The Writing in the Wall: Whitefield’s Mystery Scroll

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?”

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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’.

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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.

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Worn: An artist’s interpretation of the concealed shoe

‘My inspiration for this series of work started with the discovery of my first baby shoe, from 1951, which my late mother had kept safe. It was well worn and still bore rust marks from the nails. I never did ask her what happened to the other one. I became fascinated by various customs and traditions associated with footwear, and the fact that the shoe or boot is the only garment which really retains the shape or imprint of the wearer. It is therefore presumed to contain the essence, spirit and personality of the person who wore it.’

These words were written by artist Chrissy Stangroom in the catalogue for ‘Worn’, an exhibition held at the Old Station Gallery in Rowsley, Derbyshire, from 13th August to 8th September 2016. The exhibition showcases the work of printmakers from the Green Door Printmaking Studio, who were asked to individually respond to the theme of ‘worn’. Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the exhibition launch and speaking with Chrissy, whose work overlaps with my own.

Chrissy, who has been printmaking for about 15 years now, chose to produce photopolymer etchings of shoes for ‘Worn’, inspired by a plate she’d made for a previous exhibition on memory: ‘Learning to Run’. In this print Chrissy had captured the image of her very first shoe, retained by her mother.

Chrissy's first shoe

Chrissy actually had the shoe with her at the gallery and brought it out to show me, explaining that “It all started from that one shoe.” By ‘it’, Chrissy means her artistic fascination with footwear, and indeed all nine of her plates in the exhibition focus on shoes, boots, sandals, and socks. Included are images of her friend’s boots, her daughter’s baptismal shoe, and the first shoes of her children, some of which are on display in the flesh, so to speak.

Chrissy's children's shoes

Following the habit of her mother, she kept her children’s first shoes, keeping them safe in a box under her bed – her very own concealed shoes. “These were actually Mothercare,” she says, carefully handling her son’s blue-and-white gingham shoes, “but they still mean something to me.”

“I find them quite personal items,” she explains. “Shoes are the things that have an imprint of the person that’s worn them. If you look inside a shoe there’s the shape of the person’s foot, so I think that’s why they used to think the person’s essence was contained in that shoe.”

Chrissy knows the owners and the stories of all the shoes she has worked with – all but one. “I didn’t know the person that wore that one,” she says, pointing to the plate in the lower left-hand corner. It’s an image of a single boot; it fills the plate in stark black-and-white tones, and offers few clues about how old it is and who might have worn it. Beneath it are the simple words ‘Concealed Boot, 19 South Street, Derby’. Yes, this is an etching of a concealed shoe.

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Chrissy first heard about concealed shoes from her friend Anna, who’d found a number of mysterious objects concealed in her own house. Conducting some research online, Chrissy came across the Northampton Shoe Museum Concealed Shoe Index, and from there found out about a pair of boots held at Derby Museum. They’d been discovered in a mid-terrace in Derby during renovations to the chimneybreast, and subsequently donated to the nearby museum, where Chrissy photographed them for her printmaking.

Chrissy guesses that the boots once belonged to a builder who hid them in the chimney, but she doesn’t hypothesise why. “I find it fascinating that there’s loads of different traditions with shoes and boots,” she says, recalling how her mother – who had firmly claimed not to be superstitious – forbade the placing of shoes on tables. Another shoe custom she mentions is the tying of boots to the back of cars and, earlier, carriages, at weddings. Why such customs were followed are a mystery, but that’s what attracts her to them: “I like puzzles and hidden things and mysteries,” she admits with a smile. It’s no wonder that concealed shoes are right up her street!

Meeting Chrissy gave me a really interesting insight into an artist’s perspective. As a folklore archaeologist, I look at a concealed shoe and the first things I think about are the date it might have been made, the date it might have been concealed, and the specific location in which it was found. But hearing Chrissy describe her work, I realise she contemplates an entirely different set of aspects, focusing instead on the shoes’ colours, their textures, their wear: “They were quite marked,” she remembers, examining the plate. “They looked as if they’d been well worn and they’d been used – you know, they’d got marks all over them from use. But I particularly liked the texture along the side of the sole.” She runs her finger over the image, where the jagged surface of the sole seems almost three dimensional.

