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.

hair in roof

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.

 

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