Friday 8 August 2014

An Interview with Dr. Ian Evans

Today here at Albion Calling I am fortunate to have Dr. Ian Evans with me from all the way over in Australia. Dr Evans is an expert not only in Australian architectural heritage but has also completed a doctorate focused on the enigmatic subject of deliberately concealed objects – shoes, dead cats, and other such items placed in the roofs and walls of buildings, apparently with apotropaic or protective intent. He tells us more about the fascinating way in which these forms of British folk magic were carried to Australia and what they reveal about vernacular practices among the country’s colonists.

[EDW] You are widely known in Australia as an architectural historian and heritage preservation campaigner, having published at least fifteen books on the subject since the late 1970s. Your approach to the study of folk magical items therefore emerges from this particular background, and it would be interesting to learn a bit more about these formative influences and how you came to take an interest in such things.

[IE] I spent many years researching the historical background to the houses constructed in Australia after the arrival of the Europeans in 1788. Much of my research was carried out in the Mitchell and State Libraries in Sydney where a great many of the 19th and early 20th century books and catalogues used by British architects, builders and tradesmen were held. In doing so, I was able to understand how they had worked and the materials and techniques they had employed. I wondered sometimes about the lives and thoughts of the people who, over many years, occupied the houses I visited. But there seemed to be no way to read their minds by contemplating the masonry, hardware, light fittings and decorative elements with which their houses had been constructed and furnished. So in the course of writing books on the history and conservation of old houses I spent many years inspecting them with not the faintest idea of the ancient ritual that had been practiced within many of them.

A woman's shoe from the 1920s, found in Burwood, Sydney.
The manner in which it was concealed suggested a link to the electricity supply.

[EDW] In 2010 you submitted your doctoral thesis on “Touching Magic: Deliberately Concealed Objects in Old Australian Houses and Buildings” at the University of Newcastle. It is now available to download for free at your account. What led to your decision to embark on your dissertation and could you give my readers an overview of what it contained?

[IE] I had been aware of the practice of concealing objects, including shoes, cats, garments etc in buildings in England but had thought that this custom had died out by the 18th century. I had lunch with two colleagues in London in 2002 and when this subject was discussed was very surprised to learn that, far from dying out, objects had continued to be secreted in houses and other buildings throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. I was convinced that if the practice was continuing at the time that Australia was being colonized it had to have been carried to the Australian colonies as part of the cultural baggage of settlers, convicts and the military. Generations of historians had toiled away in the documents that record the history of Australia without becoming aware of the role of folk magic in the life of Australians. Focusing my research on the material culture of folk magic provided a new tool with which to reveal previously unknown information about Australians in the period from 1788 to about 1940.

I quickly realized that giving this finding an academic imprimatur would be essential to its acceptance. Accordingly, I made arrangements to work on a degree through the University of Newcastle, NSW. In this work I examined the role of cunning men and women in the UK, the European continent and in North America. I found that Australian concealments were quite common and comparatively easy to find and identify. The thesis contains a good deal of historical background, most of it set in the UK, as well as an inventory of finds of concealed objects in Australia. The thesis also touches upon the use of apotropaic marks such as hexafoils which were intended to deter evil spiritual beings from entering houses. These are fairly common in England and I’ve now discovered a number of them in Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland.

A convict's shirt concealed in a staircase at Sydney's Hyde Park Barracks

[EDW] Research by individuals like Ralph Merrifield and Brian Hoggard (whom I interviewed here last August) has explored the archaeological evidence for folk magical practices in Britain, and so I’d be very interested to hear more about the similarities, and the differences, with those present in Australia?

[IE] There are many similarities and some differences, mostly resulting from concealments made in the time before the European discovery of Australia. But the generalisation is true: the objects found in Australian buildings are largely the same as those that come to light in the UK, Europe and North America and which come from the same period in time. They are found in the same places in buildings and are the same kind of object, in particular shoes, garments, domestic artifacts and cats.

The concealment of shoes in buildings has provided us with a kind of catalogue of Australian footwear in the period before about 1935. Additionally, the degree of wear of many of the shoes of children, which were clearly passed on down through several members of a family, has suggested a level of poverty beyond that which generally applies today. The ritual has also given us the only surviving examples of the garments of convicts. So there are important social consequences of this ritual, reaching from the past to the present day and providing us with information and artifacts that are available nowhere else.

A pair of children's boots from the 1880s concealed beneath
the floor of a house in Goulburn, New South Wales.