“They look like nothing, don’t they, really?” she decides, turning back to her children’s first shoes, which sit on a plinth beside the prints. This is true of most shoes, including – or especially – the concealed variety. To the owner, they mean something; they have a story and memories associated with them. But to anyone else, they’re just old shoes. But that’s the point of her work: “the idea is actually to make them an object that you would look at.” By enlarging the shoes, having them fill her prints in the patinating tones of black-and-white, sepia, and a subdued blue, and by tantalising the observer with simple yet enigmatic captions, Chrissy is succeeding in what she set out to do: making these shoes objects that people look at.

To find out more about Chrissy’s work, visit her Facebook page here.

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Home Is Where The Hearth Is

Many concealed objects are found under hearths and within fireplaces, from the cat skeleton at Deanscales, Cumbria, to the vast cache of shoes at Gelli Iago, Gwynedd.

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The hearth in which the Deanscales cat skeleton was found

Their presence there is usually explained as a form of protection: malevolent supernatural beings – be they witches, demons, ghosts, or fairies – can enter a house via the chimney. The hearth is therefore viewed as a vulnerable domestic area; an access point for those dangerous forces. An access point that needed guarding. So were these obscure objects – possibly seen as effective wards against, or traps for malignant intruders – secreted away in hearths and fireplaces because of their structural vulnerability? Was this also why mysterious markings were scratched into fireplaces?

That’s one way of interpreting the evidence, but there is another – and neither have to be mutually exclusive. It’s just as possible that the hearth was a popular place in which to conceal objects not because it was seen as an access point for negative forces, but because it was seen as central to the home and the family – central in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

We’re all familiar with the clichéd image of the family from a bygone era assembled cosily around a roaring hearth, regaling tales and keeping warm during the long, dark winter evenings.

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The Victorian hearth

Well, clichéd it may be, but it’s also true. In a time before central heating and television, families would congregate around the fire, and this led to it becoming symbolically very important. When Robert St George was illustrating how the house metaphorically represents the body in his 1998 Conversing by Signs, he described the windows as the eyes, the timbers as the ribs, and the hearth as the heart. Just look at the two words and the connection is obvious.

So if the hearth is the heart of the household, then it’s no surprise that so many rituals and folkloric practices surround it. The significance of placing the Yule log in the hearth has been written about elsewhere on this blog: kept lit in the hearth until it burnt away completely it was considered good luck, and in Derbyshire they’d pile its ashes in the cellar to keep witches away, while in some parts of Wales they were spread in the fields to deter evil and ensure a good crop.

Barry O’Reilly, in his fascinating 2011 article ‘Hearth and Home’, describes many hearth-related practices in post-medieval Ireland. When relocating, for example, the hearth fire in the new house should be lit by coals taken from the old house. Fire shouldn’t be removed from a house – unless to light the fire in a new house. And it is a note of pride – and evidence of familial continuity – if a family can claim that their hearth fire has been burning continuously for generations, covered in ashes every evening and rekindled every morning. Similar practices can be found worldwide. The Russians, for example, had the Domovoi, the house god or spirit, who was believed to live in the ashes of the hearth; when a family move, they took some of the ashes with them, ensuring their Domovoi would accompany them to their new house.

The centrality of the hearth survived into the 20th century, with Lovett observing in his 1925 Magic in Modern London, that ‘in many cases, objects are hung over the mantelpiece for luck’. The examples he gives are of pieces of flint bearing uncanny resemblances to people or animals, used as toys by the children of London but also placed on the mantelpiece ‘“for luck!” In short, a votive offering’. Other examples include horse shoes and horse brasses placed around the fireplace (see blog post here) to ensure the luck of the household. It seems likely, therefore, that objects were secreted away within the fireplace for similar reasons – not just to keep the bad out, but to keep the good in.

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Horse shoes adorning the fireplace in The Royal Oak, Laxfield, Suffolk

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A horse shoe sits atop a hearth in modern-day Zadar, Croatia

But doing this research has got me thinking about the hearths and fireplaces of today. We’re living in a time with central heating and television; a time where radiators are more likely to heat our homes than an open fire, and where sitcoms, soap operas, and cooking shows are more likely to entertain us than a hearthside storytelling session. So is the hearth still the heart of the home? Maybe not, but it’s significant that we still have them. My living room is heated by a radiator; the electric fire which stands in the fireplace is broken and hasn’t been used for years. But I know that I’ll never get rid of it. Why? Because the room would look incomplete without it. Whether for pure aesthetics or something deeper, the lounge needs a fireplace.

