Made to intimidate: before Dr Marten’s ruled

So you still think the ‘spirit of 69’ was all about cropheads polishing their Dr Marten’s to a mirror shine? You reckon battered footwear is for punks and high commando boots for boneheads and fetishists only? Well, think again. The Northern Avenger will give you a quick rundown of various boots worn before DM’s became all the rage.

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While Dr Marten’s are now seen as the iconic skinhead boot, this wasn’t always the case. They only became really popular when steel-toed boots were banned from football terraces during the 1969-70 winter season. In the early skinhead period, army surplus, work boots, hobnails, ‘commando’ boots and so on were all worn. Heavy, intimidating looking boots were particularly desirable.

Today, I will attempt to identify some of these with a very rough guide. This won’t be an easy task considering the obscurity of the subject. I will also have a section about some of today’s boots that I think fit the bill.

Work Boots
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The humble work boot, worn by working class men and women such as coal miners, factory labourers, construction workers, and so on. They were usually cheaper than boots such as Dr Marten’s were, and skinheads wore them in a variety of colours such as oxblood, black, brown and cherry red. Any brand of work boot was acceptable. Usually, you chose whatever you could get from your local army or surplus store. I will try to identify a few.

TUF work boots by GB Britton

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Modern example of ‘TUF’ boots. Alas, we couldn’t find a picture of a vintage pair of GB Britton TUF boots

Light and flexible working boots, sometimes dubbed ‘Bristol’s secret weapon’, original skinheads have mentioned these more then once. An article on North London skins in the July 1969 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, for instance, references them thus: “When it first started everyone was wearing TUF boots, Big T with the rubber sole”.

Bristol skinhead historian and author of Booted and Suited, Chris Brown, remembers them well: “The much vaunted Dr Marten’s only started appearing after the police declared steel toe-capped boots to be an offensive weapon. Up until that time, black ex-army or industrial boots were the norm in Bristol – especially the industrial variety because we had a large boot factory, GB Britton, in Kingswood. So many lads’ first boots were tan coloured TUF boots”.

GB Britton had an outlet not far from its Kingswood factory that sold seconds at very reasonable prices. Although the company had begun to produce TUF boots in 1955, by the early 60s demand was so high they had to be manufactured in several newly acquired factories across Britain, as well as under licence in Holland.

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Workers at GB Britton factory in Bristol, 1960s

Shoe manufacturing used to be an important industry for Bristol. Before World War II, GB Britton alone employed 10,000 local workers. By the late 90s, only 130 were left, and in 2001 the company closed its gates for good.

Today, safety boots variously named ‘Tuf’ or ‘Tuff’ are produced by different companies, but do they resemble the original GB Britton stompers of the late 60s? Only original skins who wore them could tell.

NCB coal miners’ boots (pit boots)

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NCB boots mentioned in Nick Knight’s book ”Skinhead”

Usually issued to coal miners by the employer. It would make sense for skinheads who lived or worked at a local pit to wear these. As an original skinhead from Royton near Manchester remembers, this was often the case round his way.

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Supposedly original skinhead (and no doubt a bleachers pioneer) wearing boots with external toecaps – could these be NCB boots?
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Vintage pit boots. They sometimes came with more eyelets, depending on manufacturer

Totectors

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Another boot mentioned in Nick Knight’s contested ‘Skinhead’ book of 1982, but also in a thread named ‘Suedeheads – look forward not back’ on the Trojan Records forum. These were hobnail boots, and apparently, kids liked to treat the toecaps with oxblood shoe polish for a high shine.

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Boots with commando soles in ‘Shoot’ magazine

Military boots

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London 1970: commando or paratrooper boots on the left, Dr Marten’s on the right

Alongside work boots, surplus military boots such as commando boots, paratrooper boots and hobnail boots were also popular – although hobnails can be work or mountaineering boots too. Either way, trying to figure what these are is even more guesswork than is the case with work boots.

Hobnail boots

Worn in London, Bristol and ‘up north’, they were quite common for some time. A favourite skinhead pastime in football stadiums was to slide along terrace concrete in hobnail boots to create sparks. Needless to say, they’re also good for ice-skating and tap dancing.

Australian army hobnails

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These were not too dissimilar to the boots a northern skinhead says he purchased in 1969, although confusingly, they were also called Para boots – at least by the store owner.

Black hobnails

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Black hobnail boots have sometimes been cited as being worn in the past and, and I am going to assume they are talking about Ammo boots, This would seem to make the most sense because at the time, the British army was wearing rubber soled DMS boots rather than Ammo boots. Hence, the notion that this type was sold in surplus shops is not too far fetched, although only a guess.

Commando and paratrooper boots

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Skinhead in the 1969 BBC Man Alive documentary wearing paratrooper or commando boots

Not much is known about these, but judging by their height and colour, it’s a good guess that they are US jump boots. Similar boots existed in black, which throws a spanner in the works, but in all likelihood they’re surplus items. What we do know is that the ‘uniform’ of North London’s Kilburn mob in 1968-69 consisted of donkey jackets, jungle greens, heavy cardigans and cherry red commando boots. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone article, the Somers Town kids also recall unspecified “cherry reds with a toe cap” replacing TUF boots.

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Scottswood Aggro Boy wearing what appear to be Para boots in 1971

Officer boots

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Reportedly worn with army greens, I hazard a guess these are British officer boots.

My picks for contemporary boots

If you want to wear something different from Dr Marten’s or Solovair boots, I think there’s a lot of leeway in what might be considered an authentic pre-1970 look today.

Work boots: Rufflander 94OR Safety Footwear

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For me, these most closely resemble the work boots of old. The producers, William Lennon & Co, have been around for a long time and make excellent quality boots. What is more, these greatly resemble the iconic skinhead white tops.

Price: £53.95 plus postage

Hobnail Boots: Soldier of Fortune reproduction Ammo boots

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In my view, these are the most iconic hobnail boots. You can also get British army parade boots from eBay, but usually they’re horribly bulled with chunky soles, which were not produced until after 2000.

Price: £79.99 plus postage

Paratrooper boots: Corcoran Jump Boots

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These are the boots that most closely resemble the commando and paratrooper boots in original period pictures to me. I wouldn’t wear them personally, as I prefer low boots [I on the other hand really fancy them – Editor].

Price: £159.99 plus postage

That is all for now. This was – and still is – a very obscure and frustrating subject to look into. Hope I’ve been of any help.

The Northern Avenger

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9 thoughts on “Made to intimidate: before Dr Marten’s ruled

  1. In 1969 I asked my dad for a pair of boots for my birthday, and he got me ex-Army boots like the ones above. I immediately painted them bright red with my grandmothers tile paint that she used for the kitchen floor; I must have been quite the sight walking around Bow in those!

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  2. ‘ Cherry Reds’ Commando boots were my first boots, very tough, but heavy, you would never wear em out! later we all started to get Docs, they were def suited to us, light , agile…tough enough for our needs…you could belt down the road in em!

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