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.

Spells and sorcery

The cauldron at Lacock Abbey.

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.

Medea

A witch of Greek legend

Medea, sorceress of Greek mythology, is depicted in this pastel study by Evelyn De Morgan at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands. According to legend, Medea was deserted by her lover Jason and turned to her magical powers to enact revenge. She is pictured here holding a vial of magic potion.

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.

Charles Paget Wade of Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

Charles Paget Wade was an avid collector of magical and astrological objects. Our Head Curator Sally-Anne Huxtable takes us through a few of Wade's objects.

Wade's collection of objects includes armillary spheres, witch bottles, and a magician’s chest. He also designed objects including the ‘Nychthemeron’ (‘Night and Day’ in Greek) clock which features astrological and zodiac symbols, and another ‘Unicorn’ clock for which he created his own Tarot designs based on the Marseilles deck.

Tucked away at the top of Snowshill Manor is a secret room, which is closed to the public, called the ‘Witches Garret’ (image on the left). Wade decorated this room with a Ceremonial Magic circle on the floor, and on the walls he created images of male and female mandrakes based on a 15th-century herbal. The mandrake is a plant closely associated with witchcraft and alchemy.

Skulls and bones

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.

Model ship in display case

Bone models

During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners of war found a way to make money by carving elaborate models out of animal bone, which were then sold to the public with the help of the prison guards. We look after several examples, including this ship at Treasurer's House, York.

The stuff of nightmares

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, recorded in 2019, 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.

Warding off evil spirits

Throughout history people have often looked for ways to control or prevent misfortunes and catastrophe, and events which we might now pass off as just part of life were frequently blamed on the forces of evil. Individuals or groups of people were labelled as witches who cast spells or curses on people, property, places, crops or livestock.

With belief in the powers of darkness so common, people found ingenious ways to ward off evil spirits and deeds.

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 bottle

Witch bottles

Witch bottles are jars or bottles which contained spells that would draw malevolent magic into them preventing evil spirits from affecting their lives. This bottle, with a liquid inside, was found upside down in a stone boundary wall on National Trust land on the Isle of Purbeck in 1986. It's believed it was placed there to prevent disease in the cattle that grazed the field.

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. They became a popular fashion accessory in 18th-century Europe, 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.

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

The grave and beyond

The death mask of Isaac Newton.

Death masks

In the days before photography, death masks were a way to create a lasting, accurate likeness of a person. Wax or plaster would be spread onto the face of the corpse and left to harden. The resulting mould could then be used to cast multiple impressions of the face, such as this pewter version of Sir Isaac Newton’s visage hanging on the Study wall at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire.

A wooden coffin-shaped snuffbox from Llanerchaeron, Wales

A miniature coffin

This tiny (c. 9cm x 3cm) oak coffin is actually a snuffbox, which can be found in the collection at Llanerchaeron, Wales. As well as providing a quirky talking point, the shape of the snuffbox also served as a memento mori – a reminder to the owner and to others that life is fleeting.

Painting of a skeleton playing a violin

An Allegory of Death

This allegorical painting hangs at Nostel Priory, West Yorkshire. Painted on copper, it depicts death as a violin-playing skeleton, standing before a rich merchant counting his money. Another skeleton can be seen approaching a customer in background. This painting is one of many versions of the same subject by Flemish artist Frans Francken II (1581-1642).

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