Rachel Hurdley, author of ‘Dismantling Mantelpieces’, maintains that even though times have changed, the fireplace is still an important part of the home. While focus may have shifted from the hearth to the television, the mantelpiece is still being used as a (literal) platform for the display of a family’s identity. Christine Finn, writer of ‘Old Junk or Treasure?’, makes similar claims, writing that: ‘The Romans had their lares and penates, the household gods at the hearth; we have an equivalent in the mantel as a fixed place and focal point, even if the “votives” are secular and come in a bag from Ikea. Every object in the home tells a story, but the mantel is a place to perform, a paradise for people-watching’.

We may not put shoes up chimneybreasts, scratch markings into fireplaces, and adorn our mantelpieces with horse brasses and other lucky talismans anymore, but the hearth does still seem to enjoy a central place in the home. We use our mantelpieces to stage the stories of ‘us’; to display aspects of ourselves that we’re most proud of: wedding photographs, birthday cards, attractive ornaments, curiosities from our travels.

Christine Finn encourages us to excavate our mantelpieces; to reflect on how much we can learn of our own identities by studying the objects we place there. Looking at my own fireplace…

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My fireplace

Six candles bought 12 years ago to decorate my Moroccan-themed 18th birthday party; a Balinese dragon incense-burner; two jewellery boxes from my childhood, one containing rings and the other drawing pins; a vintage-style globe; a Venetian mask bought on my honeymoon; a ‘thank you for your wedding present’ card from my in-laws; and a replica of Hermione Granger’s wand. What does this domestic assemblage say about me?

More importantly, what does your own mantelpiece say about you?

And what do they tell us about where the hearth stands in domestic culture, both past and present? Today, with central heating and televisions the size of cinema screens, is the hearth still the heart of the home?

 

 

The Folklore of Shoe-Shaped Confetti

The wedding season is upon us and, in preparation for it, I spent last Saturday shopping for the essentials: a new dress (or three), ‘congratulations’ cards, and gifts that the bride and groom are never going to use (does anyone ever really want candlesticks?). It was as I waded indecisively through the swathes of packets of confetti – paper, metallic, freeze-dried flower petals – that I came across a type I hadn’t seen before: shoe-shaped confetti.

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At first I dismissed it as just another commercial gimmick but then I made a connection with the custom of hanging shoes off the back of wedding cars, and I began to wonder whether those stiletto-shaped pieces of shiny pink PVC might actually have some basis in folklore.

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It turns out that the tying of shoes to the back of a wedding car stems from an earlier tradition – that of throwing shoes after the bride and groom. We can see this in a drawing from Christine Hole’s 1940 English Folklore.

Throwing Shoes Wedding Hole 1940

In Fletcher Moss’s 1898 Folk-Lore: Old Customs and Tales of my Neighbours, he writes of how ‘The custom of throwing the shoe after a newly-wedded pair when they leave the bride’s home has a symbolical meaning…[the shoe] is the symbol of authority, and is given to or thrown after the bridegroom when he takes the bride from her home, signifying that he is to have dominion over her’. This links in with the custom of the father-of-the-bride presenting a shoe to the groom, marking the transference of power over the bride.

It also links in with the belief that possessing somebody’s shoe gives you a certain authority over them – magically speaking. In 1644 there was a Scottish witchcraft trial in which the purported sorcerer Patrick Malcolm was accused of trying to acquire a woman’s left shoe in order to control her and force her to follow him.

The feminist in me notes it’s not actually that hard to reconcile those pink stiletto-shaped confetti pieces with female oppression – but the folklorist in me also notes that the shoe isn’t necessarily a symbol of authority. At its most basic level – as a tool that aids the getting from A to B – the shoe symbolises travel. So perhaps the shoe’s association with weddings stems from the fact that weddings are essentially journeys. Traditionally (albeit not so much anymore) for a bride this journey was literal; she leaves her parents’ home and moves into her husband’s. But for both parties it’s intended as a spiritual journey, and perhaps the shoe was meant to represent that.

