Saturday, December 09, 2017
Barefoot Australians: How far back does that go?
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are warned the following may contain images of deceased persons.
Indigenous people seldom ever wore shoes to protect their feet. Most tribes were reported to go unshod but some from the Northern Territory of Australia and adjoining desert country did wear a primitive sandal to protect their feet from the scorching ground temperatures in summer. The sandals were made from tree bark had no uppers and were retained by thongs to the first and fifth toes. Not particularly robust, the crude sandals required to be replaced several times during the hot season.
Ceremonial shoes were worn by aboriginal shaman and these included emu feather slippers tied together with a marsupial fur string. These were worn only during sacred ceremonies including ‘bone pointing’ rituals and revenge killing expeditions. The emu slippers left no footprints.
From the end of the eighteenth century convict shoemakers were very busy in the convict colonies and referred to in flash language, as ‘snobs.’ This may have been because captors and prisoners valued owning a sturdy pair of boots. The term may also relate to the fact many shoemakers had not committed any crime other than be an active unionist. In the UK, the Shoemakers` Society was established in 1832 and a year later amalgamated with the National Union of Cordwainers. Trade unions then were viewed suspiciously by authorities and regarded as either secret societies or as groups seeking to overthrow the government. The charge of `treason`would frequently result in deportment to Australia.
Many 19th century shoemakers became involved in the Chartist Movement. The quality of hides available to the early colonists was very poor and although hides were imported from England these were usually damaged by mildew making them almost unwearable. A barefoot tradition prevailed.
Convict shoemakers produced large quantities of boots and made the best of available materials but not every colony taught shoe making. Prior to the convict colony in WA shoe makers were rare and this is echoed in letters of 1830. A lady of Perth wrote "… many respectable females with their children are going barefoot, not a shoe maker can be got to work." Convicts were sent to WA in 1850, primarily to swell the population and provide labour and skills. Some prisoners were taught shoemaking and as a result by the end of the nineteenth century WA had more bespoke shoemakers per head of population than any other state or territory in Australia. On release many convict boot makers became saddlers and in the outback census, of 1828, there was one shoemaker to every 236 inhabitants. Distance meant many horsemen (bushman) became skilled leather workers including boot makers.
As the Australian population increased with Scottish and Irish immigrants fleeing the clearances and potato famine many had traditionally gone bare foot and continued to do so in their adopted country.
Boot wearing new comers to the expanding colonies paraded up the main street on a Sunday wearing the fashionable finery of top boots made in patent leather only to be only to be lampooned by the locals fully aware of the inappropriateness of their footwear. The average life of a man’s fashionable boot from the Homeland was approximately three weeks whereas Australian made boots might last a month. Second and third generation Australians were more likely to have access to better footwear but by this time, barefootness was almost endemic.