You never know what you’re going to find when you start to lift up floorboards, but when you’re inside a grand historic mansion such as Wimpole Hall, the discovery is all that more exciting. Conservator, Chris Calnan takes up the story…
Last year Wimpole Hall underwent a major rewiring project, which affected most of the rooms in the Hall at one time or another. Project Conservator, Mary Luckhurst, was in charge of dealing with all of the arrangements to plan and protect the contents, as many of the rooms had to be emptied in order to lift floorboards for cable laying.
The project started in the rooms just off the main visitor route, and it was in one of these that an unusual discovery was made. In an attic room at the front of the house, a floorboard was removed to check on a cable run when Mary’s keen eyes noticed a shoe lying beyond the opening. Remarkably, it had lain undisturbed for over 200 years and had not been spotted when the previous cable was laid.
So, what was a shoe doing under the floorboards? It was not there by accident. Its owner had placed it quite deliberately in a very old superstitious practice – common across the land – to guard against evil and witchcraft! It was thought necessary to place potent charms or devices around the house, especially at entry points, to protect the occupants from any evil. These entry point charms were typically by doors and windows, in chimney fireplaces (witches can of course fly) or under hearths.
Shoes have been found in concealed locations, typically squirreled away under floorboards or inside chimneys. All the shoes that have previously been found have been used and most were well worn like the Wimpole shoe (it was thought that a shoe shaped by its owner would retain their spirit and act as a potent decoy for any evil entering the house).
The shoe found at Wimpole is a right shoe, which belonged to a man who had a pronounced bunion. A typical 18th century shoe, we can narrow its date down to the 1740s to 1760s, due to its heel and toe shape. It has two loose front flaps, which would have been held by a buckle. The shoe has a worn-out sole and the compacted remains of mud and plant fibres would have come from field walking. It is missing its buckle and has a thin rectangular strip cut from one side to reuse the leather.
Although the East of England region is a rich resource for concealed shoes, hag stones and buried bellarmine witch bottles, this is the first concealed shoe that we’ve found in one of our places, although quite spookily we found one at Blickling Hall in Norfolk just a few weeks later! We do have a number of other concealed items and ritual (apotropaic) markings. At Thorington Hall there is a superstitious mark of a roundel with internal petals called a daisywheel that has been inscribed into the old oak newel post on the back stairs, where the post faces a window.
Lavenham Guildhall not only has an inscribed daisywheel on a mantle beam, but also a mummified cat named Ramesses, which came from the roof of a nearby property. However, one of our best hidden secrets and still lying in its original hiding place, is the cat concealed under the attic floorboards at the Elizabethan House in Great Yarmouth. The last find is yet to be fully cat-a-logged!
You can see the newly discovered shoe on display at Wimpole Hall from Saturday 1 March. It will form part of a new exhibition, which will include the 320 other items that were found during the project – from items of food, letters, children’s toys, animal bones, pieces of wallpaper and newspaper cuttings. They all offer a glimpse into another era.