Concealment Shoes

My daughter had a little pair of white shoes.

They were the best money could buy, made of soft leather and trimmed with little garlands of blue flowers.

Maddie wore them when she was three, for her cousin’s christening, and thereafter she wore them with every pretty dress in the dressing up box. She, and we, loved them. Such pretty little things.

I am gifted as neither archivist nor curator. When the shoes became too small, we moved and one was lost. Faithfully, and for posterity, her grandmother held on to the one which was left.

Such tiny shoes.

About a month ago, Phil helped his mother clear out the loft ready for new insulation to go in. We used to live in the house, and when we rummaged through one box of odds and ends, what should we find but the other shoe.

Our joy at reuniting them was disproportionate to our find. Here were two little white shoes, fit for a princess who had long outgrown them. We were overjoyed. Shoes are so personal to their wearer. Just to look at them conjured a merry, curly-haired little toddler and the readiest of smiles.

A shoe is better than a snapshot. It is the most concrete reminder of someone. We all have pairs of shoes that are far more eloquent of their owner than any diary. They are poignantly worn, shaped to the foot of a beloved.

Perhaps that is why, for hundreds if not thousands of years, this is the object people choose to hide in the fabric of buildings.

I know about this because of a lady called June Swann.

June left college in 1949 with a degree in geography. She had no idea what to do next. And then a job came up at Northampton Museum. Oh, well, she thought. It’ll do for the time being.

And there began a tale. She was asked to reorganise the stores and came across the museum’s shoe collection. When she couldn’t classify them, she headed for the bookshelf and found, to her amazement, that there was a dearth of books about footwear through the centuries.

And so she set out to find out more.

And more.

Finally she found herself a world-class specialist. She stayed at the museum for 48 years and even after retirement consulted nationally and internationally to hallowed institutions like London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

in 1957, Ms Swann made an astonishing discovery.

She was talking to the head of Northampton Technology College’s Boot and Shoe Department, John Thornton. Together they realised that each had been sent, independently, seven shoes on seven separate occasions, for identification.

Most had been found in chimneys.

In her seminal article ‘Concealed Shoes In Buildings, she relates: “I recall being particularly puzzled by a small pair of child’s boots, found in the thatch of a cottage in Stanwick, Northamptonshire, and wondering what sort of people allowed a child so small to lose its boots on the roof.”

They were on to something. By 1995 the total number of concealed shoes was more than 1100.

They have been hidden in everything from a humble cottage to a great cathedral, with several town halls graced. The shoes are invariably well worn and patched. Shoes have always been expensive – at least a week’s wages – and people did not part with them lightly.

They are found in fire places,  by windows and under floors to name but a few locations. Swann meticulously sets out the facts of the practice of concealing, from proportions of each kind, to locations, to anecdotal evidence that this was just something builders did, as a matter of course.

And she includes one very strange story.

David Papilon was a well-off young man. He moved into Papilon Hall, Leicestershire, in the first half of the 18th century. He was a magnetic character by all accounts: but, the story goes, he seemed to have hypnotic powers: and the local villagers were terrified of him.

It seems he kept a mistress.

‘Kept’ is the operative word. For the Spanish beauty is said never to have been allowed out of the hall; only to take exercise on the leaded roof of the great house.

She died in 1715, but there is no record  of her death; or indeed, of where she was buried.

On her deathbed – however that was arrived at – she is said to have laid a curse, intricately interwoven with her shoes. She vowed that catastrophe would befall anyone who tried to remove the shoes from the house.

Ever since , when the deeds of the house were handed on, so were the shoes: one pair with green and silver brocade, and  a pair of red clogs with silver embroidery.

In 1866 someone forgot this little detail and the house was filled with unexplained phenomena. Terrified, the incumbent family brought in the vicar, who traced the shoes, and had them locked behind an iron grille high up on the wall in the house.

The shoes went off to a Paris exhibition in 1878 and there was a repetition of events. The shoes were hurriedly returned.

And so time marched on. Sir Edwin Lutyens remodelled Papilon Hall in the early twentieth century: the shoes were removed and the trouble started once more.  During the alterations, in 1903, a skeleton of a woman is said to have been found within the walls.

The shoes live in a museum now. I wonder how the house is faring?

We all have a pair of favourite shoes: and our deepest social memory tells us they are something exceptional. A journal of our lives, wrought in leather and broken in by a rounded life.

That favourite pair of yours: where will they turn up next?