The shoe also enjoys another level of symbolism that’s probably pertinent to the wedding custom. The shoe is, as has been explored elsewhere on this blog, a symbol of the wearer themselves and, by being worn by them, it becomes imbued with their essence, strength, and life experiences – essence, strength, and experience that can be passed on to somebody else.

Radford and Radford, in their 1948 Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, write of this transference. ‘Until very recently, shoes were often thrown after ships leaving port, or people beginning a journey or a new enterprise, or taking up new work. By doing this, the throwers conveyed luck to ship or individual concerned, probably because they were endowing them with a little of their own life-essence or strength’.

This would explain why this 1854 sketch from Punch magazine shows Queen Victoria throwing a shoe at her soldiers as they depart for the Crimean War. She was imparting them with some of her own luck.

Queen Victoria

Lovett has some interesting things to say about this in his 1925 book Magic in Modern London: ‘The shoes used in the “good old days” were very old and well worn out. Also they must have been worn by old people who had led good and useful lives. The wish at the throwing of these shoes was this: ‘May your path through life be as good and as happy and as long as that of the owner of this shoe.’’

So those pink pieces of shoe-shaped confetti may have actually derived from this belief that shoes possess the luck, essence, and strength of their past wearers – by throwing shoes at the bride and groom, you’re imparting that luck, essence, and strength onto them. It’s the ultimate wedding present.

In fact, come to think of it, I might return the candlesticks and wrap up my old pair of Dr Martens instead…

The Melness Shoe: The afterlife of a museum object

‘A museum, for most objects, is a final resting place – a moment frozen in time for future contemplation’. This statement was penned by heritage specialist Sharon Macdonald back in 2002 and it demonstrates the general consensus about museum objects. Once an object – say, a concealed shoe – is accessioned into a collection, it’s removed from its social and cultural context and becomes fixed in place. But does that mean that it’s no longer able to shift contexts, to change meaning, to influence people, and to be influenced by people? I recently interviewed an artist who has engaged with concealed shoes within museum environments, and her experience has shown me that such shoes are far from ‘frozen in time’.

Joanne B. Kaar is an artist living in Dunnet, not far from the northernmost tip of mainland UK. She’s studied Textiles at universities in Manchester, Aberdeen, and North America, and she’s primarily interested in working with museums, creating pieces of art that are inspired by objects and their stories. In 2012-13 she was an artist in residence at the volunteer-run Strathnaver Museum, and she was on the hunt for an object that would capture her imagination – and that’s when she came across the Melness shoe.

Melness Shoe

It’s an old, well-worn lady’s boot, and it was sitting amongst various miscellaneous objects at Strathnaver Museum when Joanne first came across it. She initially dismissed it as a mundane shoe – “It didn’t look anything special” – but the accompanying label piqued her curiosity. ‘Found inside the walls of a house in Melness and donated to the museum 20 years ago,’ was all it said. Intrigued, Joanne set about finding more information about it, but all the museum knew was that it had been donated in the 1970s and that it had been found built into the wall of a house alongside a dog skin buoy and an empty whiskey bottle. Why these items had been found in the wall of a house was beyond them. So Joanne contacted Northampton Shoe Museum and they identified it as a ‘concealed shoe’, probably hidden in the building to protect it from witches and evil spirits. “It became much more of a fascinating object instead of just this mundane shoe,” she explains. “This story behind it, about where it was found, suddenly made it quite special”.

As I know myself, concealed shoes tend to be quite addictive; once you find out about them, you’re immediately hungry for more information. Joanne was no different. “Because the concealed shoe was hidden in secret and not talked about, it’s quite a difficult thing to research. That made it even more of a challenge.” She wanted to know if other concealed shoes had been discovered in the local area and so she sent out feelers – but her way of ‘research dissemination’ was far more interesting than distributing leaflets or publishing articles.

She made 200 paper shoes (the design for which is free to download here). The outside of the shoe is designed as a stone wall, representing the wall in which the Melness shoe was found, while the inside includes information about the Melness shoe itself and asking people to get in touch if they’d found something similar.

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1 30th May 2012 paper shoes opt

But rather than just handing out these 3D “pamphlets” (for want of a better word) on the street, Joanne had a better idea. She concealed them. “I decided not to tell anyone where I was leaving them. I hid them in secret all along the north coast, from Balnakeil right the way to the John o’ Groats ferry.” She hid them in telephone boxes, shops, libraries, galleries, cafes, egg honesty boxes at the end of drives, not knowing if anybody would find them or if they would care.

