North British Rubber Company

While not many people will recognize the name North British Rubber Company, or NBR, it is very likely you are familiar with at least part of their history as it is often told in the marketing material of one of “their” products: Hunter rubber wellington boots. NBR was established in 1856, got slowly taken over by US Rubber after the Second World War which later became Uniroyal, was bought by Gates Rubber, changed names to Hunter, and is now one of the world’s foremost producers of rubber boots. Picture below by Alex stx on Flickr showing Hunter rubber boots in all their beauty.

In this article I want to go deeper into the history of the North British Rubber Company with a focus on the production of rubber boots as this best fits this website. But unlike much of the marketing material brought out by Hunter, I will try to be unbiased. The story will start with the establishment of the company in 1856 and end around the 2000s when Hunter boots is a separate company focused on footwear with their production based in Asia. For those interested in the history of wellington boots starting before 1856 I would recommend reading my article about rubber boots and a discussion of their current range of footwear would fit better in a separate writing.

The North British Rubber Company (Est. 1856)

It was the autumn of 1855 when Henri Lee Norris and Spencer Thomas Parmelee took a boat from the United States to Scotland to find a spot to set up their new company. Once they arrived in Glasgow they looked everywhere but found nothing of their liking making them extend their search eastwards to Edinburgh. There they had more luck: the almost brand new Castle Silk Mills factory, located on a 22-acre site at Fountainbridge, was only partially occupied and available for rent at an attractive rate. This was going to be the location of the North British Rubber Company. Below a print of the Castle Silk Mills from around the 1850s.

The reason they scouted Scotland for a location to build their rubber factory had little to do with the Scottish weather or the Scottish workforce, and everything with legalities. Only recently a method of making rubber suitable for boots and garments was discovered: this process of vulcanization involved sulphur and heat and turned a smelly and sticky substance into a solid material that could stand heat and cold. While the discovery was made by Charles Goodyear in 1839, it was Thomas Hancock who filed the patent in England in 1843 for use by Charles Macintosh & Co to make waterproof fabrics. A separate patent was needed for Scotland though, and Charles Goodyear beat Hancock in acquiring this in 1844. The only way Norris would be able to set up a rubber vulcanization plant in Britain would be by staying north of the border within Scottish territory where they held the patent. Below a depiction of Charles Goodyear experimenting with rubber in his workshop. The story is he was holding a piece of rubber in his hands during a discussion and pressed it against a hot stove from time to time. After a while he notices the sticky mass had turned into a leather-like material giving him the idea to experiment further with treating rubber with heat to make it suitable for use in a range of products.

With the location ready in Edinburgh it was now time to wait for the merchant ship Harmonia to arrive in January 1856 to bring specialized machinery and 4 skilled workers from New York who were not only tasked with starting up production but also training local workers to run the processes. That year the North British Rubber Company was established, the first rubber company in Scotland and the second in the United Kingdom. The first products made: rubber boots, shoes, and galoshes. Below part of an 1862 advertisement showing some of the earliest products produced at Castle Mills, Edinburgh. Notice the absence of rubber boots as they were one of the less popular products sold in that time. Source NBR Wrinklies site.

With barely any competition and the obvious advantages of rubber shoes and boots over much more expensive and less waterproof leather footwear the company took off immediately. More and more rubber products were added to the product range, including conveyer belts, hoses, mechanical articles, rubber sheeting, and detachable pneumatic tires. Below a print from the India-Rubber Journal of August 1924, showing part of the range of products produced by NBR. Source NBR Wrinklies.

And more and more Edinburgh workers found a place in the factory to make a living. The expansion was rapid taking the number of workers from just 4 in 1856 to over 600 only 15 years later. While the company had started out as a producer of rubber footwear, and introduced several innovations in this field, the relative importance diminished over time with other products significantly outperforming in growth, sales, and profits. Below the NBR factory on a Turkish rug woven around the year 1900, source NBR Wrinklies.

