So it’s Friday the 13th. Are you the superstitious type? Avoid black cats? Don’t walk under ladders? Believe the earth is inhabited not just by us but also by unseen devils?
You are not alone in these feelings nor is it new. For just about as long as humans have walked upright, there have been beliefs in evil spirits and attempts to find methods for keeping them at bay.
These beliefs are not often considered in the European heritage of Sydney. The truth is that a strange practise of concealing ritual objects in the walls and secret spaces of houses to ward off evil spirits appears to have not been uncommon in colonial Sydney and indeed right up into the 1930s.
Houses all over Australia have been revealing the existence of this custom, imported from England by settlers and later migrants. In the UK, many hundreds of houses have been found to have secret stashes of talisman like objects to ward off witches and evil spirits. Most commonly these were things like pieces of clothing, particularly shoes or hats, dead cats or bottles of home brew potions.
The shoes and hats are thought to be used as they are very personal items, moulded by the body, containing the essence of the wearer and therefore detected by spirits easily. If they are then concealed in hidden spaces, behind walls, under floor boards, in chimneys or roof cavities it is thought that this would confuse the spirits as to where the people were and thereby keep them away from the actual families. In Australia (and the UK) shoes are particularly common and were apparently seen as a type of trap for the devil, a belief that harks back to a priest in England named John Schorn in the 13th Century.
Cats on the other hand had long been thought to act as witches familiars, allowing them access to houses and the people within. They were a link to the otherworld.
This sort of behaviour can be understood in England and Europe, with centuries of myth and fairytales. From our perspective, Sydney seems not to have these old world connections. But old habits die hard and looking through the eyes of colonial settlers, Sydney must have been a crazy, scary place with all types of new evils lurking in the dark bush.
A historian in Newcastle (Ian Evans), who specialises in this type of research, has recorded hundreds of examples of hidden charms in houses in Newcastle, Sydney, rural NSW, Tassie and Victoria.
The houses range from simple workers cottages to grand mansions like Elizabeth Bay House, convict stations including Hyde Park Barracks and even inside the pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Mostly they are a single shoe, placed somewhere that they could not have just been dropped into, like inside a chimney on a brick ledge, or in the roof cavity behind a wall, or under the floor directly between the joists.
Many of the items appear to have placed by tradesmen as houses were finished off. As a last job, they appear to try to protect the house and its occupants from evil.
Others, such as a convict shirt and bible found stashed in the Hyde Park Barracks give an insight into the mental stress that many of these convicts were under. Not only were they torn from family and loved ones, had to work long, hard hours and watch their back against their desperate companions, they also feared what they couldn’t see.
In fact the Barracks gave up possibly the most curious find. During archaeological work, a matchbox with the partial skeletons of five mice was found beneath the floor on level 3 near a door leading to the dorm rooms.
A last ditch effort perhaps to keep the devil outside while they slept.