Object Lessons: An exploration of the collection at the Whitaker

What do you do with your muddy footwear?

Unless you’re a builder, festival goer or ardent rambler then this probably isn’t something that you give much consideration to. Before the mid-1800’s this would have been a daily issue for just about everyone. 

The Romans of course are famed for introducing proper roads to the UK but they actually only laid around 2,500 miles, and these were almost exclusively between encampments. The creation of a national road network was not high on any government agenda as so few people needed to travel any great distance. Indeed, the roads were in such poor condition that 10-15 miles is commonly cited as about the limits of travel for most folk before they were developed into a more recognisable network. 

Before 1837, when that road was made, it was reached in so circuitous a manner, and by such bad lanes, and across an unbridged river, that my grandfather and his family when they dined with our neighbours, two miles off, always spent the night at their house
— Baring-Gould, Old Country Life, 1892

Northern roads were particularly poor and were to be avoided, like the Preston-Wigan turnpike in Lancashire; 

…as they would the Devil; for a thousand to one they break their necks or their limbs by overthrows or breakings down. They will here meet with ruts, which I actually measured four feet deep, and floating with mud.
— Arthur Young quoted in the 1841 Pictorial History of England

It’s fair to say then that muddy footwear was part and parcel of daily life. Of course when I say mud I also mean horse muck and other effluent. 

Serious attention to pavements can be traced to the 1850’s, not just in Britain but across Europe and the USA. It says a lot that people employed to develop our roads in the early 1800’s are still names we recognise; Thomas Telford and John Macadam. With the development of pavements we begin to see the rise in popularity of the boot scraper.

 Stone boot scraper on display at The Whitaker Museum

Stone boot scraper on display at The Whitaker Museum

The bootscraper is a fairly simple device. Normally a flat horizontal blade constructed of cast iron, they can still be found today cemented into a stone base or built into the side of the doorway in many a grand house. Brussels in Belgium is apparently the place to go if you want to see a lot in one place as there are over a thousand listed examples, but you will spot examples in pretty much any town.

Scrapers for the feet may be let into the wall of the cottage, on each side of the door, a cavity being left over the scraper for the foot, and one under it for the dirt. There are various forms of scrapers for building into walls, which may be had of every ironmonger; and all that the cottager has to do is to choose one analogous to the style of his house. There are detached scrapers in endless variety; the most complete are those which have brushes fixed on edge, on each side of the scraper…
— JC Loudon, Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm, & Villa Architecture & Furniture, 1839

The Whitaker Museums boot scraper is somewhat unusual. For a start it’s not made of cast iron, which the vast majority are made of, but instead is carved from a single piece of stone. Not only that but it’s topped with three men’s heads and is dated – 1867. 
We have no record of how this bootscraper entered the collection and it’s true origin remains a mystery but we can explore interesting possibilities…

Victorian Stone Boot Scraper

The date seems to be the obvious place to begin. 1867 was an eventful year with Alaska being sold to the US, Luxembourg being bought off the Dutch, Canada was created and the first ship sailed through the Suez Canal. Any connection of these events to our boot scraper feels unlikely. Other notable things that happened in 1867 included Marx publishing Das Kapital, Lister describing antiseptic, Nobel patenting Dynamite and the last Missionary to be eaten in Fiji. Tenuous linking would be kind in the extreme.
More locally there were the three ‘Manchester Martyrs’, Irish Republicans who were executed for the murder of a police officer. The three men’s heads on our stone boot scraper however do not bear a resemblance to contemporary pictures of the men concerned. Not ruled out but not a strong contender either.

 The Manchester Martyrs

The Manchester Martyrs

What about Rossendale in 1867? 

Thomas Newbigging published his History of the Forest of Rossendale in 1867 and a musical piece entitled The Rossendale Hunt Galop was also released but neither of these really says ‘boot scraper’.

The foundation stone for Townsendfold Primitive Methodist Church on Bury Road was laid. Would a building that wasn’t to open for another year need a boot scraper? Possibly.
Perhaps the material that the boot scraper is made of is of significance?

Quarrying in the area can be dated specifically to 1341 and was almost certainly conducted before then. By the early 1800’s local stone was being transported further afield and by 1844 was walked on by the first of millions of feet as Trafalgar Square opened, Rossendale paving stones being used throughout. In fact if it had been up to architect Charles Barry the flagstones would have had pride of place as he was strongly opposed to Nelson’s Column;

It would in my opinion be desirable that the area should be wholly free from all insulated objects of art.
— Charles Barry, Architect

As an interesting aside sculptor Landseer created the famous lions at the base of the column by sketching a dead lion he had brought from London Zoo. It took him so long that he had to improvise due to the animals rate of decomposition. That’s two famous dead lion examples then - the other is on your branded Golden Syrup tin, complete with swarming bees emanating from their corpse based nest. It’s surprising how many people have failed to notice this.
The possibility that our boot scraper is linked to local quarrying is quite strong. Whilst it may not look like the most artistically competent piece of carving you’ve ever seen it has certainly been made with great skill, almost certainly by a stone mason. The most significant 1867 Rossendale quarrying event appears to be the construction of the 3 foot gauge tramway linking the Hurdles, Brow Edge, Great Height & Crag quarries (visit www.valleyofstone.org.uk. for much more on the areas quarrying history). 

It is a possibility that our boot scraper is connected in some way to this but the fact is, for now, we just don’t know. What I do know however is that the Victorian boot scraper is still a great way of managing fouled up footwear. If you suffer from persistent boot gunk, you could do far worse than investing in one.


Mick Stephens
Twitter – @brownbowlerhat
Independent Antiques Dealer & Valuer
/ Whitaker Museum Collections Consultant