Sculpture honours rubber factory’s war heroes

Maja Quille and Svetlana Kondakova with their new sculpture. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Maja Quille and Svetlana Kondakova with their new sculpture. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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A new sculpture has been unveiled to commemorate a city factory which saved thousands of soldiers from the horrors of trench foot during the First World War.

The North British Rubber Company, which stood for decades beside the Union Canal in Fountainbridge, made millions of pairs of rubber Wellington boots for the British Army from 1914 onwards – helping to drastically reduce trench foot, then a major concern among troops.

Now two city artists have constructed a special sculpture on the site of the old manufacturing plant to honour those who toiled inside its walls, as well as the soldiers who died during the horrific four-year conflict.

The artwork, entitled Imprint, depicts a Wellington which has fallen on its side to reveal the footprint of a First World War-style hobnail boot, and was commissioned by Edinburgh Napier University to stand in the central courtyard of the newly-built Bainfield halls of residence opposite Fountain Park.

Artist Svetlana Kondakova said the sculpture used modern designs and techniques to address “important historical events”.

The 25-year-old said: “The sculpture symbolically bridges the past and present, and mirrors the way the factory left its mark on the local and national landscape.

“In order to highlight the impact of the industrial boom of the 19th century in this area, the boot is based on First World War military aesthetics and finished with rivets.

“This also links the sculpture to local industrial structures like the Leamington Lift Bridge, which stands to this day on the Union Canal.”

Co-creator Maja Quille, 34, said: “The print revealed by the removal of the boot also brings to mind the progression of developments in the area, referencing how new things arise from the old.”

The North British Rubber Company, founded in 1856, was one of the most important employers in Fountainbridge for generations before closing its doors for good in the 1970s.

Believed to be the home of the Wellington boot, during the First World War the company’s design for trench boots was chosen by the War Office to form part of the official army kit, leading to a lucrative government contract for the firm.

At the height of the conflict, the factory was churning out up to 2750 pairs a day, reaching a total of 1.2 million pairs by the end of 1918.

And the innovation continued in the Second World War, when the site produced millions of civilian gas masks and barrage-balloon fabric.

Trench foot – which in extreme cases can lead to the loss of toes or even the whole foot – was a particular problem for war-weary soldiers during the First World War due to the reliance on trench warfare.

The new sculpture marks the second artwork by Svetlana and Maja to be commissioned by Napier University for its Bainfield site, after their Tree of Knowledge statue was completed last year.

Patrick Hughes, director of property and facilities at Edinburgh Napier University, said: “We believed the inner courtyard at Bainfield would also benefit from a public artwork and the Wellington boot proposal was perfect.

“The boot sculpture is a strong reminder of the importance of the North British Rubber Company to the area and the industrial heritage of the site.”