We moved into our one-bedroom railway cottage, in North Watford, in October 2005. In 2007 we converted the large bathroom into a much smaller bathroom and a small bedroom, making the house a two bedroom house.
I was at work when I received a phone call from my brother-in-law — who was carrying out the work to the house. He had just knocked down the chimney breast in the newly created small bedroom to make more room, when a small, and very old shoe fell out of the chimney flue. My brother-in-law assumed it was a chimney sweep's shoe. It broke his heart as the child's shoe was only the size of one of his two young son's shoes. The thought of a small child being sent up such a narrow chimney filled him with horror.
The small, leather shoe was half deteriorated. You can see the little nails that the shoe was made with in the sole. The leather is rock hard now. It looked well worn.
After much research, contacting The Watford Museum, St. Albans Museum, The V&A Museum and searching the internet, The Northampton Shoe Museum came up with some answers.
Northampton Museum had similar examples in their collection that date to the 1840s – 1850s, which was around the time when the house was built which is believed to be in the 1860s, as shown on the borough’s local listings.
It turns out that it is not a chimney sweep’s shoe. In the 19th Century it was common to put a shoe in the brickwork of doorways and chimneys to keep away evil spirits and bad luck. Children's shoes were often hidden. Their spirit contained in the shoe/boot was considered to be purer and more innocent, and therefore a more powerful deterrent.
It is all theory, as no one has ever found any written evidence made at the time by people to explain exactly why they did it. A number of people who have done research on the practice believe that even talking about it is a bad thing to do as the power/spirit contained in the footwear loses its potency. They are quite horrified at the thought of people removing them.
Northampton Museum identified the shoe as a child's lace shoe of nailed and sewn construction. They believe that it had been repaired, as many concealed shoes were and probably would have had a low, one lift heel. It is made from thick leather and is a hard wearing example.
Research revealed that a shoemaker was recorded as having lived in the house from the 1871 census to the 1891 census.
Our lucky shoe is now on the Concealed Shoe Index at Northampton Museum, but the shoe it self remains with the house! We have added to the tradition by placing one of my brother-in-law’s son’s old shoes in the chimney with a note in it explaining why we have done it. I wonder if anyone will ever find it!
[Added by Glen: 9:31pm 5 Jan 2009]
[Updated by Glen: 10:10pm 4 Feb 2009]