On one of the upper floors of the main building the shoemakers were stationed. A good part of the production process was handwork and all boots and shoes were crafted by skilled labourers in different sizes, models, and in small production series. While the rubber boots were a novelty item aimed mostly at farmers looking for waterproof footwear to work on the fields when wet, the articles most in demand were the galoshes which ladies wear over their shoes to keep their normal shoes protected as well as their feet. Below the boot making room at NBR with mostly women producing rubber boots: date unknown. Back then all boot making was hand work and a single employee would often make a boot from start to finish. Under the working tables you can see wooden lasts in different sizes. A last is a wooden mold of the lower leg around which the rubber is glued to construct the boot. Source again NBR Wrinklies.

The North British Rubber Company during the war period (1914-1945)

While the North British Rubber Company was founded on the production of rubber footwear, the importance of rubber boots was very limited with most, if not all, of the sales consisting of Argyll wide-fit farmers boots introduced in 1856. This was about to change with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Unlike previous wars both sides started to dig themselves in and started a war of attrition by defending their territory out of trenches. The circumstances in the trenches were horrible for the soldiers, besides being shelled with artillery and gas, the trenches quickly became muddy, filled with faeces, and swamped with rats. The constant wet conditions in the trenches resulted in many soldiers developing “trench foot”, a condition that could result in blisters, tissue loss, and even amputation. Below a British soldier in a trench on the Western front (1914-1918), source the Imperial War Museum.

The War Office contracted the North British Rubber Company to start making suitable footwear for the troops that would keep their feet dry and the men in combat-ready state during the war. The importance and size of the order meant that the company started shifting men and machinery towards this production process and the production continued day and night with different shifts taking over from each other. Eventually they were turning out 2,750 pairs of boots a day, resulting in a total of 1,185,036 of rubber boots during the war. Also other rubber footwear was produced like 70,000 pairs of boots supplied to the Admiralty, 248,326 pairs of gymnastic shoes, and almost 47,000 pairs of snow boots for the French Army. Below a small part of the NBR centenary report (100-year celebrative report) regarding the trench boots produced during the Great War; source.

And a British soldier wearing a pair of rubber knee boots.

Besides footwear also gas masks, fabrics to make tyres, and kilometres of hoses to pump water out of trenches were produced. Additionally troops were trained in the construction of the boots so repairs could be made in the field when needed. The direct impact of these efforts on winning the war are hard to measure, but the company gained a lot of respect and admiration for doing their part. Below a picture showing a horse being used to deliver rubber trench boots to the frontlines. These boots best match current-day waders reaching to just below the crotch. The fact that regular rubber boots just reaching the knee were not sufficient indicates the problematic situation soldiers would find themselves in when in the trenches. Source Imperial War Museum.

The years following the Great War were difficult times for the North British Rubber Company with a shattered economy and several recessions including the 1929 Wall Street crash with had effects around the world. It was a time of surviving with little to no money available for expansion or replacement of the machinery that was getting older by the day.

And then the world changed again in 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War. Once more the North British Rubber Company was commissioned to produce rubber product to help the war effort. This time there was an added difficulty: with the expansive movements of the Japanese in Asia and the Germans soon blocking merchant ships reaching Britain, the supply of natural rubber quickly dried up. The company had to switch to salvaging old rubber and using synthetic rubber for their products. Below a vintage British War World 2 poster asking citizens to collect and hand in their waste rubber products for reuse in the war efforts. Source: David Pollack Vintage Posters.

Also the demand for the types of products had changed from previous war, instead of producing simple rubber products like hoses and rubber boots they were now also asked to create technical components with much higher specs (smaller margins of error). Again the factories started running 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, producing  7 million gas masks, over 18 million rubber boots, a million rubber life belts, 8 million yards of ground sheets and balloon materials, and 7,500 miles of rubber tubing. About 80% of the entire output coming from the North British Rubber Company consisted of war materials during those 6 years of war. Below a British Air Raid Warden in protective anti-gas clothing with a rubber gasmask, dated 1941. Source Imperial War Museum.

