Cauldrons to coffins: creepy curios in our collection

Many of the historic houses that we look after have their fair share of dark and grisly tales and some are even said to play host to a ghost or two. Although we cannot guarantee you a ghostly encounter when you visit, we have plenty of eerie and macabre objects in our collection to send shivers down your spine. Here are just a few.

Witches and spells

Bali mask representing mythical demon Queen of Leylak.

The demon Queen of Leyak

This wooden face mask, on display at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire, represents ‘Rangda’, the demon Queen of Leyak, a child-eating witch of Balinese mythology. This gruesome character was said to have a loud, rasping voice, 6-inch fingernails and hairy knuckles.

The bell metal cauldron in the Warming Room at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

A witch's cauldron?

Dominating the Warming Room at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, is this large metal cauldron. Although it looks like the archetypal witch’s cauldron (and has featured in the Harry Potter films), it is believed to have originally been used for cooking by the nuns, before the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.

Detail of Circe from the 'Story of Ulysses’ tapestries at Hardwick Hall

The witch of Greek legend

Circe, sorceress of Greek mythology, is depicted in Hardwick Hall’s ‘Story of Ulysses’ tapestries, a series of eight tapestries from around the 1550s, portraying scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. Circe tricks Ulysses’ men into drinking wine that she has laced with a magical potion that turns them into swine.

" Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble."

Warding off evil spirits

Witch mark in one of the ceiling timbers in the Great Parlour at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire.

Witch marks

Apotropaic marks, or witch marks as they're commonly known, can be found at many of the houses in our care. And in many different forms, such as deliberate burn marks, criss-cross lines or circular daisy wheels, like this one in the Great Parlour at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire. They're usually near openings such as fireplaces, windows and doors, and were thought to stop evil spirits from entering the house.

Two colourful Chinese Dogs of Fo figurines

Dogs of Fo

Dogs of Fo are mythical beasts from Chinese legend who guard against evil spirits and demons. Extremely popular in 18th-century Europe, they became a fashion accessory, often placed at the entrances to rooms. They usually come in pairs, representing yin and yang. This pair at Polesden Lacey, Surrey, were made in China during the Kangxi period, c.1685-1700.

Gentleman's leather shoe, c.1740-1760. Found under attic room floor boards at Wimpole Hall.

A hidden talisman?

This Georgian shoe was found under the floorboards at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire. It is likely to have been deliberately placed there as it was common, right up until the 20th century, to hide shoes in walls, under floors and in chimneys. Many have been uncovered in recent years. Why they were hidden is still debated, but one theory is that they were believed to protect against evil.

Witch marks at our places

Skulls, bones and phantom limbs

Dresser in the entrance hall at Greenway

Greenway's skull

It probably comes as no surprise that you can find a skull at Greenway, the former Devon holiday home of the ‘Queen of Crime’, Agatha Christie. Despite its realistic appearance, it is not an actual human skull but rather a porcelain jar that Christie’s husband Max used to keep his tobacco in.

Mechanical arm on show at Cotehele

Replacement limbs

Dating to between around 1550 and 1650, this mechanical arm from the collection at Cotehele, Cornwall, is not only a rare survival but also displays sophisticated craftsmanship. It has movable fingers and the buttons on the wrist allow the fingers to be locked into different positions. The beauty of the design contrasts with the grisly battlefield injuries that led to its creation.

Ghostly photography

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was also a keen amateur photographer and liked to experiment with different photographic techniques to create a range of artistic images.

This photograph, with two ghostly figures of himself, was created using a double exposure.

The technique had been used before, by unscrupulous early photographers who tried to claim that they had photographed ghosts.

Memorials to the dead

The pet cemetery at Polesden Lacey, Surrey

Polesden's pet cemetery

This spooky graveyard in the grounds of Polesden Lacey, Surrey, has some unusual burials – all of the 17 graves are dogs. They were the beloved pets of Edwardian socialite Dame Margaret Greville. Famed for her lavish parties, Margaret was also devoted to her dogs and buried each with a sombre burial service and erected headstones carved with their names to mark the graves.

The grave and beyond

An early twentieth-century hearse, part of the National Trust's Carriage Museum collection at Arlington Court, Devon.

Transport to the grave

Our Carriage Museum at Arlington Court in Devon houses a vast array of coaches and wagons, including this rather sinister-looking hearse. Built in the late 19th century, it was used by Partis Undertakers of Faversham in Kent until the mid-1900s. It would have typically been pulled by a pair of horses, often adorned with black ostrich feathers.

A coffin bell.

Buried alive?

If you suffer from taphophobia and fear being buried alive, this may be the object for you. It is a bronze coffin bell, part of our collection at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. A string running from the clapper would have gone into the coffin and been wrapped around a finger of the body. If the 'corpse' awoke inside the coffin, they could pull the string to ring the bell and attract attention.

Detail from William Blake's 'Last Judgement'.

A vision of Hell

William Blake’s pen and watercolour ‘Vision of the Last Judgement’ (1808) at Petworth House, West Sussex, contains this frightening portrayal of Hell. On the right-hand side souls ascend to Heaven, while on the left, those condemned are dropped into Hell, where fire, suffering and the six-headed Appolyon, or Angel of Death, await them.

Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Scene from Macbeth by Henry Fuseli
Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Find out more about these creepy objects Explore
Visitors stood on the bridge over the moat at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire

Listen to the National Trust Podcast: Halloween special

In episode 67 of the National Trust Podcast, curator James Grasby visits 500-year old Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, to find out how the Tudors protected their homes against evil. James meets house staff who reveal strange relics of our past.