It started off with the discovery of an old shoe and a lace collar hidden in the dark recesses of an 1830s house in one of the oldest parts of Sydney.
Next it was a tradesman’s boot in a chimney breast of a country house in the NSW town of Mudgee.
Soon Ian Evans was finding mummified cats, children’s shoes and anti-witch symbols known as hexafoils and merels, and ritually burnt marks hidden on and in the walls of homes and other buildings around Australia.
The Newcastle University historian knew he was on to a great hidden secret about an unspoken but widespread ritual of magic in Australia that has no recorded history.
But it was all confirmed by the spine tingling moment he was called to an isolated Tasmanian farmhouse where five members of the same family had died in a month in 1860, and the family had concealed 38 shoes, children’s toys and dolls clothes in the building’s voids.
“They were absolutely terrified,” Dr Evans said.
All the houses had been built before 1935 and secret marks and “ritual magic” objects were part of a terrible secret held by early Australian settlers.
They were deliberately concealed under floorboards, in roofs and the voids of houses by a population gripped with a fear that there was an underworld of evil spirits bringing death and destruction into their lives.
As part of a story which Dr Evans believes has its roots in medieval times, the objects were hidden and the symbols inscribed to decoy witches and devils.
Boots, like this Victorian ladies item, have been regarded as traps for evil spirits since the 14th Century.
Witch trials in the 16th century, including the 1591 trial of Agnes Sampson depicted with the devil giving dolls, did not stamp out belief in witches.
These shoes were found in the subfloor of a house in Gundagai, NSW. Picture: Ian Evans.
The hexafoil anti-sorcery mark is on a stables wall at Shene, Tasmania. Picture: Steve Watts
And when misfortune struck — such as the death of two or more children in one family, the petrified family placed even more items such as shoes inside their chimneys.
They believed that spirits and witches entered the house through openings like a chimney stack to inhabit a home and spread evil.
The objects were an armoury to help people defend their families houses and pets against a terrifying land where escaped convicts and strange animals roamed.
Dr Evans has delved through spider-infested voids of old homes, churches and farmhouses to uncover hundreds of boots, mummified cats and items of clothing.
In 2010, he wrote a PhD thesis on deliberately concealed objects in houses, but he believes what he has already discovered is only the tip of the iceberg of what remains hidden in people’s homes.
He has now launched a new investigation into concealed objects called the Tasmanian Magic Project — and is looking for funding — to uncover the nation’s ritual magic secrets, which he believes he can do for the fairly modest sum of $275,000
“It is the last great secret of old Australian houses”.
These witch marks or merels were scratched onto an old inn at Lewisham, near Hobart. Picture: Steve Dunbar.
Allen and Linda Cooper with ritual magic items hidden in their Tasmanian farmhouse where five members of one 1800s family died ‘under an evil spell’. Picture: Steve Watt
The courthouse at Richmond, Tasmania, where evil-averting marks known as hexafoils have been inscribed into the mantelpiece.
An anti-witch symbol called a ‘merel’ crudely scratched into brickwork at Shene, Tasmania. Picture: Ian Evans.
One of the daisy wheel-shaped symbols known as hexafoils, inscribed into the mantelpiece of the Richmond Courthouse in Tasmania.
“The role that magic played in the lives of Australians before 1935 had never been talked about.
“This was a terrible secret but one that was known to a great many people.
“There is not one word about these anti-sorcery practices in documents contemporary with those times.”
Dr Evans wants to start his new project in Tasmania, where he has already uncovered anti-sorcery objects and which has a large concentration of convict and early colonial era houses.
In one of the houses a trove of hidden objects proved to be a testament to the terror endured by the unfortunate family who dwelt there in the 1800s.
When Allen and Linda Cooper bought the 19th-century farmhouse at Woodbury, an isolated spot in the Tasmanian Midlands 100km north of Hobart, they found a single shoe in the attic space.
A rat or a possum might have dragged it in, but the Coopers embarked on a search of all the voids in their old house.
What they found was to astonish Ian Evans. Not only were there 38 shoes, but hidden in walls and the roof were 19th Century toys, hats, dolls’ clothes, and the mummified body of a dead cat.
And as Dr Evans was to discover, family tragedy had stalked the occupants of the Woodbury farmhouse.
A convict shirt found concealed in a wall north of Hobart, where convict gangs were building the Bridgewater crossing of the Derwent River.
One of many flame-shaped ritual magic burn marks in the tack room at Shene, Tasmania, applied to protect the home from evil spirits.
A recipe for ‘streans bruises sore breasts scalds cuts bruises’ from 1811-1820 in the Tasmanian Archives Office.
In 1823, an English free settler called Robert Harrison had arrived with his wife Eliza and five children at Woodbury Vale.
Harrison was blessed with a government grant of 2000 acres and a large consignment of farm equipment, but blighted by bad luck.
In 1829 Harrison’s eldest son Hezekiah lost his own son, aged three in mysterious circumstances, possibly after an abduction.
In 1860, four members of the Harrison family died within a month — Hezekiah on July 11, Robert three days later, Eliza seven days after that and Hezekiah’s wife on August 4.
Ian Evans said the secret location of the shoes an other objects meant ritual magic could be the only explanation.
“The use of magic appears to have been an aspect of cultural practices brought from England by settlers, convicts, the military, and members of the Colonial administration,” Dr Evans said.
“The fear of attacks by escaped convicts, bushrangers and Aborigines is also thought to have played a part in the use of protective magic.”
This cat was found in the sub floor near the altar stone of the old Primitive Methodist Church in Woodchester, South Australia. Picture: Ian Evans
The old granary at Redlands, Tasmania, where hexafoils have been inscribed into the wall to ward off witches.
The kitchen subfloor of a 19th century house in Hobart (above) with concealed boots and shoes as folk magic objects.
Dr Evans said shoes and dead cats, which have been turning up in houses in Europe, the UK and the US for centuries, “represents colonial settlers’ belief that misfortune and evil spells could be warded off by secretly placing the objects in an inaccessible spot”.
He said shoes were favoured because they retained their human shape after being taken off, and cats because they were “the witch’s companion and catcher of vermin, to trap or decoy an incoming witch”.
Dr Evans, who has worked on archaeology digs in England, Greece, Cyprus and Syria, believes that with funding he could establish two teams working in the Tasmanian Midlands to uncover the remaining objects concealed in houses.
“Tasmania has about 40 per cent of the surviving 19th century buildings in Australia and has largely escaped the renovation boom that has erased much of the original character of old houses on the mainland,” he said.
“It’s easily traversed and a good many old houses in the Midlands are owned by descendants of the original settlers.
“Rather than potter away for years, I think that with funding this can be sorted quickly.”