When builders began tearing apart the roof on parts of the Bar Convent a few months ago, to carry out much-needed remedial work, they found something that surprised and puzzled them. In among the dirt and debris was a battered and tattered child’s shoe. It was clearly quite old – not many modern shoes have had their soles repaired with tiny nails – but there was no clue as it how it got up into the roof space.
It’s technically a Derby Boot and would have belonged to a child of about nine. Although parts of it have crumbled away, it is largely intact.
Alongside it were some other, apparently random, items: a copy of the Daily Telegraph from 1867, a single page from a 1939 calendar and a catalogue of jelly-moulds from the 1950s. So whose shoe was it and how (and why) did it end up tucked under the eaves of the Bar Convent in York?
Apparently it’s all down to the luck. The shoe was mostly likely put there during building work in the 1860s, to bring good fortune to the building. It’s a tradition that goes back to at least the 16th century, with a similar shoe found in a roof space at an Oxford college that dates back to 1540.
It was thought that the “goodness” of a young child’s shoe would help protect from evil spirits; that the inherent innocence of the child would be carried over into this object. And it’s no coincidence that is a right shoe – these were thought to be luckier than the left.
There is no formal, written account of why shoes were placed up in roof spaces but lists of the 1900 “concealed shoes” from across the country have been compiled by researchers. One is in Northampton Museum, which sits at the heart of England’s old shoe industry, and another is at the University of Hertfordshire. The convent shoe has now been added to both.
Why the other items? It’s possible that the Telegraph was put there to mark the date of the building work (and the placement of the shoe). The other items might have been put there later to mark dates when the space was visited.
It does reflect how religion and folklore often cross-over, although we don’t know that it was the sisters themselves who put the shoe up in the roof. But it’s now gone on display in our Exhibition and is another, quirky part of the Bar Convent’s long history.
Some useful links: