We’ve been doing these Antiques Clothes Show things for a while now, but this installment here might be the first one to focus on a real deal antique.
Expertly written by Deborah Abramson (the partner of William Kroll of Tender fame), it concerns an old leather boot found in the walls of their house, and it might just be the best one of these we’ve ever received.
Pour yourself a big mug of tea, put your feet up and prepare to be whisked away to Victorian England…
We found a shoe hidden in our wall last March, when we had a wood burning stove installed in the downstairs fireplace of our Victorian terrace house. Alistair, our chimney guy, found the chimney blocked with rubble and needed to clear it. But the shoe wasn’t in the chimney; it was bricked into the wall adjacent to the fireplace on the first floor. Alistair found it when he started knocking holes in our wall, looking for the vertical channel of the chimney.
Alistair is tall, early 50s, and full of verve and swagger in his navy boiler suit. He has the air of an actor merely pretending to be in stove installation, and for good reason: he learned the trade as a cover during his years as a police detective investigating fraud in the construction industry. Reporting back to me as the chimney situation became increasingly messy, he explained that he hadn’t found the blockage in our chimney, just an old shoe. He asked permission to 'open up' the chimney breast in the attic and then gave me an ironic raise of the eyebrow before striding toward the stairs.
"Can I see the shoe?"
"I chucked it in the bin, but I’ll pull it back out for you."
The shoe is beautiful. A black leather Chelsea boot, impregnated with mortar dust and the ochre of brick, creased and worn thin and sliced open along its length from toe box almost to ankle. A ritual object.
More observations about the shoe from my partner, who happens to be something of an expert in historical British menswear: it’s a galosh cut with full leather counters, fully canvas lined, heavily nailed heel, and a nicely welted sole. Its most surprising detail is a scalloped panel mimicking the design of a button boot’s placket. Oh, and it’s a left shoe, men’s size.
The wall cavity is sealed while we are busy bringing the neighbors round to look at the shoe, so there is no chance to reinstate it. We set the shoe in a place of honor and make plans to acquire a perspex vitrine.
We wonder if the shoe could have been bricked into our house by the original builders. How old can a shoe with elastic gussets be? Quite old, we learn: J. Sparkes Hall, bookmaker to Queen Victoria, patented an ankle boot with elasticated sides in 1837. (This might be the prototype.) It’s possible that our shoe has been hidden next to the chimney for almost a hundred and fifty years.
We Google the phrase, “shoe hidden in wall,” and are pointed to the Northampton Museum. Northampton has been a center of British shoe manufacturing since at least the English Civil War (1642–1651), and the town’s museum houses the largest collection of shoe-related artefacts in the world. So we email a few photos of our shoe to the museum, and Rebecca Shawcross, Shoe Resources Officer, writes back:
"Dear William and Deborah
Thank you very much for sending me the details of your exciting concealed boot find.
We do indeed have a concealed shoe index here at the museum, which was set up by Miss June Swann who was the shoe curator here at the museum from 1950 until she retired in 1988. At the moment the index stands at approximately 1,900 entries from all over the U.K and also records concealed shoe finds in North America, Canada, and a number of countries in Europe including France, Spain and Poland.
I will certainly add your find to the index in due course.
It is what I know as a side elastic boot. Such a boot style with the elastic gussets was patented in 1837 by Mr J Sparkes Hall. It has the cloth boot pulls at the front and back to help pull the boot on. It is typical of a concealed find being very well worn. The theory is that the good human spirit goes into the shoe and that good spirit will protect the house from evil spirits wanting to harm the house or its occupants. Concealed children’s shoes are popular because their spirit was considered purer and therefore more powerful. It’s an intriguing subject and incredibly popular. It also raises many questions that cannot now and probably never will be answered in full. It’s highly unlikely that the occupants hid the shoe as it is usually builders who through building work, extensions or renovations have exposed the house and so they need to make amends of some sort. I think your boot is probably 1860s. It’s a great example. Will you be putting it back?
Our shoe is one of thousands of “concealed shoes,” and it probably dates from the 1860s. This revelation gives us a faint but tantalizing sense of the people who built our house. They might have bricked the shoe into our wall as a protective charm. Alistair agrees with Rebecca Shawcross on this point. June Swann, one of Shawcross’ predecessors at Northampton, was the first historian to systematically document concealed shoes. In a document shared by Shawcross, Swann was more equivocal about the motivations of builders:
"As the practise covers such a long period, it is probably that more than one reason is involved, the number of superstitions connected with shoes being infinite. Some may been sacrificial objects, such as the one with the chickens, and four examples are known of concealed shoes which have been deliberately cut – one, the upper of a substantial shoe, had been cut many times, which would have required a very sharp knife and considerable effort."
Our shoe, too, has been cut: there is the long slit from toe box almost to ankle, and there are also two places in which rectangular pieces of leather have been excised, revealing the canvas lining. Swann’s review of her concealed shoe findings mentions a few shoe modification practices that disappeared as shoes became more affordable in the Twentieth Century. The leather on a pair of shoes was often cut for comfort – crosses used to make space over corns and bunions, and slits to enlarge a pair that were too small. And then there is the shoe “translator,” someone who would collect old shoes, salvage as many pieces as possible (sole, bits of leather, buttons, etc.), and construct ‘new’ shoes out of these pieces.
It’s possible that the missing rectangular pieces from our shoe were used to patch another pair – at the very least, they seem like they were removed carefully. The slit, however, appears to be a mutilation, serving perhaps to make the shoe useless to any evil spirit that might encounter it. At least that’s what a woman from Lancashire told Swann in the 1980s.
We’re not superstitious people, but the shoe is the heart of our house. During this cultural moment when one feels a strong urge to reject the disposable object for the one that will last, a concealed shoe, revealed, is the perfect household fetish object.
 In The Book of the Feet, Sparkes Hall wrote, “After several experiments in wire and India rubber I succeeded in getting the exact elasticity required and subsequent improvements in materials and workmanship have combined to make the Elastic Boot the most perfect thing of its kind.”