We may all agree that the present could be improved but knowledge of the future does not necessarily help us to improve it. Progress demands action in the face of an unknown future, not inaction because we know what is coming to us and believe that nothing we can do will be of avail. The man or woman who waits for dead man’s shoes, or who lives in the future, is a most pathetic figure.
from The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire) – 16th January 1932
The phrase to wait for dead men’s shoes, or for (a) dead man’s shoes, means to wait for the death of a person with the expectancy of succeeding to his possessions or office. It implies a futile wait, as is clear from A dialogue conteynyng the number of the effectuall prouerbes in the Englishe tounge, compact in a matter concernynge two maner of maryages (1562), by the English playwright and epigrammatist John Heywood (circa 1496-circa 1578):
Who waitth for dead men shoen, shall go long barefoote.
Similarly, Old Meg of Herefordshire for a Mayd-Marian, and Hereford-Towne for a Morris Daunce (1609) contains the following:
Old age in Herefordshire, neither spits nor spawles, feeles no aches, nor oes in his bones. […] Prodigal heires might beg, they should hardly find an Almanacke that would tell them when their lands should come to their hands by the death of their Fathers, for they themselues would haue white Beardes, before they could arriue at their full age. It were no hoping after dead mens shooes, for both vpper-leather and soles would bee worne out to nothing.
The following advice is from The Independent (Wexford, Ireland) of 14th July 1847:
In the first place make up your mind to accomplish whatever you undertake, decide upon some particular employment, persevere in it. All difficulties are overcome by diligence and assiduity. Be not afraid to work with your own hands, and with diligence too.— “A cat in gloves catches no mice.” “He who remains in the mill grinds, not he who goes and comes.” Attend to your own business, and never trust it to another. “A pot that belongs to many is ill stirred and worse boiled.” Be abstemious. “Who dainties love shall beggars prove.” Rise early.—“The sleeping fox catches no poultry.” “Plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you will have corn to sell and keep.” Treat every one with respect and civility. “Every thing is gained and nothing lost by courtesy.” “Good manners ensure success.” Never anticipate wealth from any other source than labour: especially never place dependence upon becoming the possessor of an inheritance. “He who waits for a dead man’s shoes may have to go for a long time barefoot.” “He who runs after a shadow has a wearisome race.” Above all things never despair. “God is where he was.” “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”
There have been variations on the phrase. For example, the following is from the Evening Telegraph and Post (Dundee, Scotland) of 1st September 1913:
He who waits for a dead man’s shoes may get cold feet.
And The Pall Mall Gazette (London) of 7th April 1916 had:
While waiting for a dead man’s shoes you could probably earn a better pair.