The Water End Cache: Everything but the kitchen sink

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?

Cardiff Pegs Stuart Lee

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.’

Blackden: An Arcadia of Apotropaios

I love Mondays. Well, maybe that isn’t always the case, but I do love Mondays that see me venturing into the heart of Cheshire to visit the doyen of apotropaically-protected structures.

Imagine your birthday, Christmas, and New Year all rolled into one, and that’s how I felt today as I was guided around what is arguably the most interesting set of buildings I’ve ever had the pleasure of stepping foot into: Toad Hall and the Old Medicine House.


In the area of Blackden, within hopping distance of Jodrell Bank, is the home of Alan and Griselda Garner. You’re probably familiar with the name; it’s the same Alan Garner who wrote fantasy children’s books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service, to name only a couple. He’s lived in Toad Hall, a timber-framed medieval hall, since the 1950s, and believes that when you live in one place for so long you come to notice things that others might overlook – which is how he’s come to find so many fascinating deposits in and around his home.

In 1964, for example, he discovered a cache of shoes concealed behind what apparently can only be described as a blob of clay and gorse in the roof space by the chimney. These included four children’s shoes, heavily worn but wonderfully conserved, all dating to c.1680.


A horseshoe was found up one of the chimneys and a holed flint was discovered in a joist socket over a door. Another holed flint fell unannounced into the fireplace one evening, and judging by the rusty piece of wire hooked through it, Alan guesses that it was hung up the chimney. Was this some form of hag-stone, like the one below, currently held at the Horniman Museum and purportedly used for warding off witches?


And then there’s the Old Medicine House, which is tacked onto Toad Hall. This is a 16th-century building, originally the home of an apothecary, which was destined for demolition in 1970 until the Garners and architect Michael Peach intervened. Purchasing it for £1, they dismantled the entire building, moved it to Toad Hall, and re-erected it. It’s now owned and cared for by the Blackden Trust, a voluntary group founded by the Garners and Patsy Roynon in 2004, who protect and teach about the history of Blackden.

The process of dismantling and re-erecting the Old Medicine House was something akin to an above-ground excavation, with Alan determined to record everything they came across. He knew the significance of concealed deposits and asked the builders to inform him if they found anything that fit the bill – he didn’t have to wait long. Secreted away in a wall close to the chimney was a bundle of decayed sacking containing shoes (again dating to c.1680), a saddle stirrup (c.1500), and an earthenware jar known as an Albarello (c.1710). Close to this bundle was a leather pouch, and under the floorboards they also found two Neolithic flint flakes.

Both buildings are also bedecked with a plethora of timber markings. Some are functional (e.g. masonry marks) but others don’t appear to serve any practical purpose, such as the ‘VV’ (inverted ‘M’ for Mary? Virgin of Virgins?) on the downstairs window frame in Toad Hall or the ‘XII’s and ‘XI’s (a variant of the common ‘X’ form which may have been protective?) which bedeck the timber of the Old Medicine House.



But it doesn’t end there. Excavating the remains of an old square outbuilding on their land, they lifted a threshold stone and found the complete skeleton of a cart horse arranged in the foetal position; its jaw-bone is currently displayed in the Old Medicine House. At another building a few fields away, a mummified cat was discovered in a brick recess beneath the hearthstone, also now displayed.


And I’m not even going to try to detail the many deposits found in the surrounding land or the Bronze Age material which suggests the site was once a burial ground. This place truly is an archaeologist’s dream – and an Arcadia of apotropaios!

I’m hoping that I’ll have the opportunity to record an interview with the Garners, not only to get more details on the finds but to begin to understand what they mean to the Garners themselves. It’s clear they’re both very proud and protective of these items, particularly those found in Toad Hall, which they keep tucked away close to where they were found. I feel privileged that they brought them out to show me, and am eager to rush back there to learn more about these buildings and the fascinating deposits – and people – they house.

Chocolates, Roses, and…Anti-Witch Charms?

Valentine’s Day: the time of year when the romantics amongst us splurge on chocolates and roses; the cynics roll their eyes and grumble about commercialisation – and the folklorists pen blog posts about anti-witch charms apparently.


Searching for a suitably romantic but not-sickeningly-saccharine Valentine’s Day card for my husband, I found myself having to choose between cards populated by cute teddy bears or plastered with love-hearts. I’d already had to wade through swathes of love-heart-shaped merchandise, from caramel-centred chocolates to novelty umbrellas, and this got me thinking – what is the history of the love-heart? Has it always been used to symbolise love or did it have a different meaning, and did it have any folkloric associations? So I rolled up my metaphoric folklorist sleeves and did some digging into the background of a symbol that we’re all very familiar with but rarely think about.

Apparently the association of the heart shape with the actual heart didn’t fully develop until the end of the Middle Ages, only becoming a popular metaphor for love in the 16th century. The heart (as a body organ) was used in many later love spells. A North German tradition, for example, maintained that if you wanted to be beloved by everyone, you should carry the heart of a pewit or frog with you. Other customs were more aggressive; if a person wanted revenge on an unfaithful lover, for example, then they should take a bird’s heart and pierce it with pins at midnight.

