military footwear, you rely on objects that have survived for unusual reasons.

This is why I was so keen to go to Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent. This trip had been over a year in the planning, and had been long postponed, partly because of the pandemic but also because the items that I wanted to view were on public display, so could not be removed from the cases until the site had closed for the season. In order to facilitate my visit, two curators very kindly gave up their time to retrieve the objects and supervise their handling.

Image used here courtesy of the Historic Dockyard Chatham

I was keen to visit this museum because they hold items retrieved from the wreck of HMS Invincible. This ship of the line sank in the Solent in 1758, was rediscovered in 1979 and subsequently excavated. These excavations turned up a huge quantity of articles from the mid-eighteenth century, which give an unprecedented insight into everyday life on board ship. Happily for me, the haul included many shoes.

The items I examined ranged from small fragments of leather and accessories like metal buckles, to complete shoes. You might expect leather items that had been under the sea for over two centuries to be in poor condition, and some were indeed heavily decayed. But others were in remarkably good condition, and looked little different to the shoes I have seen from the period that had been carefully stored. This is partly a fluke of the conditions in which they were buried, but is also of course a credit to the archaeologists, conservators and curators who have preserved them.

One of the best preserved shoes also happened to be of the greatest interest to me. It is a men’s shoe that would be about a size 4 today. It is straight lasted so could be worn on either foot – as were virtually all shoes from the period – but evidence of wear suggests it was consistently worn on the right. It would have been fastened by a buckle, which is now missing but its piercings are still visible on the two straps.

The construction is sturdy rather than fine, and this is utilitarian rather than fashionable footwear. It is therefore likely that it was worn by a rating, an ordinary sailor.

Image used here courtesy of Historic Dockyard Chatham

By eighteenth-century standards, the shoe looks comfortable and practical. It is squared at the toe (so would probably have been fine on either foot), and is fairly broad with a low heel. The leather uppers seem fairly supple, and the sole is relatively thin, so they would have been pleasant to wear and would not have impeded movement.

The usual image of Jolly Jack Tar is that he went barefoot. When performing tasks like climbing the rigging, bare feet would have been safer for the job as they can grip better, but sailors did in fact wear shoes on board ship and when going ashore. Material objects like shoes can therefore give us an insight into the everyday lives and experiences of sailors in the eighteenth century.

Matthew McCormack

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