Well, it turns out that they cared.

Lots of people got in touch. People who’d never been to Strathnaver Museum, or hadn’t been there for years, came to visit. They came to see the shoe and to tell stories of their own finds; numerous other instances of concealed shoes came to light, some of which had been discarded by their finders years ago – some of which had been kept. But the paper shoes did more than encourage people to share their finds; they became finds themselves.

People didn’t just throw them away; they kept them. And they began to be hidden away in places that probably won’t come to light for many years. Joanne’s parents placed one in a bottle, along with a note giving the date, and bricked it up in the wall of their house during renovations. Another few paper shoes went into a box and were hidden within a stone wall nearby.

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“Nobody’s ever laughed,” Joanne notes. “Me handing them these paper shoes and people finding them, they all think it’s interesting, nobody’s thought “that’s a stupid idea, why are you bothering with that?” Everyone seems to be fascinated with it…They had their own wee theories why.”

Joanne also worked with a local school, Tongue Primary, where the pupils made their own paper shoes and were told that they could either take them home or conceal them (most chose to conceal them – “I think they used it as an excuse to go into buildings, like ruined crofts, that they wouldn’t usually go into”). They also decorated an empty shoe box, selected a few of the shoes, and sent them to Northampton Shoe Museum, where they were given accession numbers and added to the museum’s collection. A whole new class of ‘concealed shoe’.

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All of this activity because an artist in residence at a small, local museum just happened to stumble upon an old shoe with a mysterious label – a shoe that certainly hasn’t remained ‘frozen in time’. By finding it, questioning it, and sharing it, Joanne’s project has not only led to the creation of new ‘concealed shoes’ but has “added a wee bit more story” to the Melness shoe itself.

Concealed Pipes & Smoking Fairies

Love it or hate it, 2016 is the year of the “vape”. People countrywide (2.8 million of them in fact) are ditching cigarettes in exchange for the (possibly) healthier electronic alternative, and the new vaping sub-culture is gripping the nation with its mind-boggling range of flavours and colours to choose from. Never before has a physical addiction been so accessorisable.

Will e-cigs eventually replace cigarettes? Probably. And this transition, as with any cultural and commercial change, will show up on the material record. Archaeologists 500 years from now will note the sudden early-21st-century introduction of plastic and metallic atomisers and inhalers, followed by a steady decline in disposable lighters. In fact, give it a few more decades and disposable lighters will be a thing of the past. Children will find them in attics or half-buried in fields, and will wonder what their purpose was; perhaps they’ll make up stories about these peculiar plastic and metallic cuboids that, according to their grandparents, used to make fire. And, as any folklorist knows, such stories are only a few steps away from becoming folklore.

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This is, after all, what happened to another smoking implement that eventually became redundant: the clay tobacco pipe.

Heather Coleman Image 2Clay tobacco pipes. Image courtesy of Heather Coleman

Originally brought over from the Americas, clay pipes first began to be produced in Europe in the 1570s/80s. By the mid-17th century they were being used widely across Britain and became one of the first items to be mass-produced. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries they were so affordable that almost anyone, regardless of class, could smoke if they so wished. The clay pipe didn’t stay the same during this period though; as tobacco grew cheaper the bowls became larger, the stems longer, and designs more intricate. Some were elaborately decorated; others bore symbols of propaganda. But following the First World War and the rise of cigarettes, their popularity declined, their manufacture almost disappearing completely with the exception of a few specialist workshops.

Today clay tobacco pipes are antiquities; objects of the past – albeit very common ones. Because clay pipes were so cheap they were seen as semi-disposable, which is probably why so many of the older, small-bowled styles were being found long after they’d ceased being used – found, for example, by children half-buried in fields, who wondered what their purpose was. Such wonderings seem to have led to stories, and such stories led to folklore.

