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Convict Shirt, National Museum of Australia Ian Evans, Author provided

These walls can talk: Australian history preserved by folk magic


The 160,023 convicts transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868 left leg-irons and chains a’plenty, but surprisingly little in the way of clothing. Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum has a jacket and there are just three of the striped cotton shirts that we know the convicts wore.

Were it not for a strange folk magic ritual, unknown and unsuspected until recently, the number of surviving convict garments would be sparse indeed. The three examples survived because they were carefully concealed within the walls of houses or barracks.

The concealment of the convict shirts and many other objects throughout Australia is part of my PhD thesis, the result of six year’s work in which I located and photographed deliberately concealed objects in old houses and buildings throughout Australia.

But why conceal a shirt in a wall?

Two of the surviving convict shirts were discovered within the structure of Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks in 1980, found by tradesmen involved in preparing the building for its current use as a heritage flagship for the Historic Houses Trust – or, as it now prefers to be known, Sydney Living Museums.

third shirt came from inside a wall at a former convict supervisor’s residence at Granton, north of Hobart. This garment, now in the collection of the National Museum of Australia, was found in a wall cavity adjacent to a fireplace. It was probably placed there while the house was being constructed in 1830.

The house was part of a major project to build a causeway across the Derwent River to enable easier access to farms and settlements in the Midlands. Some 200 convicts, under heavy guard and in chains, were employed on the construction of the causeway.

Many objects have been found at Woodbury, near Oatlands, Tasmania Ian Evans

Many objects have been found at Woodbury, near Oatlands, Tasmania Ian Evans, Author provided

The practice of concealing garments, shoes, toys, trinkets and dead cats in houses and other buildings can be traced back to Britain - where it dates back to the 1400s and probably earlier than that. Settlers and convicts carried this ritual to Australia and North America as part of their cultural baggage.

Young woman’s boot, from Woodbury, north of Oatlands, Tasmania Ian Evans

Young woman’s boot, from Woodbury, north of Oatlands, Tasmania Ian Evans, Author provided

The journey of this ritual to the United States, England and Australia forms the focus of a book edited by English historian Ronald Hutton, titled Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain to be published by Macmillan in England this year.

It takes up where projects such as the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project, established by the The Textile Conservation Centre in the UK, leave off. Where the DCG catalogues discovered objects and academic writing on the topic in Britain, titles such as M. Chris Manning’s The Material Culture of Ritual Concealments in the United States (2014) examine the practice in the US.

So why bury garments, shoes and cats in wall cavities? The purpose of these mundane objects was to decoy evil spiritual forces away from the people who lived and worked in houses and other buildings.

According to folk magic belief of the time, a host of evil beings occupied an invisible realm that intersected and flowed through the world in which we humans live. Inspired and encouraged by the Devil, they sought to do humans grave harm.

At a time when there was little understanding of the way in which the world worked and when science was struggling out of its swaddling clothes, such ideas were widely accepted. So, to distract these otherworldly and malevolent beings from their real targets - actual people - old shoes and tattered clothing were concealed under floorboards, behind fireplaces and in ceilings.


Marrickville cat Ian Evans

Marrickville cat Ian Evans, Author provided

Why cats? A couple of theories: cats were thought to be associated with witches. And their habit of prowling about in the dark did their reputation no good at all. So, bad cat? Perhaps, but cats also guarded a house against vermin. Sent into the other world where they stood guard against spiritual vermin? Good cat? Perhaps.

But why has this only just been discovered? One explanation is the lack of contemporary documentation about the phenomenon. Historians tend to follow the paper trail, researching in documents held in libraries and archives. So, our history has been written from the documentary record.

ustralia’s largest cache, from Woodbury, north of Oatlands, Tasmania Ian Evans

Australia’s largest cache, from Woodbury, north of Oatlands, Tasmania Ian Evans, Author provided

The ritual I describe here did not leave a trace in the archives or in books. There are no references to it in journals, memoirs or letters. It appears to have been conducted in the utmost secrecy.

The only evidence is in the form of battered old boots and shoes, tattered garments, scatters of childrens’ toys and trinkets and the bodies of long-dead cats. And these were tucked away in building voids which mostly held their secrets until houses were renovated or demolished.

In some six years of research I’ve travelled throughout New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia and inspected numerous sites where concealed objects have been found.

I began the search by asking members of heritage advisors' mailing lists in NSW and Victoria if they knew of objects found in unusual places in houses and other buildings. It soon became apparent discoveries of such objects were common: reports of concealed shoes came in from cities, towns and rural areas throughout the country. Cats and garments were less common but there were enough to substantiate their inclusion in a national catalogue of concealed objects.

The stables at Shene, Tasmania. Ian Evans,

The stables at Shene, Tasmania. Ian Evans, Author provided

Patterns started to appear: the shoes of children and adolescents outnumbered those of adults. My theory on these is that the goodness and innocence of childhood had been harnessed to combat evil.

I then began to look for evil-averting marks or apotropeia. I found the first of these in the great stables at Shene, north of Hobart. Scratched into the sandstone margin of a window was one of the marks commonly found in England: a hexafoil. Apotropaic marks are commonly employed on points of access to a building: adjacent to windows or doors, on the lintel of fireplaces or in the roof cavity. I’m still finding these.

What can old shoes and dead cats tell us about Australia’s convict past? Ian Evans

What can old shoes and dead cats tell us about Australia’s convict past? Ian Evans, Author provided

The lesson from this is that history exists as much as it does in objects as it does in the written record. The objects in this case, though mute, have an important story to tell – a story of the hopes and fears of Australians in the formative years of our country.

This is the tip of this story’s iceberg. If you’re curious, you can read more about it here.

Featured image: Convict Shirt, National Museum of Australia Ian Evans, Author provided

The article ‘These walls can talk: Australian history preserved by folk magic’ by Ian Evans was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

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