Skip to content
You are here: Home | All | Collections | The concealed revealed

The concealed revealed

Why were shoes concealed?

Pair of men's black leather Blucher ankle boots. 1840s. Found under floor of the old military prison in Weedon Barracks.

Men's leather military Blucher boots, 1840s. Found under the floor of an old military prison at Weedon Barracks, Northamptonshire

What were the concealers hoping to achieve?

The widespread practice of concealing shoes has over many years attracted a variety of theories and modern interpretations, but the true reasons are still difficult to understand. This is because no written records have been found to explain why people did it.

Perhaps no records have been found because secrecy was an essential part of the practice. Miss Swann, former Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection, was unable to discover any strong evidence why shoes were concealed. She wrote in 1996 that she ‘eventually realised that…the secrecy continually encountered suggests that the superstition, if disclosed, ceases to be effective.’

Shoes as protective objects

For many years shoes have been viewed as protective objects. Hidden shoes are usually well worn. They are very personal items which, as Miss Swann states, ‘retain the shape, personality, the essence of the wearer.’ These well-worn shoes were thought to have been infused with the good spirit of the wearer. Once hidden in a weak spot in the house – above doors and windows, in the roof space and in chimneys - the good spirit would help ward off any evil spirits that might try and harm the house or its occupants. But shoes were expensive items, and in trying to give them as much life as possible, were more likely to be handed down, repaired and altered until they were no longer able to be worn. They were then discarded in the easiest way possible. Why are shoes considered a symbol of protection? One theory is that evil spirits don’t like the smell of burning leather, so a hidden shoe inside a chimney would symbolise the burning of shoes. Perhaps the idea of protection comes from the story of John Schorn, a parish priest from Buckinghamshire, who is believed to have conjured a devil into a boot. The boot is now a spirit trap as it is container shaped. The shoe could also have been hidden as a diversion for when the evil spirit ‘sees’ the shoe and attacks it believing it to be a member of the household but is trapped instead. It is unlikely that the occupants hid them but a practice that builders might do during renovations to bring good luck in their work.

Shoes as fertility charms

Shoes sometimes have been associated with fertility. Children’s shoes may have been hidden to ensure fertility or to specifically protect the household’s children. Perhaps they are hidden because it had been worn by a child who had died. Many of us keep our first baby shoe for sentimental reasons.

Current thinking

Current thinking suggests less and less that they were specifically apotropaic objects (ones that have the power to avert evil influences or bad luck), and that they were more likely connected to notions of good luck and hope.