A few months ago Malcolm Gaskill wrote a post about a concealed shoe found in the chimneybreast of a house just outside Norwich. Laura Potts had come across the shoe when an electrician had been working in the fireplace; it’s currently safely tucked away in a biscuit tin, but Laura is looking for a glass case to display it in. She doesn’t consider herself superstitious about the shoe, but she’d like to keep it in the house close to where it was found. She also found two dried rats in the roof of a lean-to, but assuming that the pair found their way into the void themselves and then died – rather than having been deliberately concealed – she threw them away.
I had the pleasure of visiting Laura last week to interview her about the finds, and wasn’t planning on writing a blog post about the meeting until the video of the interview was published online. But a coincidence has made me eager to write this up – because during my visit to Norfolk, I came across a near-identical set of finds.
I was contacted by a woman named Alison Norman who’d made a very similar discovery to Laura. Alison lives in a timber-framed farmhouse in Geldeston, roughly 20 miles south-east of Laura’s village, and about five years ago she had professional builders in to uncover the old fireplace. While doing this they discovered a shoe wrapped in a piece of paper on a little ledge just up the chimneybreast. It’s a small child’s shoe with a white button, and has been dated to roughly 1900 by June Swann, former Keeper of the Boot & Shoe Collection at Northampton Museum.
The paper it was wrapped in contained no writing or adornment, but Alison kept it along with the shoe, and mounted them both in a box frame beside the fireplace in which they were originally found. In her own words, she did this because:
“…we felt that this best indicated the context in which they had been found and was a reflection of the superstition which may have led to the placement of the shoe. We showed the shoe to a neighbour who was born in the village and he was quite upset that we had removed the shoe from the chimney ledge and suggested that it would be best to replace it. He was very concerned when I suggested that I might take it to Gressenhall Museum for them to see and told me that removing it from the house would be very bad luck. It is interesting that, although I don’t regard myself as superstitious in any way, I have never got round to making an appointment at the museum!”
So again we have a shoe found up the chimney of a house in Norfolk, kept by a finder who doesn’t consider herself superstitious but who still wants her find on display close to where it was discovered. But this isn’t where the similarity ends. Alison also found a dried rat in the ceiling of their old dairy building and, like Laura, believes that it had died there rather than having been deliberately placed. Alison hasn’t thrown the rat away but it isn’t displayed alongside the shoe – her children “vetoed him being framed as too scary!”
So rats and shoes are both found in strange locations within buildings, but they’re interpreted differently. The shoes couldn’t have secreted themselves away in chimneybreasts, but the rats could have found their own way into roof voids and died there: so the shoe is viewed as a ritual deposit while the rat is an accidental concealment. The two are therefore treated differently. Laura disposed of her rats but keeps her shoe safely stored, while Alison keeps her rat stored out of sight but has her shoe on display.
We can’t use these examples to claim that the rats have been misinterpreted. This isn’t a big enough coincidence to prove that rats, like shoes, were deliberately concealed. But it does certainly tell us something about how concealed objects are viewed today by finders and anyone else who encounters them; how we’re intrigued by some items but repelled by others. Why some are photographed and proudly displayed – and others are disposed of or kept to one side. The records show a significantly higher proportion of concealed shoes than dried rats, but these examples make me wonder if there are actually a lot more animal remains found than get reported. This is why we’re asking people to report any item they find, no matter if it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral.