Last summer I visited the Natural History Museum in London. While looking at the displays one item on display caught my eye, a mummified cat! This was of interest to me because kept in a strong room at the History Centre is a mummified cat, who, we’ve affectionately named Bing Clawsby!
In 1989, the then County Archivist Ken Rogers and Archivist Margaret Moles collected the archives of solicitors Mann, Rodway and Green from their offices at 57 Union Street, Trowbridge. While clearing their strong room a dead cat was found amongst the documents. A feeling of sadness was felt for the cat and they decided to bring it back to the Record Office in Trowbridge. “Bing Clawsby” now resides in Strong Room 2 here at the History Centre in Chippenham. Bing’s hearing and eye sight is not what it used to be and now spends most of the day asleep in its box.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, predominately during the witch-trials (first half of the 17th century), people believed that Satan was very active and that witches made pacts with him, they would hand over their soul in exchange for supernatural powers. Witches had the ability to take the form of animals to help them perform their evil deeds. Witches also had the help of familiars. These were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist the witch. Familiars would often appear as animals and could even take the form of humans. It was vitally important to take steps to protect oneself and the family and to destroy witches and their familiars. The house had to be protected by day and night from these evil forms that would enter the home and cause harm to the family.
One important way to protect the home would be to conceal items within the wall, roof space, under the floor but quite often near points of entry, the door, window and chimney area. Concealed items included shoes, horse skulls, witch-bottles, dried animals such as birds, rats, mice and cats. These objects would have been hidden in secrecy because this itself was considered an act of magic and such beliefs were regarded as unlawful.
Mummified cats or “Dried Cats” as they are officially known were used across Europe. It is not known if these cats had died before or after concealment, but some had been placed in a position that looks like they are about to pounce, which must have occurred after death. Cats were regarded as possessing a sixth sense and would carry on hunting in the afterlife. Some cats have been found with a dried rat or mouse next to them, one cat even had a rat in its jaws. Cats have been found from the period when London was rebuilt after the Great Fire. Some of these cats were in building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and could have been put there by Wren’s masons.
As with cats, horses are believed to be able to see things on a spiritual plane and would be able to watch over the family and guide them from witches and spirits.
As the Victoria County History continued its investigations, it found that the survival of several large freehold estates into the late 18th and 19th centuries was represented by a number of high-status buildings of an early origin, including Marvins and Hedge Cottage, mentioned in earlier blogs. To the north of the river Wylye, which runs through the Deverills, is the 16th-century Pope’s farm, once called Bodenham’s. In 1603, Bodenham’s farm comprised 200 a. of arable, 40 a. of meadow, 60 a. of pasture, and 10 a. of woodland. Today it is a charming country farmhouse with a garden with the lands farmed by the Stratton family based at Manor Farm down the road.
Pope’s Farmhouse is another set of buildings that simply do not reflect their origins. The farmhouse is now divided into two dwellings, with the second part called Pope’s Flat. They are a much-altered originally early 16th and 17th century farmhouse that was rebuilt in the early 19th century and remodelled again in the period 1970-75 by the Strattons. This gave a classical rendered elevation with a Doric-style open porch on the south side flanked by canted bay windows. It wouldn’t look out of place in an 18th century town square. However, look around to the west side and you will see its earlier origins in the tall, two-storey 16th-century rubblestone range parallel to the road. It has a blocked arched window and an old, blocked fireplace. If you venture through the pedestrian Tudor arch on this side, you would see that the interior courtyard shows its older origins. The window heads have remnants of a plain round arches of a type favoured in the 16th century.