47 thoughts on “Concealment Shoes

  1. As far as my own self is concerned, shoe is a four-letter word. Well, I suppose that’s true for anyone who can spell, but hopefully, you know what I mean. . .

    I’ll give you a track-back to a post I wrote about a year ago, which explains my relationship with shoes more fully.

    (There are a few “dated” references in there, but the foot sstuff still holds true!

    BTW, one of my favorite TV programs is “Ghost Hunters.” Last year in an episode in which the TAPS gang was called in to search for what was haunting a particular home, the owners had found a pair of 17th century shoes hidden beneath the old fireplace! They thought that it was evidence of their haunting, but the Ghost Hunters found out the same information you imparted so well today! Interesting. . .

    1. Thanks for that, Paula 🙂 I’m not a Prada or Louboutin gal, but I think the shoe does time as a universal symbol. The hiding behaviour which has been going on for 1000 years shows what a complex relationship we have with our footwear…

  2. I loved this. I am an incorrigible shoe collector, can’t mention here which are my favourites; the others may hear and start a bit of a commotion and Our Alice has been, so the house is all nice and tidy. But I will haunt anyone who tries to wear them after I’ve gone.

  3. Ew, I love shoes. (9AA means high expense and difficult to fit, though, so not too many pairs in this girl’s wardrobe!)

    This touches on many things… lost shoes, found shoes, mystery and history….

    One of the most moving books I ever read was about the Chinese historical habit of foot binding and the shoes that feet were forced into. Quite horrific.

    1. I once heard a Radio Four programme about it, sounded nasty. I ‘m an eight, Pseu…the only time things are good for you and I is in the sales when there are rafts of big shoes left on the stands…

      1. Sadly most ‘normal’ shoes are too wide…. but yes, occasional bargains can be found 🙂

    2. Foot binding was apparently outlawed in 1911. When I visited China in 1986 I saw a group of little old ladies with bound feet whilst visiting the Forbidden City. I could not believe what I was seeing, and will remember it always. They must have been the last of their generation to have their feet bound.
      As usual a really interesting piece of writing Kate.

      1. What an amazing comment, Rosemary, thank you. I have never seen someone with bound feet. It must be incredibly restricting. I must search for some old footage: China must have been a world of new experiences.

  4. What a FUN post about a rather bizarre phenomenon.
    I have never saved old shoes, baby shoes, or worn out shoes.
    I’ve never hidden a shoe anywhere for someone to find.
    Why people would do so is somewhat beyond my ken.

    Maybe it’s because I dislike wearing shoes.
    In shoes, my toes feel like they are suffocating.
    That’s why I moved to Florida.
    Here, I can run around barefoot for most of the year.

    Happy toes -> Happy feet -> Happy me.

    For more Happy Feet:

    1. The shoes were hidden so they would not be found,Nancy: I think we’re looking at superstition here 🙂 Isn’t it interesting that everyone has a post about shoes (or lack of them) ?

  5. Fun story! Makes me want to try blessing a pair of shoes instead of cursing them and hiding them away for the surprise benefit of any who live near them. Seems a better use for them.

    Actually, I think my favorite part of the story was the woman with a degree in geography who so successfully ended up studying historical footwear.

    1. I know what you mean, Patti: hiding shoes, and all the stories which go along with the practice, feels very much like a people trying to make sense of a baffling world. I love your idea of hiding shoes with blessings on them! Perhaps thats how the little shoes in the thatch got there 🙂
      I love the historical shoe expert. What an amazing job from such humble beginnngs!

  6. What a cool post. I’d love to know what sort of unexplained phenomena befell the house each time the shoes were removed. That’s some curse!

    In the US, you’ll sometimes find shoes on the side of the road. For a while my brother and I took pictures of any roadside shoes we found. If he took the picture, he’d send it to me, and I’d repay the favor with my next shoe spotting.

    Earlier this year, I invited my blog readers to join us in the game. Now, I have a collection of photos of roadside shoes from all over the world!


