The Chapeltown Cauldron

At Abbey House, preparations are in full swing for next year’s temporary exhibition – ‘Fate & Fickle Fortune’,  Kitty has been sourcing objects, finalising themes and getting everything ready for the start of next year. Often, for temporary exhibitions, there may be one or two items that we don’t have in our collection already that we would love to be able to display. Sometimes we are very lucky and have people coming forward with the offer of a donation or a loan.

Miriam standing on the back steps – directly above where the concealed object was found.

At the end of August, by sheer coincidence, I took a call from a lady called Miriam. She wanted to offer us something that she had found in her basement, sealed up behind a brick wall. One of the themes we will be looking at in the exhibition is protection of the home, and often objects sealed behind false walls relate to this idea. Objects that were concealed in houses were usually used as a form of protection from evil spirits, or to carry the spirit of a deceased relative into the life of the house. Objects including mummified cats, children’s shoes and witch bottles have been found bricked up inside old houses. Children’s shoes were even found to have been concealed in the original construction of the Sydney Opera House.

The (now re-built) wall that had been concealing the cauldron in the basement.

The object Miriam had found turned out to be a cauldron. She very kindly came in to the museum with her daughter Namibia, to give us a bit more information about how she had found it. There had been a dripping sound in her basement for some time, but no one could work out where it was coming from. A workman came in to investigate, and realised that one of the walls was false. They opened it up, and found a large pile of solidified material, resembling ash and grit. On top of this was a rusty old object.  The workman carried it out into the garden, where it soon became obvious it was a cauldron. A scrap dealer was picking up some other items from the house when he offered to take it away for Miriam. However, she didn’t feel that sending it off for scrap was an appropriate end for something that had been concealed carefully and deliberately. That is when she had decided to call us – hoping that the previous owners of the cauldron would be more appeased by it finding a home in the museum collection.
The Chapeltown Cauldron – LEEDM.E.2012.0518

I tried to do some research into the origins of Miriam’s house to see if this shed any light on how the cauldron had arrived. The first part was to get a date for the building of the house. Thanks to some help from the staff at the Local Studies Library I was able to get a date of between 1890 and 1910, based on old maps and at what point the house started to appear on them. Then I tried to look up former occupants of the house using trade directories – but this quickly proved to be a fruitless task as they kept changing the house numbers! The first directory had listed the street starting at house no.7, and over the years it eventually began at no.1. Further confusion was added by the same people being listed at different properties on the street in different years, making it very difficult to work out who lived where and when. Hopefully in the future I’ll have another attempt and uncover more of the story of the Chapeltown Cauldron!
Miriam and Namibia at Abbey House Museum, September 2012
If you want to come and see the cauldron, it will be on display as part of ‘Fate & Fickle Fortune’ running from the end of January 2013 until the end of 2013.
Nicola Pullan,
Assistant Curator of Leeds and Social History

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