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.
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?