Thank You Doctor
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The Rise, Fall and Rise of Doc Martens

Photography by David Winker Watson

words by Tony Talbot

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I bought a pair of  Doc Martens last week some 51 years since purchasing my first and only pair of 8 hole, 1460 model, "have some of that my son," Cherry Red, AirWave sole, DM 'Bovver Boots'. My new and very groovy (yes we can still use this word) Gaucho "Crazy Horse" boots are as far away from Bovver as you can get but it still feels as cool to wear the brand today as it did back in 1969. 

There is such a wide range of DMs available now, from women's bar sandals to loafers to smart lace-ups. Regardless of type, the magic of these boots is that they appeal to people like me who have their own individual style and a little bit of the 'Rebel' about them. By accident rather than design, from the female comfortable working boot in the 50s to all the styles we see today, the Doctor Marten brand has become synonymous as THE footwear for those who possess a proud sense of self-expression and the wanting to be a little bit different and dare I say patriotic, seeing it very much as a British Brand.

Back in the days of the late 1960s hanging around as a "Skin" with the Northfield Gang in South Birmingham I tried to keep myself distanced from  'bovver' as I was a bit of a coward and more into the style, clothing and music that came with the package. Les Tanner, a Cockney by birth who lived a couple of roads away from me was our main influencer in the area, introducing us to the West Indian music scene and in particular The Trojan Reggae/Ska Label. His contacts in London were invaluable in keeping us up to date with the latest skinhead fashions such as the colour of our Levi Sta-Prest, Harrington Jackets and Ben Sherman Shirts; and whilst we kept our clothes immaculately clean and pressed with trouser creases as sharp as they come, the care that was taken in cleaning and polishing our DMs was on another level.

It was Levis Jeans however rather than our dance-hall Sta-Prest that completed our Saturday afternoon uniform, stood on the terraces as Birmingham City Supporters. On occasion and especially if Milwall or our arch-enemies Aston Villa were playing at St Andrews we would end up in some kind of altercation with the opposing fans. It rarely got too serious as we stuck to using fists and boots until one Saturday when Sam Crooks, a good friend of mine was stabbed to death as we left the ground. The incident was a life changer for me. In a fit of pique and extreme sadness, I threw my DMs in the dustbin the following night and made a decision to grow my hair. It was a couple of weeks after that I started my serious collection of reggae and soul Albums, a venture that led to the ownership of 2000 platters by the time I was 22, some 6 years later.

Trojan Records was not the only game in town but it has come to represent all of that early ska and reggae scene. I can’t say enough about the debt that British youth culture owes to the West Indian influence. The Ska Bands, in particular, saw the skinhead audience and responded by writing songs like ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’ and for a while, it was a great time to be part of a scene and the mashed up Ska and Doc Marten culture. 

Sweet Sensation by the Melodians. Return of Django, The Liquidator by Harry and the All-Stars and Long Shot Kick De Bucket were my very favourite sounds, particularly Sweet Sensation as my own personal backing track to very slow and extremely close dancing with the ladies down at the Locarno Club.

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I wonder what Dr Klaus Maertens, a 25-year-old German soldier in the 1940s would make of how much of a dept British youth culture owes to him as the designer of the AirWave Sole and DM Boot? Here was a guy responsible for the creation of something originally conceived as a modest work-wear boot that was even sold as a gardening shoe at one stage. So, how did this utilitarian boot transform into one of the most culturally relevant brands of the modern era?

Starting in 1901, the Griggs family were known for making boots in the small town of Wollaston not far from where I lived in 1985 in Northamptonshire, England. They were at the very heart of the English shoe industry and for six decades Griggs’ footwear earned a solid reputation as sturdy, durable work boots.

The story then switched to post-war Munich, 1945 and Dr Klaus Maertens, a 25-year-old soldier. While convalescing from a broken foot he created a unique air-cushioned sole (rather than the traditional hard leather sole) to aid his recovery. Using a salvaged cobbler’s last and a needle, Maertens made a prototype shoe and showed it to an old university friend and mechanical engineer, Dr Herbert Funk. The two went into partnership by using disused military supplies to begin producing their unique shoes. By 1947 they began formal production and within a decade had a booming business, mostly selling to older women. In 1959, they decided it was time to advertise their revolutionary footwear invention in overseas magazines.

Back in England, the Griggs company was now being run by the third generation of the family, Bill, along with brothers Ray, Colin and son Max. Whilst scanning the pages of a shoe trade magazine, Bill’s eye was caught by the German’s advert for their innovative air-cushioned sole. An exclusive license was acquired, and a few key changes made, including an altered heel, a bulbous but simple upper, a distinctive yellow welt stitch, a two-tone grooved sole edge and a unique sole pattern. The boots were branded as ‘Airwair’ and came complete with a black and yellow heel loop featuring the brand name and the slogan “With Bouncing Soles” (based on Bill Grigg’s own handwriting). Taking its name from the date of its inception, April 1st, 1960, the eight-holed 1460 Dr Martens boot had arrived.

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The 1960s – the decade in which the Dr Martens boot was born saw an unprecedented wave of change, new ideas, cultural upheaval and eventually social revolution. This radical atmosphere also witnessed extravagant and often exotic fashion, an odd backdrop for the birth of such a functional work-boot. . . but then (and please excuse the pun) Dr Martens has always kicked against the norm.

Initially worn by postmen and factory workers, Dr Martens’ first few years of existence was very much that of a £2 work-wear boot, selling solid quantities to Britain’s working classes but not huge numbers, which is where we come into the equation.

For the next few years, we ska and reggae loving skinheads who proudly championed British working-class style adopted, as mentioned before the 1460 DM boot, purchasing pairs by the lorry-load. Shortly after, Pete Townshend of The Who became the first high profile individual to wear them as a symbol of rebellious attitude featuring them in the musical Tommy. In so doing, it is suggested that both first-generation skinheads and Townshend altered the course of the brand’s history, changing this functional work-wear boot into a cultural essential. That was the start for the sale of large quantity sales helped on with the decade of glam, punk and other distinct cultural tribes who gloried in the eponymous, anti-establishment boot that was the Doctor Marten Classic.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though for the Northamptonshire based manufacturer as sales declined hugely at the beginning of the noughties with the said company nearly going bust. In 2003 manufacturing more or less ceased at the Northampton site moving to mainland China before moving some of it back after a take-over by the private equity company Permira in 2013. However, despite record sales in 2019 of £454m, only 1% of the entire range is produced in the UK with the most popular product been the ubiquitous and original 1460 boot.

A Part of Doctor Martens' Corporate message is that their products appeal to people who have their own individual style but share a united spirit – authentic characters who stand for something. People who possess a proud sense of self-expression. People who are different. Well, I am one of those people. I just wish the boots were as cheap to buy now as they were back in the day as latter-day prices even with inflation taken into consideration are 5 times that of the 60s.