Wiltshire's Strong Room Cat and the Magical Protection of Buildings

on Saturday, 06 January 2018. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore

Last summer I visited the Natural History Museum in London. While looking at the displays one item on display caught my eye, a mummified cat! This was of interest to me because kept in a strong room at the History Centre is a mummified cat, who, we’ve affectionately named Bing Clawsby! 

In 1989, the then County Archivist Ken Rogers and Archivist Margaret Moles collected the archives of solicitors Mann, Rodway and Green from their offices at 57 Union Street, Trowbridge.  While clearing their strong room a dead cat was found amongst the documents. A feeling of sadness was felt for the cat and they decided to bring it back to the Record Office in Trowbridge. “Bing Clawsby” now resides in Strong Room 2 here at the History Centre in Chippenham. Bing’s hearing and eye sight is not what it used to be and now spends most of the day asleep in its box.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, predominately during the witch-trials (first half of the 17th century), people believed that Satan was very active and that witches made pacts with him, they would hand over their soul in exchange for supernatural powers. Witches had the ability to take the form of animals to help them perform their evil deeds. Witches also had the help of familiars. These were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist the witch. Familiars would often appear as animals and could even take the form of humans. It was vitally important to take steps to protect oneself and the family and to destroy witches and their familiars. The house had to be protected by day and night from these evil forms that would enter the home and cause harm to the family.    

Witches Familiar from Wikicommons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Familiar_spirit#/media/File:Witches%27Familiars1579.jpg

One important way to protect the home would be to conceal items within the wall, roof space, under the floor but quite often near points of entry, the door, window and chimney area. Concealed items included shoes, horse skulls, witch-bottles, dried animals such as birds, rats, mice and cats. These objects would have been hidden in secrecy because this itself was considered an act of magic and such beliefs were regarded as unlawful. 

Mummified cats or “Dried Cats” as they are officially known were used across Europe. It is not known if these cats had died before or after concealment, but some had been placed in a position that looks like they are about to pounce, which must have occurred after death. Cats were regarded as possessing a sixth sense and would carry on hunting in the afterlife. Some cats have been found with a dried rat or mouse next to them, one cat even had a rat in its jaws. Cats have been found from the period when London was rebuilt after the Great Fire. Some of these cats were in building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and could have been put there by Wren’s masons.

As with cats, horses are believed to be able to see things on a spiritual plane and would be able to watch over the family and guide them from witches and spirits. 

Witch-bottles or “Bellarmines” named after Cardinal Bellarmine, who was a late 16th early 17th century Italian Jesuit and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. These bottles would be concealed near to an entry point to the building, quite often near the hearth as the chimney is obviously open to the sky.  They have been found to contain iron (iron is regarded as a magical metal) pins, hair and urine, which appear to indicate a kind of magical spell. They went to great lengths to make sure these bottles were well hidden, removing parts of the building, digging holes, lifting flagstones and then concealing any evidence of the alterations made. 

Ballarmine By Unknown - http://www.bellarmine.edu/content/about/strobert/harmic/index.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4242814

Concealing a shoe was another way to protect the household from harm. The most common type of shoe to use for this purpose was usually an odd, well-worn children’s shoe, most being hidden in or around the hearth/chimney area. Shoes were an expensive item and would have been well worn before concealment. It is believed that the shoe would fool the spirit or witch that the wearer was actually in the hearth and the imprint of the foot would trap the spirit in the shoe. This seems to be predominately a male custom with a connection to the building trade, as the shoes show the signs of being placed there during building work.

By Edmund Patrick (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are a several superstitions to do with shoes. At the start of a journey a shoe would be thrown at the traveller to bring them good luck. This custom is still sometimes observed today, instead of throwing the shoe it is now tied to the back of the wedding car to bring the couple good luck and fertility. Cambridgeshire lightermen regard shoes taken from a dead man to be lucky. So it’s not too surprising that shoes were used and still are as a good luck and protection charm for the household.

If you are lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the building, you may catch a glimpse of our cat. Bing is not been known to bite, but we advice that you don’t get too close, just in case!

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor


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