The heart wasn’t always associated with lovers though. In Scotland, for instance, the heart shape was considered a powerful charm against witches, and we see this in the luckenbrooth brooch, which Mary, Queen of Scots, was well-known for wearing. These were traditional Scottish brooches (named after the stalls round St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh), and were often worn by children to avert the evil eye and to protect against witches, and by mothers to prevent witches from stealing their milk. This example is at the V&A and is probably from the 17th century:


Why would the heart be considered a potent charm against witches? Possibly because of associations between witchcraft and the heart itself. Sticking pins into an animal’s heart was an action used in counterspells across England. So if an animal was sick – an occurrence that was often blamed on witchcraft – then a heart should be cut out and pierced with various sharp objects: nails, pins, thorns, etc. If a person was sick then the heart of an animal (e.g. a hen, pigeon, hare or toad) would do. The pierced heart should then be boiled, roasted, burnt, hung in the chimney, or buried, depending on where in the country you are. This ritual was meant to cause intense pain for the witch, subsequently breaking the spell.

This custom may have an equivalent in the witch-bottle. These are bottles or jars, often filled with pins, nails, and urine, concealed within a house or buried, also intended to cause pain for the witch and counteract any malevolent spells. In a couple of cases representations of hearts have been amongst the odd collections of items found in these witch-bottles. For example, inside the bellarmine jar recovered from beneath the threshold of the old ‘Plough Inn’ in King’s Lynn was a piece of felt which had been carefully cut into a heart shape and pierced with pins:

Witch Bottle 3

Another piece of cloth, also stuck with pins, was found inside a bellarmine from Stepney, but this was too decayed to be recognisable as a heart. Ralph Merrifield suggested that in other bottles where only pins and nails are found, perhaps they’d initially been stuck into a cloth heart but the cloth had completely decayed away over time.

These are just a few examples of the many heart-related customs in Britain, but they certainly testify to a time when the heart wasn’t a symbol of romance, but rather was a powerful charm against malevolent forces. You might want to bear that in mind if you’re having to pick out a Valentine’s Day card this weekend.


Cats, Caches, and iPads: Concealment in Cumbria

I wrote a blog-post in October about a phone call I’d had with a Cumbrian basket-maker called Phil Bradley, who’d found a number of concealed deposits in his farmhouse in Deanscales. Last week I was lucky enough to travel up to Cumbria to meet Phil (pictured below in front of his 18th-century farmhouse) and see some of his finds for myself. Watch the interview on Youtube here.

Phil House

When Phil had been renovating his workshop space (a 17th-century labourer’s cottage next door), he discovered the skeletal remains of a cat under the hearthstone of this fireplace:


Mummified cats, first explored by Margaret Howard (1951) and later by Brian Hoggard (find his website here), are not as prevalent as shoes, for example, but are still relatively common, with many having been found bricked up in walls or sealed beneath floorboards and hearthstones, becoming dried or mummified over time through natural processes. Sometimes the cat’s accompanied by a rat or a mouse, equally mummified, and the theory goes that the cat was intended to scare off vermin of either the natural or supernatural kind. Granted, some cats may have been accidentally enclosed but many of their locations (e.g. sealed in an air-tight space beneath a hearthstone) as well as their quite deliberate placements (e.g. in a hunting pose) suggest that some at least were deliberately concealed. Phil’s cat was probably of the latter variety.

Before relaying the hearthstone, Phil returned the cat to where it was found because, as he said to me, it ‘seemed to be the right thing to do I think. It had been there for 200 years plus maybe…so it just seemed right to put this little skeleton back’. Likewise when Phil found a cache of fragmented objects, including a salt croc and a clay-pipe, within the wall beside the fireplace, these items were also re-concealed. ‘You don’t know what to do with them,’ Phil admitted. ‘It’s a broken glass but you can’t just stop it in the bin, can you? …We couldn’t.’

There’s one find that Phil hasn’t re-concealed yet: the fragmented foot and stem of a glass, which he found buried in the far corner of his “shed” (pictured below) – which is actually a possible medieval cottage.



Judging by the pontil mark underneath, this glass was probably made in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, and although it may not seem overtly apotropaic (i.e. supernaturally protective), there have been quite a number of cases of fragmented crockery found in concealed caches. For example a broken glass bottle neck was found with a shoe, concealed in the wall of a house in St. Nicholas, Glamorganshire, whilst a glass bottle actually containing a baby’s shoe was discovered in the roof of a building in Higham, Lancashire. Glass objects may have been concealed because reflective surfaces were believed to deflect the evil eye – which is why people hung “witch balls” (shiny glass baubles, such as this one here) in their windows. But why fragmented? Maybe there was some notion of sacrificing the object before depositing it – or maybe people didn’t want to conceal a perfectly good glass, and so they used a broken one instead. Waste not, want not.

Phil plans on re-concealing this glass, probably where it was originally found, and he’s considering making a personal deposit of his own. But he’s in a bit of a dilemma about what to conceal: ‘I don’t know whether to go in and break a mug we don’t like, but that doesn’t seem the right thing to do, getting something you want rid of. It’s almost got to be something of meaning or value. But I don’t want to do that because we’ve got nice pots…’ He wants his deposit to be ‘something of now’ so he’s toying with the idea of a 2016 coin – or maybe his iPad he jokingly adds. He likes the idea of leaving something for future occupants to find; ‘for the next lot of idiots who come along and wonder about these things and what got done in 2016’. He hadn’t made his mind up by the time I left, but he promises he’ll let us know once he makes a decision, so watch this space.