Heather Coleman Image 1Clay tobacco pipe. Image courtesy of Heather Coleman

In the 19th century it was believed that these little clay pipes belonged to the fairies – a belief no doubt stemming from their minuscule size (see image below). Folklorist Sidney Oldall Addy (1895) recounted a letter sent to him by a Reverend Gatty in the late 1800s: “I found a hundred or more [pipes] on the moorside at Bradfield. Who smoked up there in those days? … The fairies are supposed to smoke, but where they get their tobacco from is a secret. Certainly the pipes are quite small enough for such small folk, and I have some specimens quite absurd in size. I am certain that the people believed in the fairies smoking. My old clerk at Bradfield – who always swore by the mess, not mass – used to argue the point with a friend over a glass of beer.”

Elias Owen (1887) described the same belief in Wales: “Cetyn y Tylwyth Têg, or Fairy Pipes, are small clay pipes, with bowls that will barely admit the tip of the little finger. They are found in many places, generally with the stem broken off, though usually the bowl is perfect.” While Thomas Crofton Croker (1838) detailed similar beliefs in Ireland: “Small tobacco pipes, of an ancient form, are frequently found in Ireland on digging or ploughing up the ground, particularly in the vicinity of those circular entrenchments, called Danish forts, which were more probably the villages or settlements of the native Irish. These pipes are believed by the peasantry to belong to the Cluricaunes [mischievous Irish fairies], and when discovered are broken, or otherwise treated with indignity, as a kind of retort for the tricks which their supposed owners had played off.”

Heather Coleman Image 3The bowl of a clay tobacco pipe. Image courtesy of Heather Coleman

It may be difficult to reconcile these traditions with our notion of fairies today (even in the 1950s, a Tinkerbell with a tobacco addiction wouldn’t have sat right with moviegoers). But the fairies of the 18th and 19th centuries were very different creatures to the saccharine characters of modern imagination.

Was it this association with the fairies that led to clay pipes being used as concealed deposits, hidden up chimneybreasts and under floorboards in the 18th and 19th centuries?

The first example of this I came across was in Bury, Greater Manchester, where “several, old-fashioned” clay tobacco pipes had been found alongside a child’s shoe in the chimneybreast of The Lamb pub, built in 1830 (blog post about this here). While the shoe was retained, the pipes were discarded, to be later replaced by replicas which sit alongside the shoe in a glass-fronted case on the fireplace in the pub.

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Two other examples of concealed pipes are held at the Gressenhall Farm Museum in Norfolk. One pipe was found up the chimney of a 16th-century farmhouse in Alburgh, broken into two pieces, while the other case, consisting of nine clay-pipe fragments, was found alongside an earthenware jar and several pottery sherds beneath the floor of a building in Salthouse. It isn’t just these three examples though: June Swann, foremost authority on concealed shoes, lists 21 examples of shoes hidden alongside clay pipes. She also notes how many other shoes are found with “objects of fire”, such as candlesticks, lamps, snuffers, and coal. Were these objects chosen for concealment because of their association with fire and, if so, why? Was it a way of inoculating a house against fire, as we believe timber burns were meant to be?

Why else might clay pipes be hidden away up chimneybreasts and under floorboards? Was it because they were semi-disposable, whilst simultaneously being quite personal items, in the sense that they – like shoes – were often in physical contact with their owners? Many pipe stems have been found bearing teeth marks: an incidental but unambiguous stamp of ownership; a material connection between person and object. Were they retained out of sentimentality? Or was it about protection? The popular argument that shoes were concealed because of their connection with their owners – an object is imbued with its owner’s protective power – could easily extend to clay pipes as well. Were they concealed in homes, therefore, to ward off malevolent, supernatural forces?

Another interesting question is why are so many of the clay pipes fragmented? Was it because, as Croker wrote, people believed that they belonged to the fairies and so broke them in retaliation for the fairies’ mischievous tricks? Another notion I’ve come across anecdotally is that it was considered unlucky to dispose of an intact clay pipe, so people broke them before disposing of them. Or maybe the simplest answer is the right one: pipes are found broken because they were so fragile, and perhaps these later ‘traditions’ of bad luck and fairies simply developed from a desire to explain their frequent fragmentation.

Whatever reasons motivated people to hide clay pipes up the chimneybreasts and under the floorboards of their homes, it’s safe to say that they weren’t originally crafted with that purpose in mind. They were made for smoking, and their earliest manufacturers and users probably would have been baffled by their later ritual uses and folkloric associations – just as we’d be baffled to hear that disposable cigarette lighters may someday be viewed as mystical, magical objects from a distant past.

