Last week Owen Davies and I paid a visit to an 18th-century cottage in Water End, a village in North Mymms, Hertfordshire. The cottage was renovated back in 1999, when couple Nici and Peter moved in – and almost immediately they began uncovering concealed caches, the quantity and variety of which really are mind boggling.
The largest cache was within the wall separating the lounge from the kitchen. Amidst the dirt and the rubble were folded up newspaper sheets dating to 1895 and 1896, and at first Peter thought they’d been placed there for added insulation. But the newspapers were just the start, and the more Peter found secreted away in the wall, the more he realised there was something else going on here.
The shoes were the first finds to tip him off. There were two shoes (described on our Historypin collection here), both singles and both for the right foot, and as soon as Peter started doing some research, he realised how widespread the custom of shoe concealment was. Both shoes are heavily worn and Peter isn’t surprised; ‘They were always worn to death when they put them away for monetary reasons and also because they’re so closely associated with the person’s body’.
Alongside the shoes was a man’s wool hat, which does crop up from time to time as a concealed garment (see hats recorded with the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project here). There were three metal pot lids and a pot handle, possibly significant because of the protective efficacy of metal in popular belief, but also maybe – as Peter and Nici believe – because of the custom of ‘kettling’. This was the act of banging on metal pots and kettles, making a racket to torment a purported local witch. Along with the pan lids was also a pair of scissors, which have their own significance: scissors were not only sharp and metal (and therefore ideal for warding off malevolent supernatural forces), but they could also be used to form the shape of the cross, making them all the more potent against witches.
Then there was the wooden clothes peg, an innocuous-looking object but maybe one with more significance than we might think. There were, after all, dozens of similar pegs found under the floorboards of a Victorian house in Cardiff (shown in the photo below, taken by finder). A coincidence, or evidence that wooden pegs were objects specifically chosen for concealment?
And then there were the bottles. Six of them, all glass. Bottles are commonly concealed items, many falling under the category of ‘witch-bottle’; with their contents including pins, nails, and urine, they were believed to counter a witch’s curse. But this doesn’t seem to apply to the Water End bottles (descriptions on Historypin here), which were mainly empty and unstoppered.
There was, however, another bottle, still corked and much smaller than the others, which looks to contain something – a dark residue at the bottom. But Nici would rather keep the cork in: ‘We don’t really want to go delving into there’.
This bottle wasn’t found with the others; it was discovered under the floor in the kitchen, along with a variety of animal bones, including the skull of a rat and numerous cattle teeth. Also found was this small figurine of a baby, which Nici and Peter believe may have been a ‘fertility doll’, drawing parallels with similar figurines at the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft. Similar beliefs may have motivated the concealment of the Burwash figurine, described in another blog post here.
And then there were two more mystery deposits: two conch shells found behind the fireplace, the significance of which is lost on us today.
Were these items secreted away for protective purposes? Nici and Peter believe they’re evidence of the fears of past residents; there was, after all, a supposed local witch living nearby. Nici and Peter’s 92-year-old neighbour recalls his mother telling him of how she and other children in the neighbourhood would torment this purported witch, a woman named Rebecca Samms who appears on the 1901 census as a 68-year-old retired laundress, by ‘kettling’ her house. Nici suggests that ‘perhaps those things were put in there to ward off curses from the witch,’ and considering the perceived supernaturally protective potency of such items as shoes, bottles, scissors, and figurines, this isn’t a farfetched idea.
Then again, it’s equally conceivable that these items had no supernatural or protective purposes. Could they have formed some type of time capsule? Could some of them have been deposited accidentally? Were some of them intended as infill or insulation? There’s no way of knowing for sure, and it’s perfectly possible – likely even – that some of the items were deposited by different people at different times. As Peter theorises, ‘There might have been various people living here over the years with similar sorts of fears and beliefs’.
Whatever motivated the original concealers, it’s clear that these deposits mean a lot to their finders. They keep them wrapped in acid-free paper in a box, but are considering putting them on display in the house, possibly in the wall in which they were originally found behind a glass pane. They were not tempted to re-conceal them – ‘We’re not superstitious about them,’ Nici told me – but they do both feel very strongly that the finds should stay within the house if they ever moved away. As Peter stated, ‘They are an integral part of the history and I just hope whoever owns the house after us is as interested, and the story and the objects can remain with the house. But there’s no motivation, spiritual or superstitious or anything behind that. It’s just purely a love of history that would motivate that.’