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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Concealed Shoes

Object 34 - Peter Hewitt explores the early modern practice of deliberately hiding shoes and other garments within buildings.

Peter Hewitt

In 1982, structural building work in the roof space at Hall’s Croft required a number of floorboards to be lifted.  In the exposed cavity, covered with a centuries old accumulation of dust, among seed husks and fruit stones, were found 6 fragments of shoes – from solitary soles to near complete items, their stitching, heels, and tongues caked in dust but essentially intact. At some point in the rich history of Hall’s Croft, these shoes had been deliberately placed under the floor, and had remained hidden within the building for all that time.

One fragment is of a very simple construction:  it consists of an upper (meaning the main part of the shoe) and the sole, which are stitched together via a rand – or thin folded piece of leather.  This could make the shoe water-tight whilst also protecting the stitching, which here seems to be coated in a brown substance.  This could be beeswax which was used by cordwainers (shoemakers) to coat lengths of hemp yarn.  Shoes of the early middle-ages sometimes used woollen thread, so it is possible that this shoe dates to sometime between the 12th to 14th centuries.

Baby shoe
Child's leather shoe. Possibly 16th century. Dimensions (L, W, H): 155mm x 80mm x 55mm.

Another shoe, nearly complete, is from Shakespeare’s time. It has two tabs which would have fastened together at the instep with a buckle (now lost).  Changes in construction in the late-medieval period suggest to me that this shoe can be firmly dated as 16th century, as it has a seam at the centre back (above the heel), which is unseen before this period.  It is no more than 12cm long and probably belonged to a very young child.

How can these caches of shoes be explained?  Any answer is speculative.  No contemporary records exist to explain this practice, but similar finds have been made in medieval and early modern buildings all over the country.  Over a thousand shoes have been catalogued by June Swann in various concealed locations, 22% of which were found under floors or above ceilings.

Shoemaker's workshop
A 16th century shoemaker's workshop – a pair of children’s shoes can be seen hanging up

Some explain these caches as representing the family who lived there.  A family of shoes – a large daddy shoe, together with a smaller mummy and still smaller baby shoe – is a pattern that is sometimes repeated in these finds.  At Hall’s Croft a family of shoes is certainly possible.  These well worn shoes may have been seen by early modern people to retain the shape of the wearer’s foot – and by extension retain the essence of the individual.  It is apt therefore that the tradesman in Shakespeare’s history play declares himself ‘a surgeon to old shoes’ suggesting a link between the health of garments and the health of the individual.  Garments, and particularly shoes, protect the wearer, and so early modern people may have understood shoes to be inherently protective, which when concealed in the fabric of the house could protect it against fire, ruin or witchcraft.

Find out more about the early modern practice of deliberately hiding shoes and other garments within buildings

Truly, sir, all that I live by is with the awl: I
meddle with no tradesman's matters, nor women's
matters, but with awl. I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon
to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I
recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon
neat's leather have gone upon my handiwork.
(Julius Caesar, Act I Scene I)