Gelli Iago’s Vast Cache of Concealed Shoes

Back in 2010 the National Trust were restoring Gelli Iago, a 17th-century farmhouse in the Nant Gwynant Valley, Snowdonia National Park, when they made a fascinating discovery. Beneath the fireplace was a vast cache of shoes that would give Clarks shoe-shop a run for their money. Last week I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a look at these shoes, and this post just details some preliminary observations and thoughts.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer quantity. The shoes are currently stored in crates and, opening them up, I was awestruck by the amount contained within, layers upon layers of shoes lying unceremoniously on top of each other. Taking them out one at a time, it felt as if I’d never reach the bottom.

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My first task was to catalogue them, so I photographed each one separately and recorded their details (such as measurements, materials, conditions, etc.) in a spreadsheet. Doing this, I realised how poor their conditions were. For most of them, ‘well-worn’ is an understatement; torn, frayed, misshapen, with missing heels and toes, few of them would have been serviceable as footwear. In fact, quite a lot of them weren’t even recognisable as footwear anymore; they were merely fragments of leather, with only the eyelets hinting at their former uses.

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And they were very, very dirty, encrusted with so much mud that the bottom of the crates looked like they’d been hit by a dust storm – as did I, after a few hours of handling them.

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In total I catalogued 58 shoes, 189 medium-sized shoe fragments, and two bags of leather scraps.

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My next job now is to put this catalogue to use by trying to interpret the cache as a whole. I’ve got more questions now than when I started, but here are the ones I’m particularly keen to answer. How many of the shoes are men’s, women’s, and children’s? Do any of them match up as pairs? How many were worn on the left foot and how many on the right? When are they from? Are they all roughly the same date or do they represent a long-running custom? Were they working class labourers’ boots or more upper-class shoes?

Then there are the other questions that only archival research will answer. Who lived in this farmhouse? Was it occupied during the period the shoes were made? Who would have had access to the fireplace? And how would they have accessed that many shoes? We don’t think there was a history of shoe-making in Gelli Iago, but we can’t know for certain just yet.

And then there are the questions that no amount of research will definitively answer. Accidental loss can’t account for that many shoes beneath a fireplace, so they had to have been deliberately concealed – but why? What were the concealers hoping to achieve? Were the shoes intended as protective devices, to ward off malevolent forces; mementoes, commemorating the dead; time capsules, providing a snapshot of life in the local area; or simply a joke? Proffering more questions than answers, the Gelli Iago cache typifies my research into the Concealed Revealed: frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.

The Whitwell Braid: Concealing Hair

Back in 2008 Joanne Thornton was conducting an archaeological survey of a cottage in Whitwell on the Isle of Wight. The cottage is a stone farmhouse dating back to the 17th century, at the latest. While in the roof space, Joanne and a fellow surveyor came across what was initially thought to be a length of rope hanging between a rafter and the tie beam, to the side of the chimneybreast. Pulling on it, the surveyor quickly realised it wasn’t rope, but a braid of hair, about 30-40cm in length and auburn in colour.

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Joanne believes that the hair must have been placed there when the tie beam was originally fixed, because the braid comes out on the other side of it, just visible in the photo below.

hair wedged in beam

In terms of location, this is fairly typical of an apotropaic (supernaturally protective) device: in the roof space close to the chimneybreast. This area was viewed as being particularly vulnerable to malevolent threats that could gain access to the household via the chimney. But if it was intended as an apotropaic device, then this begs the question: why a braid of hair? I know of hair being found in “witch-bottles” (probably belonging to the victim of the supposed witchcraft) but I’d never come across any examples of hair deposited on its own, so I assumed the Whitwell Braid was anomalous. Since then, though, I’ve stumbled across a few references that may shed some light on this enigmatic find.

Fletcher Moss, in his 1898 Folklore, Old Customs and Tales of my Neighbours, describes a similar example. Apparently a wig once hung in the fireplace of Standon Hall, Staffordshire, which was said to have been the wig of Parson Walker, who married Moss’ grandparents in 1800. Moss describes how fairies and witches ‘may have looked down the chimney, and seeing the parson’s wig, they would know His Holiness was not far off, and then these fly-by-nights would sail away to call again some other day’. So the wig was meant to announce the presence of the parson, who apparently had the power and religious authority to repel malevolent forces.

Bill Ellis, in his 2002 paper in the Journal of Folklore Research, writes of how ‘hair is often associated with a fetishistic extension of the living person’s charisma’. This is why locks of hair are given as lovers’ tokens or kept as keepsakes to memorialize a deceased relative. Here’s one example of a Victorian bracelet, with a lock of hair folded into the locket alongside the portrait, and below that a mourning brooch from the 1850s (see The Other Within Project website for a look at human hair used in mourning jewellery).

