If the shoe fits

By Kristy Turner, Museum Manager and Curator

Many interesting items are donated to the Museum of Dartmoor Life and each has a story to tell. This small childs boot measuring just 19cm long was discovered up the chimney of a local cottage. It appears to be from the early Victorian era and has obviously been well worn before being hidden. This practice is not uncommon and shoes squirrelled away in the fabric of buildings have been discovered all over the UK and Europe. No one knows exactly why as it was believed that talking about it would take away its power, but it seems they were used as talismans to ward off evil spirits and witches. Often children’s shoes were used and this may be the boot of a child who died and the shoe was put there to protect the rest of their family. You can imagine the heartache of the mother as she holds this tiny boot in her hands and hides it in her chimney breast in the hope of not losing another daughter or son.

Some believe they were fertility symbols to help women get pregnant. Shoes have long been associated with fertility hence the old woman who lived in a shoe nursery rhyme ended up having far too many children. It is the reason that shoes used to be tied to the back of newly wed’s carriages and now cars. It also used to be said that if you wanted to have a child, try on a pregnant woman’s shoes!

But why chimneys? It may be that this was the one entrance to a property that could not be sealed up, therefore witches could fly in. Some say that the essence of the human remains in the shoe leather and their smell would confuse the witches who would get trapped inside. Obviously witches were very small and unable to go backwards!

Many of you may be familiar with the idea of house elves from the Harry Potter books, but people did believe that you could attract brownies or fairies, to take care of your home, with offerings of footwear.

This may all seem like nonsense to many of you but people were very superstitious and would do anything to protect their families. Even today the museum has been told about shoes but the owners are not willing to remove them from their homes in case bad luck falls upon them.