[EDW] Since at least the 1970s, historians like Keith Thomas and Owen Davies have examined the textual evidence for folk magic in post-medieval Britain, although I’m unsure as to whether anything similar has been done on the Australian evidence. Your work has been primarily archaeological in that it has focused on the evidence from material culture, but have you made use of historical documentation and if so, do the two sources accord with one another?

[IE] The problem with this question, and it’s a really intriguing issue, is that there is no historical documentation about the folk magic ritual of concealing objects in buildings. It appears to have been a practice that was widely known but which, it seems, never entered the printed record. This is true not only of the UK but also North America and other places where this branch of folk magic was practiced. So, in Australia, there was nothing in the texts: no books, no memoirs, no journal articles. People appear to have been extremely reluctant to write about it. It was not until the early twentieth century that a couple of postcards were produced in which old boots were depicted as charms that would bring good luck. This seems to have been the first printed record alluding to the ritual. Other folk magic practices were widely known and were described in books and journals. But concealments were not noticed by folk magic researchers or historians who mostly conducted their research among written documents.

[EDW] Your thesis focused on the period prior to 1930, but I wondered if you were aware of, or had looked at, evidence for similar practices after that date. The impact of the Second World War might have sparked changes, and then from the 1950s you had forms of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft appearing in the country, both home-grown, as in the case of Rosaleen Norton, and imported, with the arrival of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. Furthermore, you also had the impact of widescale non-British migration to Australia, which may have brought new forms of vernacular magic to the country. Had you any thoughts or comments on these phenomena?

[IE] The ritual that I’ve described in my thesis appears to have faded out in the 1930s, although it is possible that it continued on a smaller scale into the 1940s. And the end of this ritual marked the close of my research project. I have not pursued any of the matters that you raise in this question. My intent was to reveal an important aspect of life in Australia which was previously unknown. Concealments reveal the hopes and fears of people at a time when lives were often ended by illnesses and diseases which today are successfully treated by a visit to a general practitioner. Large families were common in the 19th century but parents knew that there was a good chance that not all of their children would survive to maturity. When a remote and seemingly uncaring God permitted children to die many people turned to magic and in this way took fate into their own hands. This was my particular interest and as it was a new field of research, with no documents available, it consumed all of my time and energy.

A dead cat concealed beneath the hall floor at a house built
c.1910 in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.

[EDW] I’ve seen that your research has attracted interest from such press sources as the BBC World Service (here), so I wanted to ask you more about the response to your discoveries, both within academia and wider Australian society? Various academics who have studied magic in Western contexts have described facing cynicism from colleagues who do not see such subjects as being worthy of research; have you experienced anything like that? Conversely, have you encountered enthusiasm, for instance from contemporary magical practitioners or local history societies?

[IE] I think there is a feeling among certain sections of academia that folk magic is of no consequence. This attitude ignores the fact that the widespread prevalence of magic rituals gives us insight into the thoughts of people whose lives were lived in fear of death. It is now clear that a great many houses contained, and still contain, concealments. Many of these objects, in particular shoes, can be dated, providing the opportunity to cross-reference finds with records of the occupants of buildings. In this way, patterns of belief can be revealed and in many cases traced back to areas of England from where so many of Australia’s settlers came. Thus, Australian research can illuminate those areas of England where magic thrived. I think it is not uncommon for academics in particular fields to lack interest in other areas of study. There has been some interest from local historical societies but not much contact from contemporary magical practitioners.

Tradesman's shoes concealed beneath the panelling of the eleventh-floor
boardroom of the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne, built in 1932.

[EDW] I always like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see their field as progressing (or indeed regressing) in the coming decades. With that being the case, I’d like to ask you where to see the future of research into folk magic and its material evidence heading, both in Australia and elsewhere?

[IE] I think there is much more to discover in the years ahead. The research I’ve done merely opens a window on the past. There is much more to be seen through that window and many opportunities for further academic study to be conducted. This applies to the UK, North America, Australia and other countries where British people settled, carrying with them ancient beliefs that survived into the modern world. In Australia, people were driving motorcars and listening to jazz music on their radios while a ritual that stretched into the distant past was still being practiced. We need to know more about this. It’s a lost and secret history and it can only be revived by understanding the material culture that is locked away within the fabric of old houses and other buildings.

[EDW] Thank you so much, Dr. Evans, for talking with me here at Albion Calling today. This is a fascinating subject and I hope that many of my readers will take the opportunity to read your PhD thesis, which you have kindly made available for free online. All the best for the future.

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