From the outside, it’s not the kind of house you’d expect to yield a mystery from years gone by: a red-brick end terrace, built in 1906 and fairly typical of houses in North Manchester. But this particular terrace, on South Avenue in Whitefield, boasts a treasure of the enigmatic variety.
It’s been lived in by Elaine Maher for the last twenty years, during which time Elaine has been restoring the house’s historic charm; stepping through the front door I almost feel the years falling away. I could be in the 1920s as I sit on the chaise longue in the elegant living room and watch as Elaine brings out her treasure for me to see.
It’s a piece of paper, creased and marked with age and torn down one side. In the centre of the page is an image of a scroll with a small fragment on show containing writing in unfamiliar characters.
The piece of paper was found 15 years ago when a builder was knocking down the original lath-and-plaster wall between an upstairs bedroom and bathroom (which Elaine believes was probably also a bedroom originally). Having found the paper within the actual wall, the builder brought it downstairs to show Elaine, whose initial reaction was curiosity and excitement: “I like history, I like original things, so I was excited and very intrigued.”
She first believed the writing to be Hebrew, as Whitefield has a large Jewish community. However, when her friend took it to a local Jewish school to ask their opinion, the teachers there didn’t recognise the characters. Elaine also doesn’t know which way up the page should go, nor does she know if it was an original drawing or if it was a page torn from a book. She tries to imagine who might have put it there and why. “I just sort of picture some builder sat there having a cup of tea, reading a book, ripping it out and putting it in. Thinking what would this have come from? It’s just a shame if it has come from a book the book wasn’t still there.”
She was never tempted to simply throw the piece of paper away – “I suppose it’s a bit like the Egyptians and the pharaohs, isn’t it?” she jokes, “If you let something out it can cause problems.” – but neither did she consider re-concealing it. Initially she’d been a little concerned that it might have been some form of curse and, although she doesn’t consider herself particularly superstitious, she admits that if someone had confirmed this, she probably would have asked the builder to put it back where he’d found it. However, when she posted a picture of it on the Bury Olden Days Facebook group, a woman theorised that it may have had something to do with a loan agreement and was probably associated with good wishes. Pleased with this theory, Elaine has it framed and hung up on the wall: “I have it in the vestibule as you come in, now that I know it’s good luck and it’s not a curse.” Although she does note that it keeps falling down: “That’s not a good sign, is it?”
So what is the writing in the wall all about? The closest description I’ve come across is from Owen Davies’ Magic: A Very Short Introduction, which details the mezuzah: a Judaic amulet which consisted of a scroll of parchment containing two passages from the Deuteronomy on one side and the word ‘Shaddai’ (Almighty) on the other, held within a container. The mezuzah is attached to the doorpost of a house’s main entrance and while it has a religious function (read more about that here)– in reminding the house’s occupants of their connection to God – it was also apparently believed to ward off evil spirits and unwelcome people. Davies writes that ‘Occult signs and angelic names were sometimes added to the parchment to enhance its magical properties. There is evidence that during the medieval and early modern period, mezuzahs were also sought after by Christians as potent amulets’.
So is this an imitation of a mezuzah, concealed within the home to protect it from evil spirits and unwelcome people – and now, ironically, returned to its intended place by the main entrance to the home? Possibly, but why was it originally concealed within the wall of an upstairs room? Also, identification of the language has proven difficult. I’ve sent images of it to about a dozen experts but am still awaiting a response, so I’m hoping that one of my readers might have some answers or theories for me: please get in touch if you do! As Elaine said at the end of her interview, “There’s got to be somebody out there that’ll know…”
Watch my interview with Elaine here.