Shoes from the portrait of James Hamilton (1623) by Daniel Mytens the Elder
Monika Buttling-Smith’s precious shoe incorrectly dated to the 1720s
MONIKA BUTTLING-SMITH has been mudlarking for six years, slowly building up a hefty collection of shoes. We take a deeper look at one which has been giving her some trouble
words: Eilidh Nuala Duffy
LOST shoes tend to appear in the dark corners of city streets, shoved into some dusty crook sodden and stinking from the rain. Others are draped upon trees or overhead electrical lines, laces tied together in a dull knot straining to give in to gravity. Lonely, lost shoes are no modern enigma. For as long as we’ve had shoes we’ve been losing them. Given that the oldest leather shoe complete with laces ever found – a single shoe totally unrelated to any bodies nearby so presumed lost – dates from 3500 BC that gives us at least 5,500 years worth of lost shoes. If it happens to end up in some place free from or low in oxygen where it can avoid decaying – the anaerobic (oxygen-free) mud which lies beneath London and its central river, the Thames, for example – then it might just end up lasting hundreds of years and emerge from under ground at just the right moment. If someone is walking past and that person is somebody who calls themselves a mudlark then we’re in luck.
Until the beginning of the 20th century mudlarking was a real occupation for Londoners living in extreme poverty. They were often kids, old women, ex-sailors, anyone who was unable to make a living elsewhere due to their unfortunate circumstances. They would scour the banks of the Thames for pieces of coal, iron, wood or canvas which they could sell on to make enough cash to feed themselves and survive yet another miserable day. Now in the 21st century it’s a hobby shared by approximately 1,500 Londoners, according to statistics held by the Port of London Authority.
“Now the next one I’ll show you is my darling”, Monika Buttling-Smith, a jolly 52-year-old mudlark, coos over a plastic box filled with bits of crusty old leather. These bits make up her most prized shoe, “this one, this is one I am really in love with”. The blackened panel sitting in the palm of her hand looks pretty unremarkable, just like you’d imagine something would once it’s been under the ground for a few hundred years. But then your eyes adjust to the roughness of it and you notice there’s something else there: rings of hearts, moons and suns covering what would be the ankle bone.
“I love all the stories, every time you find a shoe you know that someone’s had to come home with one shoe less” Buttling-Smith explains of her fascination. For six years now she has been collecting footwear which washes up on the Thames foreshore. These scraps of old leather are not the most popular thing for mudlarks to bring home but for Buttling-Smith they’re extra special. “You see you in them, you see a bit of somebody’s life you can feel” quite literally, for some of the better preserved shoes bear a literal imprint of the wearer. “If you run your hands on the inside you can actually feel where his feet were, where his big toe was” I slide my fingers down the sticky inside of an old sailor’s boot from the 1850s and there it is, as if it was made yesterday. “You’re feeling the foot of a man 200 years ago!” she squeals. It’s ghostly.
Shoe found as part of a builder’s sacrifice in Lauderdale House – image from the Museum of London
The possibility of finding valuable treasure isn’t why most of these mudlarks will drag themselves out of bed at 3am to pull on their knee-pads and waders to catch a good tide or risk being “caught by a clipper” (if you’re not careful it’s very easy to be hit by a wall of foul Thames water created in the wake of a river bus). It’s the chance that you might find something old – really old, like fragments of a neolithic skull – or that you might stumble upon something with real historical significance – something like the Battersea Shield, for example. They have a real love for the history of a 2,000-year-old city and its river which is much, much older. Larking is “history coming alive” Buttling-Smith tells me with a grin, “it just makes it tangible”.
Buttling-Smith’s love affair with shoes began on Valentine’s day in 2016. She dragged her husband Steve across the city from their home in Crouch End with the promise that they’d end up at one of the pubs which line the Thames for a pint. Growing up on a boat, Steve doesn’t like larking very much. He’s “had more time in muddy estuaries than most of us have ever had in our whole lives” so tries his best to stay away. This time, however, he caved and what happened next has gone down in Buttling-Smith lore. On this day Steve managed to spot his wife’s most treasured shoe.
Recognising the symbols as “1600s patterning” (mudlarks are history nerds, by the way) she was ecstatic. “What was sticking out of the mud at that point was the heel piece and it was just mind-blowing-ly beautiful”, the upper part of the shoe had been washed away but the sole, heel and back were incredibly well preserved. This was it, this was what she had been waiting for. She took a bunch of photos and emailed the Museum of London to make her first ever appointment with the finds liaison, Kate Sumnall. These meetings are, she tells me, almost impossible to initially get. You’ve got to have something really, really special.
