Magazine

Concealed shoes: Australian settlers and an old superstition

  • 16 March 2012
  • From the section Magazine
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Items of clothing found concealed in Australian buildings tell the story of a battle waged by early settlers with the evil spirits they feared were lying in wait in their unfamiliar surroundings.

A shoe hidden in a bridge. A prisoner's uniform stashed under a staircase. Toys concealed in an attic. A dead cat secreted into a roof cavity.

Together, they sound like the disparate ingredients of a gothic horror novel: Stephen King meets Anne Rice, or Stephenie Meyer.

And they do share something of the aforementioned authors' taste in the twilight world of the supernatural.

That's because they're some of the bizarre artefacts discovered at sites across Australia, all linked to a mysterious world of folk magic.

Folk, in that they were hidden by ordinary people. Magic, because they were designed to ward off evil spirits.

Discovering them has been a six-year endeavour for Australian historian Ian Evans.

"This is all part of the ancient practice of defeating witches and evil by placing artefacts in those parts of buildings where harmful sprits might lurk," says Evans.

One of the most spectacular and unexpected locations for such a discovery was the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

In the south-east pylon, just along from the Opera House, workmen digging an access tunnel came across the remains of a child's shoe.

The heel and sole most likely date from the 1920s, when the bridge was being built.

Evans dismisses the idea it was dropped there accidentally. He is convinced "it was concealed by a builder or stonemason to protect against evil forces".

Young children did not work on the project and the shoe was of high quality, both factors suggesting it was planted deliberately, he says.

Image caption Jail inmates where this shirt was found may have feared wild animals' cries

The shoe is just one of the items unearthed at about 130 sites across Australia, from bridges, to houses, to prisons - or at least, one former prison.

A few blocks away from the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the imposing, vivid orange structure of the Hyde Park Barracks.

Built to house some 50,000 unfortunate convicts transported from the UK between 1819 and the mid-1840s, the jail was among the first substantial structures constructed in the city.

On the second floor, under the boards of a wooden staircase, workers found a striped prisoner's shirt.

Evans rejects the idea that the shirt could have been put under the stairs by accident. Just like the Harbour Bridge shoe, he believes it was hidden for a purpose.

Today the barracks are surrounded by smoked-glass skyscrapers, back then they would have been surrounded by marshland and wild animals - a clue, says Evans, as to why items would have been hidden.

"You have to remember this was a strange, alien, land for these convicts, cut-off from their loved ones in England and they were most likely terrified by the noises and other sounds around the jail, so they sought refuge in mystical customs they'd brought with them," he says.

There are four themes connecting all these hidden items - England, fear, youth and ignorance.

• England, in that the practice of concealing objects in buildings to ward off evil spirits was widespread in England from the 17th Century. The immigrants were continuing an existing custom.

• Fear, because the immigrants were terrified of losing their children to illness, which many associated with evil spirits. Health care was all but non-existent. Trusting their own tried and tested rituals made comforting sense.

• Most of the items found have been children's shoes, or clothes. The reasoning here is that the power and innocence of the young would be strong enough to defeat the evil.

• The immigrants believed in God and went to church, but were most were poorly educated and drawn towards superstition as an insurance policy to help them confront the omnipresent, destructive forces of evil.

One of the most remarkable examples of the custom was found at an isolated country house in Tasmania.

There, the owner, Alan Cooper, had his curiosity aroused by the discovery of a single shoe in an attic space.

"I thought, initially, it might be a rat or a possum who dragged it in," says Alan, "but when we found 20 shoes, we thought it was either a possum with a shoe fetish, or something else."

Plumping for "something else", Alan contacted Ian Evans.

Together, they delved into the dark recesses and voids of this 19th Century dwelling and unearthed a trove of hidden items.

As well as the shoes, there were toys and hats, all from the 19th Century, and even a dead cat.

Image caption Twenty pairs were hidden in a house in Western Creek, Tasmania

Such was the secret nature of the items' location, Evans says ritual magic can be the only explanation.

"The people in this house were terrified," he says. "I haven't seen so many items in one place anywhere else."

Evans points out that shoes are the only piece of clothing that retain their human shape after being taken off. He says they act as a defiant, permanent, reminder to the spiritual world, of the primacy of human beings.

It seems the inhabitants of this house and the other locations, made every effort to put the items in hard-to-get-at places - behind walls, up chimneys, in attic spaces, in what they might have seen as the weak spots of a building. Places where a spirit could most easily gain access and lurk with menacing intentions.

Evans believes many more items, possibly thousands, remain hidden in the country's older settlements.

"Renovation and conservation of buildings are the keys to finding more," he says.

Australia's old houses haven't divulged all their secrets yet. Macabre spirits may now be consigned to the world of horror fiction, but the weapons used to tackle them will continue to resurface in the real world.

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