    1. Fantastic post and lovely little picture…I wonder how they find their way there, Maura? You remind me of a poignant sculpture we have on Folkestone promenade. The artist Tracey Emin made a cast iron sculpture of a little girl’s shoe and fixed it right next to the beach.People would stop and examine it and try to pick it up. It’s tight at the bottom or an arts review post here

      1. This reminds me of the shoes on the Danube promenade in Budapest. An extremely poignant memorial to honour the Jews who fell victim to Facist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest. It depicts the victims shoes left behind on the banks when they fell into the river during WW11

      2. Another lead for me to chase up, Rosemary, thank you. It ‘s amazing, the associations that arise from a little piece of leather sewn together…

  7. I do love a good mystery… I expect the Spanish beauty’s deathbed curse was invented later to explain the (otherwise) unexplained phenomena around removal of her shoes. 🙂 I’ve never really had a thing about shoes but, interestingly, have been cast (in my amateur theater group) as a somewhat ditsy young-to-middlin’ woman who dotes on strappy sandals. Who knew? 😉

  8. I just found this: in relation to the folklore of hidden shoes –

    One suggestion is that they were a fertility symbol. For example, Roy Palmer in his book The Folklore of Hereford and Worcester cites a very recent case from Broadwas-on-Teme where in 1960 a midwife refused to allow a young woman to remove her shoes until her child was born.15 Merrifield, discussing shoes, noted the old rhyme, ‘there was an old woman who lived in a shoe. . .’ as being further evidence of the connection between shoes and fertility. He also quotes a case from Lancashire where it was apparently not unusual for women wishing to conceive to wear the shoes of those who had just given birth in the hope of ‘catching’ something of the wearer. Another slightly more bizarre account is a method once used by young ladies to invoke dreams of their future partners. They were said to pin their garters to a wall and arrange their shoes in the form of a ‘T’ and sing a short rhyme.17 Just how successful this was I don’t know but it reaffirms the link between shoes and fertility yet again.”

    1. Hey, Pseu, that might explain something:

      Shoes are indicative of fertility.
      I like running around barefoot and have never lived in a shoe.

      Maybe that’s why I never had kids.

      1. I had forgotten all about tying shoes on the back of wedding cars. How often do you see that happen now? Newly married couples do not depart straight after the reception now to go off on their honeymoon, but tend to stay around until the guests have left. They then vanish up to the hotel bedroom which they probably slept in the night before anyway. This is an example of how custom is affected by social change.

  9. These boots were meant for talking?

    Quite some feat to put a lot of sole into a tale laced with the well-heeled and upper-class ahd down-at-heel as well! I enjoyed the read.

  10. Hi, Kate, you very sweetly visited my site the other day and left a gracious comment. I’ve been [ahem!] “haunting” your site on and off since. 🙂 I remember – in the foggy distance – a fairy tale; can’t recall which one, in which the king caught the princess kissing a fellow and clapped his shoes together above their heads – which somehow made it official. The “why that works” was never explained, the story just went on from there. Any idea? ~ peace & joy, Deborah

    1. Deborah, thank you for your visits:-) lovely to officially hear from you! I’ve never heard the tale but research is my middle name, and if I can’t track it down I have a shrewd feeling my friend Pseu, who comments here, can. It sounds a fantastic story. And so very reliant upon shoes…

  11. What a conversation you started on shoes!

    Your story about Maddie’s little shoes brought to mind a pair of red Mary Janes that our Jennifer had when she was about 5. We bought them after seeing the movie Annie, which Jennifer loved so much she was Annie for Halloween and had every book and record and sang the songs by heart, especially Tomorrow, which pretty near drove us nuts! Well, she wore the shoes and wore the shoes, pretending she was Annie. I was horrified when I realized they were several sizes too small. Not a red-letter day for this indulgent but loving mother, I’ll say. ha!

  12. I love shoes. My favorites were black patent pumps with a very high heel that I got when I was sixteen. With them on, I felt so grown up. But since I’m now confined to sneakers or old-lady shoes from Amsterdam (the U.S. doesn’t make extra-narrows any more), all my shoes would say is that the wearer’s feet hurt. I should have tossed the patent pumps onto the roof and opted for flats.

    Fascinating story. I can’t stop wondering about that poor mistress.

  13. How absolutely fascinating, Kate! Didn’t they also use to immure bodies in the walls of buildings? Maybe there is a connection there. Visiting your site is like a day at a musuem – wonderful!

    1. Thank you BlueBee! Life is full of this stuff, isn’t it? The link I left – the original article, goes into body-burying, I think. This just skims the surface of some fairly dark practices…

  14. What a interesting post Kate, thank you. I’m blessed with non-petite feet so tend to clad them for comfort not speed and I fear that my offerings will end up on the scrap heap one day 😉

  15. cursed shoes! i remember them in my shinier days. towering heels, sprained ankles, bad posture – all in the hope of gazing taller and elongating the leg.

    i loved this read…

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