It seemed like this was it – her first big find going to Museum of London, the place where all of London’s history is collected and preserved. She was going to be a part of it! But there was one problem. The shoe was dated to the 1720s, much later than she was counting on and just a little too late for it to be old enough to preserve. With popularity in mudlarking failing to dwindle much since a boom in the late ‘70s and almost constant regeneration on the banks of the Thames since the early ‘80s they have to be very selective in what they properly document and preserve. There just isn’t the money or man power to look after everything. So the shoe sat in a cabinet for a year and began to fall apart. If leather isn’t preserved properly when it comes out of anaerobic conditions it warps and cracks the material. When she got it back she was devastated.
Katherine Howard née Knyvett wearing shoes of a similar design to Buttling-Smith's by William Larkin (1614 - 1618) on display at Kenwood House in Hampstead
But grand portraits from the early 1600s seem to be full of shoes resembling Buttling-Smith’s. There’s a portrait in the Tate Britain of a young man called James Hamilton painted in 1623. His silk stockings are scarlet and the shoes he’s wearing white leather with little heels. On the back of the shoe you can just make out an incised circular pattern. The shoes bear a startling resemblance to Buttling-Smith’s. Over the latchets of his shoes (the leather band across the front to keep the shoe closed) he’s wearing big puffs made of ribbon or lace called rosettes or roses. Henry Peacham, a commentator of the time who disdained modern fashions, wrote in his 1638 essay The Truth of Our Times how expensive these poufs were: “shoo-tyes, that goe under the name of Roses, from thirty shillings to three, foure, and five pounds the paire. Yea a Gallant of the time not long since, payd thirty pound for a paire.” That’s about £183.80 to £610.75 in today’s money or, if you’re rich, about £3,664.48. These were an expensive fashion to indulge – and that’s just for the decoration.
By 1660, after around 50 years of rosette domination, these shoes seem to disappear from portraiture. The politician Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on the 22nd of January 1660 “This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes, which I have bought yesterday” and a year later in his coronation portrait Charles II was painted wearing shoes with buckles. Rosettes and their corresponding shoe style had, it seems, finally become passé.
Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London (who assures me she is no shoe expert) is kindly showing me around the museum. We’re standing over a display case with a selection of shoes laid in it. One from 1688 to 1695 looks satisfyingly akin to Buttling-Smith’s complete with latchet fastening. Heels, we’re told by the description, were painted red, kind of like Restoration-era Louboutins. Quite cute, no? But something’s wrong – this was 30 years after they’d gone out of style, how could they possibly still be kicking around?
Leather shoe dating from 1688 - 1695 on display at the Museum of London – image from the Museum of London
Well, to those who weren’t rich noblemen, shoes in the 17th century were pretty valuable objects. They were expensive and worn until they were totally destroyed. Most archaeological examples from the time (those which have been unearthed rather than passed down or sold on as antiques) bear the marks of multiple repairs, sometimes so patched together that there’s little of the original sole left. Plus fashion was less fickle back then and took a longer time to reach the masses than today. So, could it be that Buttling-Smith’s shoe did actually belong to your average Joe (or Jane) much later than they were at their height in fashion?
As I’m told by Rebecca Shawcross, Senior Shoe Curator at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, for Buttling-Smith’s shoe to have the design on the sides – a technique she tells me is officially called pinked and slashed – this shoe must have belonged to “someone with a degree of wealth”. So no, not your common person. She’s certain, from the size of the opening at the side of the shoe, that it’s actually very early and probably dates from 1605 to 1615. To round things off nicely, June Swann (arguably the world’s authority on historical footwear, if you don’t already know) agrees that this shoe has to be 17th century.
In the Museum of London archives there’s another shoe whose patterning bears a striking resemblance to the shoe now sitting in Buttling-Smith’s living room. This one was found two years after Buttling-Smith’s bricked up behind a fireplace in Lauderdale House as part of something called a builder’s sacrifice. Shoes and other objects were often put behind the walls of houses built before the 20th century. It’s commonly believed that these were popped into spaces where there might be a chance that evil spirits could get in. Shoes were popular because of their intimate relationship with the wearer and were used a decoy – the spirits were meant to be tricked into thinking the shoe was you. As it was found with a candlestick made from a kind of pottery called border ware which was particularly prevalent in the 1600s they managed to date the shoe to the 17th century.
I present these findings to Buttling-Smith and watch her expression change. Not because she’s been proven right but because of a strange coincidence which happens to slap us both full in the face. She and her husband were married in the very same Lauderdale House with that shoe looking over them – her shoe had been found by Steve on Valentine’s day 20 years later. We stare at each other in disbelief. How spooky.
You can see this shoe and three more from Buttling-Smith’s collection with a little background from the woman herself in the To Walk a Mile in Their Shoes cave here!