Shoes have been found concealed in buildings across the United Kingdom, and indeed Europe, from varying periods of time. Why were they there? What purpose did they have? This article examines the history of concealing shoes in the walls of buildings.
Shoes have been found in the floors, walls, and attics of European buildings since the 16th century, commonly in the United Kingdom. From dainty cottages in Tonge in Kent, to Georgian homes in Norwich, to the remotest Shetland Islands and Isles of Scilly, this strange trend has spread across the British Isles and across history.
One of the earliest finds, from St John’s College in Oxford, has been dated to the 1540s. A shoe was even found hidden in the Winchester Cathedral choir stalls, which were installed in 1304. Yet there is still a mystery as to why this trend happened throughout human history. This article explores a few of the different theories and what they can tell us about the society of yesterday.
Hidden in the Walls
Shoes have a special significance in our society. They are the only item of clothing that takes the shape of the person who was wearing them. Shoes were believed to hold something of the wearer’s essence or personality even when they were not being worn. It was believed that it was this association with the wearer that could fight off evil spirits, should they attempt to come into your home.
The shoes chosen to be hidden were usually worn out, and there is often only one found concealed in walls and beneath floors. Interestingly, the shoes that are found are more often than not children’s shoes.
The shoes that were stowed away were often made of leather, but not exclusively: wooden clogs and rubber boots have also been found. Over half of the shoes that have been found to date belong to the 19th century, all of which were well worn and showing signs of repair, indicating that they were shoes that had been used for a long time.
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Such well-worn shoes obviously hold the shape of the wearer’s feet the most clearly, and therefore capture the wearer’s essence. But worn leather at that time was rarely discarded if it could be recycled into something else. Footwear in particular was an expensive commodity, and a pair of shoes could cost a week’s wages for the average worker. So to use shoes in this fashion was a serious expense, and using the oldest, the smallest, and only one shoe was probably a sound financial decision.
Where Were They Hidden?
Concealed shoes are typically found within chimneys, fireplaces, under floorboards, in the attic, and even around doors and windows. They are usually found during renovation works taking place on the building, rather than when the building was being constructed.
Some footwear has even been found embedded in plastered walls. One example is in Devon where a shoe was found placed in the plaster wall of the house halfway up to the roof, which can only have been done intentionally.
Interestingly, footwear is not just found in homes. Shoes have been found in a variety of buildings ranging from barracks, breweries, factories, hotels, manors, schools, and even prestigious colleges. Even religious and ecclesiastical buildings were not free of this superstition. Shoes have been found in a Benedictine monastery in Germany and an English Baptist church.
A Magical Charm
Archaeologists and historians have been debating about the role that shoes played in society. One thing that is for sure is that this tradition has a strong link with superstition. It is thought that by concealing certain items in a building’s structure, it was hoped that they would act as magical charms to protect the occupants against dark and evil influences. It has been possible to date this tradition to at least the “Early Modern” period beginning around the start of the 16th century.
One prominent theory is that the evil spirit could be distracted by the shoe and leave the actual people alone, and that older shoes were better as they more closely matched the owner. One guide even recommends using shoes that lure witches away from the occupants, keeping them safe.
As per the guide, witches were attracted to human scent and the shoe, also smelling like a person, would act as an enticement. The witches would then enter the shoe and would be trapped there, unable to leave. Archaeologists have termed items like this as ‘Spiritual Middens’ – trash which still retain a spiritual use.
Another interesting aspect of this practice is that it didn’t always need an actual shoe, and that in some cases the shape of a shoe was enough. This suggests the concept of the shoe, and how it was shaped, might have been as important as using an actual shoe. Outlines of shoes and the shapes of soles have been found carved into the walls and floors of buildings, where no actual shoe has been found.
Another connection that is traditionally associated with footwear is fertility. Shoes were often used as charms in the hope of the household being blessed with a child. Today this is most commonly remembered in a nursery rhyme about the “old woman who lives in a shoe and had so many children, she didn’t know what to do”. Although the origin of the story is only half-remembered, the nursery rhyme endures.
Wedding guests for years have had the custom of throwing shoes towards the bride and groom, and later tossing shoe-shaped confetti and tying shoes to the couple’s car. It has been suggested that this tradition represented a transfer of authority to the groom from the father. Other academics have posed the idea that the footwear would, as above, be a wish for a baby.
Another tradition holds that wearing of the shoes of a mother who has just given birth would promote fertility in a couple trying to conceive. Clearly, shoes have been held to have mystical qualities in European societies for many years.
A Forgotten Tradition?
There have been few records of shoes being discovered in the fabric of buildings throughout the 20th century. This implies that the tradition has died out. In Britain, the practice seems to have come to a stop by 1900, although in the United States there is evidence of it continuing as late as the 1930s.
One common feature to hiding shoes is that it seems to have increased around times of fear. Superstitious practices have always been known to resurface in times of war. Hidden shoes can be dated from such notable conflicts such as the English Civil War, The Glorious Revolution of 1688, The French Revolution, and the Crimean War, as people sought extra protection from the conflict and the dangers and uncertainties that brought.
The Power of Shoes
Whilst it may seem unusual to the modern-day reader, superstitious practices like this have always permeated human society. Look at the bad luck associated with walking underneath ladders or smashing mirrors. It is no surprise then that this tradition continued for as long as it did. In the end, people will always seek to have a little extra advantage in life wherever they can get it.
Top Image: Why Were Shoes Hidden In Walls? Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Kurt Readman