Sole informant

It’s such a mysterious tradition that there is no written record of it. But a database in Northampton has nearly 2,000 instances of shoes being concealed in people’s houses

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Mrs Johnson’s Emporium, a haberdashery in what was once the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank in Blackpool’s South Shore, is a grotto of wonders. In a small “knit and natter” room to the left of the entrance, there’s half-finished craft projects, a roaring wood-burning stove and a desk, strewn with paperwork, multicoloured balls of yarn – and two miniature children’s shoes.

The shoes – both left, both infant size seven, one a boot and one a girl’s shoe – look as old as the bank, built in 1890, and came from a property in nearby Gordon Street.

One of the earliest examples is a Tudor shoe from 1540, found in an Oxford college

“I’d been talking to a family who were up here from London because they’d bought a property and were doing it up to let,” Suzanne Johnson says, explaining how the Victorian shoes came into her possession. “Some months later, the chap came in and thrust a carrier bag at me and said: ‘We’ve found these in the house and wondered if you wanted them.’ I didn’t really have an awful lot of chance to say no.

“At first glance I thought, flipping heck, what do I want these for? But he said that they were found behind a fireplace, and he thought I’d be interested because I’m interested in the history of the area.”

My ears pricked up. Four years earlier, a mile and half inland from Mrs Johnson’s, I’d discovered a loose floorboard in the under-stairs cupboard of a house I was renovating. Underneath were half a dozen ladies’ shoes dating to around the 1950s: all singles, all right, all, eerily, my size – five. Along with scraps of blown vinyl wallpaper and retro carpets, five of them went to the tip. One, for posterity, was put back. I’d asked an elderly neighbour whether she had ever known of a one-legged lady living in my house (or, indeed, a shifty looking man who might have a strange fetish for single shoes). No, but there was a man who lost a leg across the road. I’d all but forgotten about them when I heard of Mrs Johnson’s treasure.

Both my shoes and the ones from Gordon Street had been concealed seemingly on purpose and internet searches around those terms yielded better results than chatting with my elderly neighbour.

At Northampton Museum the Concealed Shoe Index – or, for dramatic effect, the CSI – contains around 1,900 records of shoes found in the fabric of buildings. One of the earliest examples is a Tudor shoe dating to 1540, found in an Oxford college, and some come from as far away as Egypt and Chile. Shoes are sometimes found alongside other objects, but no one has ever found a written record of why this custom was practised.

“For me that’s the fascinating thing,” says the museum’s senior shoe curator, Rebecca Shawcross. “The whole subject raises so many questions that we can’t answer. It’s a complete mystery.”

There are theories however. “The main idea, because they’re always incredibly well worn, is that the good spirit of the wearer goes into the shoe and that spirit is kept there because shoes are almost like a container. So that good spirit will ward off any evil spirit that may want to harm the house and its occupants,” says Shawcross. “And it’s thought that they weren’t hidden when the building was being built, because very, very rarely do they date to the same period of the building. They’re always later and we think that it’s probably when builders have come in. By putting a new roof on or extending they’ve exposed the house, they’ve opened it up, so as an offering up to whatever they believe in they add a shoe.”

If it was superstition, Blackpool would be an apt location for the custom. The coastal town was historically cut off from the rest of Lancashire and it was difficult for people to come and go, creating the ideal environment to cultivate magical thinking. In his 1876 History of the Fylde of Lancashire John Porter wrote: “It will scarcely surprise the reader to learn that superstition was rife amongst the populace… and that nothing was too absurd to be accepted as an omen, either good or evil, by our credulous forefathers.”

Dwellers near the coast believed life could only depart with the ebbing tide. A horseshoe nailed against a barn door prevented the entrance of witches. Cats were supposed to have the power of drawing the breath out of children when sleeping. A tooth, after extraction, was sprinkled with salt and thrown into the fire to ensure peace and comfort. Porter doesn’t mention concealing shoes but notes that a pair of them, placed under the bed, so that the tips of the toes alone were visible, formed a remedy for cramp.

But despite Lancashire’s deep-rooted superstitions it has only 36 recorded entries on the CSI – before mine and Johnson’s. That’s higher than Greater Manchester, with only two records, and just a solitary shoe in Merseyside. Yet Yorkshire has 75. Shawcross points out that the data is skewed towards Northamptonshire, where there’s a historical shoe industry and the folklore that goes with it, and adds that most discoveries will go unrecorded.

There were nods of recognition from one friend who revealed she had uncovered a shoe under a floorboard of a rented house in Blackpool’s North Shore and a local builder told me of two finds – one in Kirkham and one in an attic in South Shore. There are bound to be many more.

Although the exact reasoning behind concealing shoes in buildings remains a mystery, it is clear they hold much symbolic and superstitious significance. In weddings there are a number of customs involving them and tying shoes to the back of a wedding car is still occasionally practised. The origins of this are in Tudor times when guests would throw shoes at the newlyweds for luck. Less practised now is the custom of a bride’s father handing a pair of her shoes to the groom as a passing of responsibility and the bride’s throwing of a shoe over her shoulder has evolved into a less hazardous bouquet. And wedding guests weren’t the only ones to have shoes flung at them – tossing old boots at a departing ship was said to ensure a safe return home for sailors.

