Eager to use every inch of available space in No.3, our attention turned to the area under the stairs, that for some reason had been ‘bricked up’ – literally, it was inaccessible. As we set about removing the bricks, I jokingly remarked to John, “I hope we don’t find a body under here….”
John made a hole big enough to poke his head through and using a torch, peered into the darkness…. Inside could only be described as resembling a ‘midden’ – and there on top of a mound of earth, lay a bone! Slightly nervous of what we were about to find, we continued to break our way in…. What we found was an assorted pile of rubbish and a quantity of animal bones, we can only assume what we had unearthed was a very old rat’s lair….
Oddly though, amongst the debris were a collection of marbles and another of old bottle tops…. We never did get to the bottom of why the under stairs had been bricked up (perhaps it really had been a midden and previous occupants, long gone by, couldn’t be bothered to clear it out – who knows) ; it now serves as a very useful cupboard space….
As this was one of the last areas to be explored, I think we were secretly hoping we were going to find something like a ‘concealed shoe’….or perhaps some other ‘offering’ hidden away….protecting the house from evil spirits. We had gone over just about every other inch of the place and all we had found were a few hairgrips under a window sill, a magazine from the 1950s under the bath and a few giant acorns stashed in a hole in a beam….
‘Caches’, the correct term for offerings, (from the French ‘cache’ – meaning to give), are items that have been concealed somewhere in a building; under floors, above ceilings, up chimneys, around windows and doors, plastered into walls….
They were believed to protect the inhabitants from evil influences; witches, ghosts, demons and the like. It was a custom that was with us for centuries, only really dying out at some point in the last century (may be the advent of burglar alarms made people feel safer?!)…. It is not a custom that was confined just to the UK, by any means; such offerings have been found in buildings all over Europe, parts of Scandinavia, North America, Australia, even China….
Shoes are the most common; nearly always a single shoe, usually well worn and often repaired. In days gone by, as much use as possible would be gleaned from possessions, unlike the throw away society we know today….
About half of the shoes recorded have been those of children; it was believed the innocence and purity of children would over power evil spirits…. The earliest shoe that has been found to date was discovered behind the choir stalls in Winchester Cathedral, the stalls were originally built in 1308; it is thought the shoe may have been there since that time….
It is assumed many shoes are found and simply thrown away, never to be recorded. Northampton Museum has a ‘Concealed Shoe Index’ that it has been compiling since the late 1950s; it has approximately 2,000 entries. Shoes have been found in a large variety of buildings : monasteries, churches, hospitals, theatres, schools, even army barracks. They have been discovered in pubs and breweries, museums, factories and of course private dwellings, from tiny cottages to manor houses, even the likes of Hampton Court Palace….
The shoe is the only item of clothing that truly takes on the form of the wearer, it shapes itself to the foot…. It was believed that the spirit of a deceased person would be trapped in the shoe – a ‘spirit trap’…. It is thought this belief comes from the 14th Century, when it is said John Schorn, the Rector of Marston, Buckinghamshire, cast the Devil into a boot, thus entrapping him….
The largest cache found in the UK was in a 400 year old cottage, which was being renovated in Snowdonia, Wales. Here, building contractors found nearly 100 single shoes buried under a chimney stack. The nearest recorded example of a concealed shoe being found to here, was in the neighbouring village of Hascombe. A house was undergoing repair work and from the rafters fell an 18th Century child’s shoe….its heel broken down where the child had continuously pulled it on and off….and the toe was worn through.
Although many think the ‘concealed shoe’ was to keep away evil influences, there are also others who believe shoes were hidden as a fertility offering. Shoes have long been associated with fertility. In Lancashire, there is an old custom called ‘smickling’ – it involves trying on the shoes worn by a woman who has recently given birth, supposedly this brings luck in conceiving…. Casting a shoe after a bride departing for her honeymoon was another old tradition, even today we still tie shoes to the car of a newly wed couple….
Some think the connection between shoes and fertility is reflected in an old English nursery rhyme from Mother Goose :
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed….
This rhyme dates to 1794 and there are some that think it refers to King George II, who’s wife, Caroline, had eight children. George II had the nickname ‘Old Woman’ and it was widely believed that Caroline was the one with the real power….
Of course, it wasn’t just shoes that were used as caches. Other items of clothing have often been found; gloves, hats, belts, breeches, jackets. In a thatched cottage, in Pontarddulias, South Wales, a mid 18th Century corset was found in a wall…. It is not just clothing that has been found; objects such as coins, spoons, knives, books, goblets, pots, pipes, children’s toys and dolls and more macabre things, horses skulls and mummified cats….
Dried cats have been found on numerous occasions. It was thought the presence of the cat would deter vermin, such as rats. However, there was another reason cats were hidden within the house, cats were believed to be highly susceptible to detecting evil spirits : and because of their connection to witches, it was the belief that they would provide protection from such….
Witchcraft was greatly feared in centuries gone by. Witches bottles are also regularly found, no where more so than in East Anglia, where the belief in witches was very strong indeed…. Very often they are discovered buried under a fireplace, the floor or plastered into a wall. It was believed that as long as the bottle was kept well hidden and remained unbroken, the ‘spell’ contained within would keep on working…. The origins go back to the 1500s and they are particular to the Elizabethan period….
The earliest bottles to be found were typically ‘Bartmann jugs’ – made from salt glazed stone. During the 1500s and 1600s, Bartmann jugs were made throughout Europe but most especially in Germany. Shaped in the form of a bearded man, their intended use was to store food and drink. They were also manufactured in England, either by copycat potters or German immigrants. Because of the malevolent face of the bearded figure, it became adopted by many as the perfect vessel for a witch’s ‘spell’….
The contents were usually prepared by the local ‘witch’ or folk healer. The spells would be used not only to ward off evil but very often in an attempt to cure an affliction, condition or illness. Earlier spells would contain something personal of the person it was intended for, usually urine but sometimes hair or nail clippings….
Later witches bottles were often made of glass…. They would be filled with red wine, rosemary, pins and needles. The bottle would be buried and it was believed evil spirits would be caught on the pins and needles, drowned in the wine and then banished by the rosemary….
Other ‘ingredients’ could be added to the bottle; depending on the requirements of the particular spell – sea water, stones, earth, ashes, feathers, shells, vinegar….
Sometimes, instead of burying the bottle it would be hurled into the fire, causing it to explode; so if someone was thought to be ‘cast under a spell’, it would be broken….
Generally though, it was customary to bury the bottle, especially under the fireplace….
Now, there’s somewhere we’ve never looked…. Any one got a spade….?