“Betsy” the doll and other curious concealments in Anstruther

On the seafront of the quaint Fife town of Anstruther, amidst fish-and-chip shops and ice cream parlours, is a small, white terraced house which dates back to the 1700s – if not earlier.

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Andy Sherriff has been calling this home for over three decades now, and over the years he’s made some fascinating discoveries here, from hoards of pottery and clay tobacco pipes buried in his garden to an uncanny face caught on camera peering out of a wooden beam. Of particular interest to me are the objects that appear to have been deliberately concealed by the house’s past occupants; by those enigmatic members of history who also once called this place home.

I’d come across reference to these in Andy’s publications in Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal and Vernacular Building (details below), and having contacted him, Andy kindly invited me to his house to see these finds. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon I took the trip up to Anstruther to take a gander at them myself. Weaving through the throngs of ice-cream-licking tourists on the seafront, I knocked on the teal, chalk-painted door and was called up the inner stairs to Andy’s home: a cosy, eclectic treasure trove of art and history.

I was treated to a tour of the house and garden, for which Andy has some fascinating stories to tell. And then I was shown his finds, which he’d laid neatly out across a wooden sideboard. “Betsy” the doll immediately caught my eye. Found within a lath-and-plaster wall and named by Andy after Betsy Wilson, a dancer at a local 18th-century gentleman’s club (Andy jests that it’s her ghost), it’s not technically a doll but rather a piece of fabric crudely crafted into semi-human-like form. However, whether it’s the fact that it’s been given a name or the gentle way Andy handles it, it becomes easy to view the piece of cloth as a figurine – and I’m soon referring to “Betsy” as a ‘she’ rather than an ‘it’ (see my blog post here about figurines secreted into the fabric of buildings).

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Snapshot 1 (08-06-2016 07-22)

But “Betsy” wasn’t found alone. Alongside her were two torn-out pages (one from the Bible showing psalm CXIX and the other showing hymns), a George II halfpenny, a broken bottle, a piece of glass, some ears of corn and dried peas, and a few animal bones. Andy thinks the wall dates to the 1800s, so this cache probably does too. Other than “Betsy” and the Bible pages, nothing remains of this concealed cache, but Andy does still have the objects from another concealment he stumbled across: this one from behind his current water tank. These included broken pieces of crockery, glass, a shoe polish tin, marbles, and what looks like a small horseshoe but is in fact a heel plate from a child’s shoe (read all about concealed shoes on Brian Hoggard’s excellent website here). This cache has been identified by expert Timothy Easton as a spiritual midden, added to over time and probably dating to the early 20th century.

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Andy believes that such caches were hidden because some of his home’s past occupants “were superstitious, because they wanted to stop the vampire or witch coming down the chimney…They were carrying on the tradition of concealing. It was an ongoing superstitious thing – they’re doing what their ancestors did.”

As well as hidden caches, Andy has also found some interesting markings on the wooden beams above his fireplace: inscribed letters and burn marks (see Malcolm Gaskill’s blog post about burn marks here), which Easton believes were probably created over time rather than on one occasion. Andy notes that such markings “used to protect the property allegedly against fire.”

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So Andy’s house really is a cornucopia of mystery and history with its concealed deposits and inscribed markings, the purposes of which we can only guess at. But the custom hasn’t stopped with the past occupants: Andy continues to layer meaning into the fabric of his home. Masks bought from gift shops have been plastered onto the walls and painted over, giving them a sense of antiquity and permanence, and Andy has concealed a Victorian, silver-handled walking stick within the window sill he built “for people to find in the future.” Why does he do these things? I asked. “Because I thought it would be in the spirit of the place,” he responded with a smile, gesturing around his Aladdin’s cave of treasures. “It’s as this place is.”

Watch my interview with Andy here

 

Sources

Alex Darwood & Andrew M Sherriff. 2003. Apotropaic markings and spiritual middens found in a house at 21 Shore Street, Anstruther, Fife. Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 9, 125-128

Andrew M. Sheriff. 2004. 21 Shore Street, Anstruther, Fife. Vernacular Building 28, Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group, 35-41

Timothy Easton. 2016. Apotropaic Symbols and Other Measures for Protecting Buildings against Misfortune. In Hutton, R. (ed.) Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke: 39-67

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!