Victorian Mourning Bracelet

Mourning Broach 1850

The hair represents the person because it was a physical part of them. I’ve written before about distributed personhood (see the blog post here); how concealed garments were considered protective because they were imbued with the power, the protective agency, of their past wearers. An actual body part is even more bound up in the identity of the person, and therefore probably considered extra potent. Short of chopping off a limb, concealing hair is therefore probably the most effective mode of ‘distributing personhood’ and protective the vulnerable areas of a house.

The question that I’m particularly intrigued by is where did the hair come from? Long and auburn, it probably belonged to a female of any age between childhood and middle-age. Had she been a member of the family who had died, and her hair was kept as a memento? Or had the fear of malevolent threats been strong enough to induce a woman to cut off her own hair and hang it in the roof space? Either way, clearly some strong emotion must have motivated the deliberate secreting away of this braid of hair: whether fear, sorrow, or some other incentive we simply haven’t considered yet.

 

The Lucky Playing Card

The humble playing card has been around for centuries, probably first introduced in Imperial China – and they’ve lost none of their popularity over the years. Decks of cards are widespread, commercially-produced, and relatively cheap. Poker, rummy, aces, tens, cheat, partners, snap, and go-fish are just some of the games I’ve played (and, more often than not, lost) over the years, and they’ve gotten my family through many a rainy holiday afternoon. But, as with a lot of the objects I’ve encountered during my work on the ‘Concealed Revealed’ project, the playing card has accrued meanings and uses that go beyond what it was originally intended for.

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Edward Lovett, writing on ‘magic in modern London’ in the early 20th century, reported the use of the playing card as a charm used in the war. A nurse, whom Lovett met at a lecture hosted by the Y.M.C.A in Eastbourne, told him the following story:

“Her father with two of her friends were called up together. The night before they left home they met at her father’s house, and the four sat down to a game of whist. When they had finished the last game the nurse gathered up the cards, tearing the last card on the table into four pieces “for luck,” a piece for each. The youngest man contemptuously threw his piece into the fire, saying that he did not believe in such rubbish.

Some time later the three men went to France. In the first action they were in the man who had acted in the way described was taken prisoner by the enemy, but the other two came through in safety” (1925: 30)

So the playing card was employed here as a good luck charm – one that could be divided four ways, the idea being that each recipient got one part of the whole, linking them with the others. This is very similar to an ancient Roman custom: the tessera hospitalis.

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The tessera hospitalis was an object that was produced when two people had shared hospitality; the token would come in two pieces, one half going to the host and the other to the guest. It was intended as a mobile symbol of their bond – much like friendship necklaces are today, often shaped like hearts and split into two or three pendants, to be worn by ‘best friends’ or ‘friends forever’.

Friendship Charm

So the playing card could have been used a good luck charm in Lovett’s London because it was an easy object to divide into pieces. It was also a cheap object and one that could easily be slipped into a pocket and carried. However, it’s possible that there’s more to the playing card than simple convenience – because they seem to be a category of concealed object, albeit a very rare one.

Margaret Howard, in her catalogue of concealed cats, recorded a case in Bampton, Oxfordshire. The skeletons of two cats were found under the floor of an upstairs landing in a 16th-century house, and alongside them were three playing cards which have been dated to the 18th century. The cats were possibly concealed to protect the house from malevolent supernatural forces – does that mean that the playing cards were too? Howard does admit, however, that the cards may not necessarily have been deliberately concealed; ‘they may have slipped down through the cracks between the floorboards before the second floor was laid down’ (1951: 149).

A house in Chichester yielded a similar find: bricked into a wall was a cache of newspaper cuttings from 1772, school slates, conkers, paper slips, and five playing cards. Judging by the rest of the objects, this cache probably wasn’t intended as an apotropaic (or protective) deposit, but maybe as a time-capsule instead. The building had been a boarding school in the 1770s and it’s not difficult to imagine children secreting away these kinds of objects – in anticipation of future finders or simply for their own amusement. Maybe there was nothing symbolically significant about the playing cards, except that they were part of the everyday lives of the depositors.

What’s unfortunate is that the records don’t tell us what number and suit the playing cards are, which could have been important. I’ve written before about a nine of spades card in the Horniman Museum (follow the link here), which was carried for luck during WW1 and, according to the artefact label, was significant because of the saying ‘luck under a nine’.

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The significance of 3×3 is relevant here, so if the playing cards that were concealed were also nines then I’d argue that there was some symbolic or ritual purpose to them. Similarly, an ace could have significance, as could a king or queen. In fact, every playing card could have significance to the individual depositor; it could be their personal lucky number or the specific card that they’d won a game with. Sadly, without the depositors here to question, we can’t know – but if more finds like this come to light then we might have a better chance at guessing. And so, as usual, I end this post with a plea for information. If anyone has come across concealed playing cards, or know of any folklore behind them, then I’d love to hear about it!