The post war era

The years of war production during the First and Second World War, combined with the recessions in between the wars, had left the North British Rubber Company worn out by 1945. The production of rubber goods during the war had been so important that the factory had been working at full capacity for years at end without downtime for maintenance or replacements. The workforce itself was also exhausted and seriously thinned out with many workers who had been drafted to fight across Europe. The overall state of the factory was relatively bad and that while the access to natural rubber was coming back and a huge demand for rubber products emerged to build up the country again. But unlike before there was now a serious threat of foreign, mostly American, producers who had gained access to the British market during the past decades. When the British were fighting wars and had to produce for the War Office, the Americans saw their chance to export rubber consumer goods to Britain and gain market share. As there had been no fighting on the American mainland, their financial position was also much stronger. Instead of fighting the much stronger Americans head on, NBR entered into a close technical agreement with the United States Rubber Company in 1948, which was one of the largest manufacturers in the world at the time. Below an excerpt from a text to the stockholders reiterating the importance of the collaboration with US Rubber. Source.

The know-how coming from the US, both regarding automated production processes and their range of mechanical goods enabled NBR to stay at the forefront of progress and maintain market share. Even though there were serious labor shortages in Britain around that time the North British Rubber Company managed to steadily increase production volumes. Below a picture of the production of rubber boots at NBR in 1951. When you compare this picture with the depiction of the “bootmaking room” shown earlier, you can see the clear difference in the production process. While previously a boot was made by a single craftsman from start to finish, completely by hand, here the boots are made by specialized staff who each complete a limited part of the production process after which the product moves to the next person who continuous working on that boot. This specialization of work often results in higher productivity, especially when partial automation is added.

A new factory was acquired in Dumfriesshire, in 1946, which was better known as Heathhall, to handle the increase in demand for footwear. At first the production of children’s wellies was moved from Castle Mills to Dumfries, later followed by the production line of Argyll wellies which by now were the most popular farmer’s wellies on the British market. Below an advertisement for Argyll rubber boots, named “Britain’s most popular shorter Wellington”. At the left hand bottom corner you can see the “US Rubber” brand mentioned, while the company was still working under the North British Rubber name. Source: Edinburgh printmakers.

The British made rubber wellies experienced serious competition from Asian made boots around that time, as trade between the continents increased and production costs in South East Asia were much lower. Management reacted by focusing on the specialist styles of rubber boots: leaving the bulk of the British market to the Asians which flooded the stores with cheap colorful boots and shoes aimed at kids and at the leisure market. Below a picture of the fire brigade of NBR. Notice the wellington rubber boots the men are wearing. The helmets closely resemble WW2 military helmets as they were probably leftovers from the war.

It was July 1957 when a three million pound Modernizations Plan was announced, which would finally bring the North British Rubber Company into line with competitors. Employees who had started working at NBR recently described the Castle Mills site as “straight out of a Charles Dickens novel” with “boilers (that) were old, very old, some even ancient, having been built as far back as 1905” (source). New and expensive equipment was being installed but with the main factory buildings being from the 1830s a new site had to be purchased at Newbridge, just outside of Edinburgh. Below an aerial picture of the Castle Mills site with an artist’s impression how the site would look after modernisation.

The costly modernization plan was mostly financed by the Americans resulting in the ownership of NBR shifting to the United States Rubber Company which got a controlling interest in 1956.

Birth of the Hunter boot

The main rubber boot produced by the North British Rubber Company was the Argyll boot, introduced in 1856 and aimed at farmers looking to keep their feet dry in the muddy fields. The boots had a loose fitting which was great for ease of putting them on, but that was also a major design flaw as they tended to get stuck in the mud: try to pull yourself out and the boot stays behind. With this problem in mind a new agricultural boot was introduced: the wellington rubber boot. This Hunter boot was first introduced in 1955, next to the Royal Hunter boots, and the sales were horrible.

The first Hunter boots were made with the lasts from the Argyll boots, meaning they were not as tight fitting as first intended. Besides, they were only available in 1 color: green. This was quite the risk as the upcountry folks who lived through the war were rather conservative and always had their rubber boots in black. In the first year only a total of 36 pairs of boots were sold, which was disappointing in every way possible. And it wasn’t till new aluminium lasts from Sweden arrived, with a tighter fit, that sales started to pick up, partly also due to inexhaustible promotion from NBR by showing their boots at every county show in the country.

Uniroyal (1967 – 1986)

While the United States Rubber Company had acquired a controlling interest in the North British Rubber Company in 1956, the NBR brand name was kept for the excellent reputation it had built over the past decades and during the World Wars. In 1961 the US Rubber Company changed its name to Uniroyal, and it wasn’t until 1966 that stockholders voted to rename all their subsidiaries, including NBR, into Uniroyal which took effect in 1967. Below an advertisement from 1980 showing Uniroyal safety boots, from left to right: Argyll Super Safety, Argyll Safety, Argyll Super, and Century Contractor. Credit for print and identifying all different versions of the boots: Bullseye.

The following years a steady pace of changes took place: in 1973 Castle Mills was closed and parts of the company, including the golf ball production business and the tire factory in Newbridge, were sold. The range of rubber boots available was excellent though, with the overview below giving an impression of the number of boots and their overall looks.

And a picture by Flickr user picmic51 showing the soles of the Keenfisher waders with studded soles, showing the studs on a leather sole.

The popularity of Hunter boots really began to take off when Lady Diana Spencer wore a pair for her engagement pictures. The green wellington boots quickly became a fashion accessory for the urban middle and upper-classes.

The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook even makes a reference to Hunter boots in the early 1980s: “London Sloanes sprout green wellies in wet weather like a plague of frogs”. Before the pictures were published the green Hunter boots were produced only 1 day a week, which gave enough stock to fulfil all orders, but with popularity skyrocketing the production of the green wellies was increased to full-time to meet demand.

The logo on the front of the boots often showed the exact type of boots and Uniroyal as the producer. The picture above, credit dawson131uk on Flickr, shows the label on Hunter boots produced by Uniroyal. The picture below, credit Gummiri 111 on Flickr, the label on Ranger boots.

Gates Rubber (1986 – 1996)

In 1986 Uniroyal is bought by the Colorado based Gates Rubber Company. For the production and range of rubber boots this change of hands has little effect; basically the logo on the front of the boots is replaced with an updated logo now showing Gates as the producer. Below the updated brand logo on a pair of green Hunter boots, made by Gates. Credit unknown.

And the logo as it has been registered as a trademark with the US trademark office.

There was still a wide range of boots available, with below a pair of Royal Hunter boots produced by Gates, credit tourboots on Flickr.

And the US trademark registration of Royal Hunter below.

Interesting detail here is the indication that these boots were Made In Scotland, compared to Made In Britain on the previous pair of boots. All the boots were produced at the same location, but I suspect that the boots for the British market would have the markings Made In Scotland, while boots for the international market would bear the words Made In Britain. My reasoning is that non-Brits would possibly not know much about Scotland so a reference to Britain, and the quality products it stands for, would work better. While Brits might appreciate the further detail that the boots were made in Scotland, which is often seen as a rugged place requiring quality footwear. Below another picture by tourboots showing a pair of Century wellies, which were also produced at the same place.

The popularity of the rubber boots now made by Gates continued and market share in the British market peaked at 35%. Below one more picture of a pair of Argyll rubber workboots, combined with Helly Hansen rainwear, produced by the Gates Rubber Company. Photo by essex_mud_explorer on Flickr.

Tomkins PLC (1996 – 1999)

The Gates Rubber Company gets sold by the Gates family in 1996 with Tomkins being the acquirer. Gates becomes a subsidiary meaning the Gates name is still being used during this period. The focus of Tomkins is on the engineering market though, meaning diversification of businesses starts in 1998. In 1999 the Consumer and Industrial division, which includes the rubber boots and diving suits production, is sold to Interfloor, the country’s largest carpet underlay manufacturer. No adjustment was made to the Gates name on the front of the boots when Tomkins was owner as they held the rights to the Gates name.

