No place for evil spirits at home

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Every old house has secrets it has kept hidden for decades or even centuries.

Some never give them up while others provide historians and archaeologists with exciting puzzles to solve about the people who used to live there.

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One such house stands in Church Street, Cuckfield.

In 2002, floorboards in the attic were taken up to be treated for wood-worm. What was found beneath left the volunteers at Cuckfield Museum first baffled and then overjoyed.

Tucked into the space was a collection of clothes, toys and other items, some of which dated back to the 1700s.

With the help of experts from Southampton University, the Cuckfield Cache, as it has become known, was discovered to be a superstitious way of protecting the household from evil spirits or witchcraft.

Cuckfield. Cuckfield Museum ENGSUS00120130719120237

Cuckfield. Cuckfield Museum ENGSUS00120130719120237

The idea was to trick the spirit into thinking the items – which had all been used or warn – were actually the people living in the house.

The cache was made up of 11 shoes, none of which made a pair – in case the spirit put them on and masqueraded as the person to whom they belonged – a man’s leather hat, a child’s dress, a doll’s arm, a set of toy building blocks, a child’s exercise book, two railway timetables, a cigarette packet and two jars.

Phillipa Malins, of Cuckfield Museum, said all except two shoes dated from 1860-1914 were thought to have been placed there by the Attwater family, who lived in the house at the time.

It’s amazing to think such a superstition was still observed up to such a relatively recent date.

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The remaining item - a woman’s latchet tie shoe from the 18th century - was believed to have been put beneath the floorboards before the Attwaters took over the house.

Known as a ‘deliberately concealed cache’, similar finds have been made throughout the UK, Europe and North America.

They were usually found near openings such as chimneys or windows where evil spirits might enter or where the building might be vulnerable to fire.

Phillipa said: “Experts believe the collection was designed to protect the house from witchcraft, by turning harm away from the owners of the articles and onto the articles themselves, or to trap evil in the bottles.

“This level of superstition may surprise us, but infant mortality remained high and life was hard for working people in the late 19th century.

“Although people went to church, they also sought protection in folk magic.”

The residents of Church Street appear to have been a particularly superstitious bunch in the 1700s.

Phillipa said: “During building work on another house in Church Street in the 1980s, an 18th century tricorn hat was found hidden in a wall.

“It’s possible that a builder making alterations to the house hid his hat to protect it as there was a widespread belief that altering a house might open it to harmful influence.”

Others ways of capturing evil spirits was to place jars and bottles containing thorns and things such as hair, nail clippings or bodily fluids, around the house.

The theory was the spirit would chase after the human scent, fly into the bottle and get caught on 
the thorns.

One handily placed lid later and the evil was trapped.

The Cuckfield Cache is on permanent display in the museum, where it can be seen in a purpose-built case replicating the floorboard hollow in which it was found.

As for the Attwater family, Phillipa said research showed they had lived in the house from the mid 1880s. The head of the household was Alfred, a whitesmith, who finished and polished tin plate and galvanized iron. His wife was Frances.

The family was featured in the 1901 Census.

The youngest son, Ernest, who could have owned the building blocks found beneath the floorboards, was killed in the First World War.

Ernest is listed as having been a Second Lieutenant in the 58th Company of the Machine Corps (Infantry).

He was killed in action during the German spring offensive on March 22 1918, aged 29. He is buried in Foucaucourt Communal Cemetery, France.

Alfred and Frances were still living in Cuckfield when Ernest died.

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