Shoes can also be considered a fertility symbol, embodied by the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in the shoe with dozens of children, and Freudian theory characteristically notes the unsettling symbolism of the shoe and the foot.

“We do find a lot of children’s shoes, and there’s three possible theories about why,” says Shawcross. “One is that their spirit was considered to be purer – they haven’t been sullied by adult life – so stronger and more powerful. Or maybe the child has died and they’re concealing it for that reason. The third is that if you find a child’s shoe in the master bedroom then that’s symbolising a wish for lots of children.”

If there’s an expert to be found on the topic of concealed shoes it’s June Swann, the original keeper of the boot and shoe collection at Northampton Museum and the founder of the CSI. She retired in 1988 and describes herself as “more than a bit ancient”, with a dodgy hip she’s “wondering if an old shoe could fix”.

“I dealt with a district nurse who said when she was working in Lancashire delivering babies she’d have neighbouring women come in and try on the mother’s shoes in order to catch the disease, if I can put it that way,” she says about a practice called smickling, apparently once common in the county. It’s one of a wealth of anecdotes Swann has uncovered over the years in an attempt to piece together the story of concealed shoes, which she first discovered in the 1950s.

“I got quite friendly with John Thornton, who was head of the boot and shoes department at Northampton College of Technology, and he happened to say one day that he had recently had four or five shoes come from chimneys, and I said: ‘That’s funny – so have I.’ Then we realised that these shoes weren’t left there by chimney sweeps, as I’d initially thought – it had to be deliberate. I started the card index because it was the only thing I could do – file the damn things.”

The other thing she did was talk to people. In the 1980s she was told by a Lancashire woman that shoes were put in the north-east corner, the side from which spirits gain entry, and Swann was sent on a secondary mission to record the positioning of shoes. It didn’t stack up – she only found two in the position her informant suggested. The same woman told her it was a well-known custom in the north of England. That it might be, she quips, but she remained her “sole informant”.

“I then did a lot of work trying to see if there was a pattern in when shoes were concealed,” says Swann, describing another rabbit hole. “From my own experience of living through the Second World War, people did get very superstitious during wars. When your friends and relations have trouble you try anything once – cross your fingers, throw salt over your shoulder, whatever. When you’re desperate, it’s worth trying.”

“It wasn’t a religion but it was damn close – it’s something profound you’re doing.”

Swann points out that the shoe is the only thing we wear that retains the shape and personality, “the essence”, of the wearer and several people over the years have told her that they had no problem dealing with the deceased’s belongings until it came to the shoes. Various informants told Swann the shoes would keep witches at bay and were thus a protective charm. She recalls an informant from 1974, a woman in Lincoln. “Her builder had asked her to give him an old shoe and she kept fobbing him off. Eventually she found a shoe that he could have and when they came to put it in the chimney they found that the builder’s Irish labourer had already put a bottle there. Once we found a snapped wine glass, a porridge bowl and a spoon to go with it, and a shoe, of course. These are all containers – they might keep evil contained.”

On a more hopeful note several informants told Swann the shoes were a good luck charm. A woman in Hertfordshire said that when discarding a pair of worn-out shoes one should go to water and one to fire, for good luck, leading Swann to question whether the chimney could count as fire and perhaps explaining why shoes are occasionally found washed up on Blackpool beach.

But the theory doesn’t explain why the second most popular place for concealing shoes is under floorboards. One informant told Swann that in the 1930s her grandmother had put a pair of her shoes under the floorboards when they moved house to ensure they settled there.

What seems certain is that there is no clear pattern to be found in the CSI. And while superstition may have informed the custom, Swann points out that ultimately it was done by ordinary people, from all walks of life.

“In all the years that I’ve dealt with this, from 1950 onwards, I have never used the words ritual, sorcery, witchcraft or magic – you can write that lot off. Treat it with respect was the last thing I wrote on the subject – whatever you do treat it with the respect that was shown by the people that were doing it. It wasn’t a religion but it was damn close to it – it’s something profound that you’re doing, it’s not just sticking an old shoe in a wall. When you think you can’t go anywhere without a pair of shoes, they are the most precious thing you’ve got.”

Swann says she’s encountered much secrecy surrounding the practice over the years and this probably explains why the meaning has become obscured. She regrets having done the research.

“It mucks up what people do. It puts ideas into other people’s heads. They put shoes in buildings because ‘June-so-and-so said people do that’. I’ve read extensively all my life and I’ve never come across a reference to it anywhere else. People didn’t write about it because they respected it.”

So, I ask with trepidation, should I not write about it? “Well, that’s on your own head,” she warns. “Tread carefully anyway.”

If you’ve discovered a concealed shoe contact Rebecca Shawcross at, and let Big Issue North know too

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