Interfloor (1999 – 2004)

With Interfloor as the new owner a separate division is created for the boot production, simply named the Hunter Division. With the Gates name remaining with Tomkins the rubber wellies produced from this time onwards will show Hunter as the producer of the boots, as shown below in a picture from Flickr user dawson131uk.

As can be seen above the logo has barely changed, and also the range of boots still includes several different types of boots all with their own specific characteristics. Below a pair of Royal Scot boots from an old advertisement on Poshmark.

And the logo on a pair of streamfisher waders, produced by Hunter, in the picture below. Credit unknown.

Hunter (2004 – today)

In 2004 the management of the Hunter division of Interfloor teams up with investors and does a management buyout for 1,98 million pounds to create the Hunter Rubber Company. A management buy-out is basically the current management of the company thinking they can do a better job without their current owners and buying the company from them. Possible reason for the MBO could have been a lack of interest or investments from Interfloor, as they are probably focused on building their flooring company and less interested in a factory in Dumfries churning out rubber boots.

The newly formed company, now completely focused on rubber boots, continuous to prosper as the only wellington company in Britain. Still, increasing manufacturing costs and fuel costs result in the 2006 filing for bankruptcy. A restructuring under a consortium of investors follows, ending with the closing down of the factory in Dumfries in 2008. The production is moved to Asia, mainly China and Indonesia, and large changes are made to the boots being produced. Below the BBC reporting about the closure of the factory in Dumfries.

Most notably the subscript of Made In Britain or Made In Scotland had to be dropped, but also the range of products was limited drastically. Where previously a range of boots with special purposes was available, like waders in different versions, the updated company would focus on regular wellingtons as fashion footwear in a wider range of colors. Below a picture of the changed logo, which is still in use today, from Flickr user picmic51.

The Century Division, which handled the global range of safety boots, was sold to the Tigar Footwear rubber factory in Pirot, Serbia, including all the tooling and machinery in 2008. Below documentation from the British trademark office showing the transfer from Hunter Boot Limited to Tigar Obuca Doo Pirot on August 2008.

At first the Century boots produced in Serbia closely match the ones previously made in Dumfries, which is logical when all tooling and machinery has been transferred as well. Over time the boots have been upgraded and they are still available today. You can find the Century range of boots from Tigar here.

The story from thereon is pretty much well known already to most: Kate Moss is being spotted at the Glastonbury outdoor festival wearing a pair of black Hunter boots and the following decennia the practical rubber boots become one of the most popular footwear items everyone wants to have. Production increases rapidly, the range of products is extended, and Hunter rubber boots have become a common sighting in many countries when the skies turn dark. A further detailed description of the modern Hunter boots company is an article in itself.

A question sometimes asked is if it is fair for Hunter to “claim” the history of the North British Rubber Company as their own as the production of rubber boots has only been a small part of NBR during its history, part of the production equipment has been sold to Serbia, Hunter boots are now produced in Asia, and besides a handful of marketing people in the head office there is no presence in Scotland anymore. While this is a hard question to answer, and mostly subjective, a scroll through the trademarks they current own shows that Hunter Boot Limited is the owner of the trademark “North British Rubber Company” and the accompanying logo.

If this is enough for you to link the current range of leisure boots to this great historical rubber company that shaped Edinburgh is a personal question everyone will have to answer for themselves.

Final small remark, it seems that Hunter has tried to trademark the small logo with the red outerline on the front of the boots, but this registration was later withdrawn. That explains why you will be able to find very similar logos on rainboots produced in China available for only a fraction of the costs.

As always I did my best to find out as much information as possible, but it is very well possible there are some errors in the writing or some interesting information I missed during my research. Please let me know when you find an error, think I should discuss another angle, or have some nice pictures you think will fit well in this writing.

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