Lucky in Lovett

Blue beads from the Edward Lovett Collection in the Science Museum. They were carried to protect against bronchitis (photo courtesy of the Science Museum, London)
A lucky shamrock fashioned by a first world war soldier from Ypres out of the shrapnel that nearly killed him (photo courtesy of the Lovett Collection in the Science Museum, London)
The Lovett Motor Mascott was jam-packed with good luck symbols (photo  courtesy of Southwark Heritage Centre)

Following my column about horseshoes a couple of weeks ago, I had a message from reader John Larkin from Easington, County Durham, who wrote: ‘My late father-in-law was a blacksmith who learned his trade in the 1920s…He always said, and was told as an apprentice, that horseshoes should be hung in the ‘five to’ or ‘five past’ position so that you get a constant flow of good luck. In the upright position, the luck just stays at the bottom and remains the same luck. Upside down, and you’re not getting any, but the people who pass get it all.’

He added: ‘My wife Catherine said her dad, Billy Dickenson, used to make horseshoes for her especially to put on the gate.’

Most people I have spoken to since writing the piece have said that they recall horseshoes being hung like the letter ‘U’ rather than facing downwards or in the ‘C’ position.

During my research, I came across a fascinating chap called Edward Lovett (1852-1933) who was obsessed by collecting trinkets that held importance in the world of folklore. Although he worked by day as a bank cashier in London, he spent all of his spare time trawling the back streets, scouring bric-a-brac shops and markets, taking the time to question the locals about the comfort they gained from the magic they associated with everyday objects.

He hosted lectures and wrote many articles and books about his findings, much of his work coming from discussions with the people he met on his travels. He was clearly good at getting them to open up about their long-held superstitions and his writings are full of anecdotes amassed from his conversations. He also had a knack for getting his subjects to part with their treasured trinkets and some of his vast collection can be seen at the Science Museum in London, such as strings of blue beads that people carried to protect themselves against bronchitis. He also recorded that phials of mercury would be stashed in pockets to prevent rheumatism, and torn playing cards were kept on the person for good luck.

Animal teeth were also carried in little bags in the belief that they would cure toothache. It was hoped that the pain would be transferred from the person to the tooth. It wasn’t just animal teeth that were used for this purpose, though, as human teeth were sometimes removed from the recently deceased for the same reason while an incisor-shaped piece of flint was believed to ease the suffering of teething children.

During the First World War, Lovett made a study of the many and varied forms of charm carried by soldiers in the hope that they may be protected for death or injury. He discovered that troops from Ireland wore charms around their necks made out of green Connemara marble, such as hearts, boots and shamrocks. Black bog-oak would be used to fashion lucky cats and pigs. Some talismans were made by soldiers who narrowly escaped death. They collected the shrapnel that should have killed them, believing it carried  the power to protect them. Lovett acquired a tin and copper shamrock amulet believed to have been worn by a soldier at Ypres in Belgium. Another horseshoe amulet was made from a fragment of a German shell by a Belgian soldier who had survived an attack.

He was an enterprising man, and in 1912 produced his own good luck horseshoe targeted at superstitious well-heeled car owners. Called the ‘Lovett Motor Mascot’ it was sold at fancy department store Gamages, now more famous for its hand-crafted watches.

The mascot offered ‘Good Luck To All Travellers’ and boldly claimed: ‘This mascot is by far the most powerful one that has ever been devised, consisting as it does of five of the most widely recognised types of amulet in existence, some of which have been in use for more than two thousand years.’

He was taking no chances on this one, the 16cm brass horseshoe design being jam packed with lucky symbols from around the world. It featured seven nail holes (seven was considered lucky), and held within it the crescent moon of Diana, a Byzantine crescent with a star in the centre and the wheel of a sun chariot. It was topped by a swastika, an ancient symbol of divinity in Asia long before it was hijacked by the Nazis.

What I’d really like to know, though, is did it work?

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd  June 2021

Shoe the bad luck away

A lucky horseshoe outside a building in Bournemouth. Picture by Mick Gisbourne
A horseshoe above a garage in Staithes, North Yorkshire. Picture by Alastair Smith

It’s funny how, despite all the advances in science and technology, some of us still hang on to old superstitions that common sense tells us cannot make any difference to our everyday lives.

We insist on saluting magpies, throwing salt over our shoulders and blessing people when they sneeze. One of the oldest and most persistent of superstitions surrounds the horseshoe, an item of equine foot protection that dates back to at least 400BC. The need to preserve the hooves of these hard-working animals was recognised almost as soon as horses were domesticated, and early versions, known to the Romans as ‘hipposandals’, were fashioned out of materials such as woven plants, leather and rawhide.

It wasn’t until around the sixth and seventh centuries AD that metal horseshoes began to be used in the colder Northern European climates to help steeds get a better grip on frozen terrain. They also shielded hooves that were easily damaged by hard daily toil over rough ground. It became apparent that if the hoof was covered, it enabled a horse to move faster, and therefore became an important tool not only in everyday life, but also in the sport of horse racing.

The first metal horseshoes were fashioned out of cast bronze, with iron following in the fourteenth century, the preferred material until relatively recently. Today though, you get horseshoes made of steel, aluminium, composite plastic and even rubber, the substance dependant upon what kind of activity the hooves will be subjected to. For example, steel is used for heavy horses and heavy work, whereas aluminium is appropriate for lighter duties and needs to be replaced more often. Composite and rubber shoes help to cushion the hoof and are useful on softer surfaces, or if the horse has an injury.

But why the association with luck? According to my dad in his column from 23rd May 1981, the origins of the connection are hard to pin down, but there are a number of theories. One is its shape; a horseshoe resembles a crescent moon, a motif that has so many links to historical symbolisms that it is impossible to explore them fully here. Another thread of discussion stems from the fact that ancient man would have found it hard to understand how a metal object could be nailed to a foot without causing any pain or spilling any blood. Also, when knocked against a stone, the shoe produces sparks, so it’s not hard to understand how a primitive mind might have associated this object with magical powers.

But which way up is the correct way to hang a lucky horseshoe? This again is a topic for debate. What is not disputed is that it needs to be hung either above the entrance to a building, or on an outside wall.

If you hang it like the letter ‘U’, then the idea is that it will ‘collect’ luck, like a bucket collects water. However, if you hang it the other way up, then it pours the luck over anyone who crosses the threshold. If there were seven holes in the shoe, it was important that you hung it using nails in all of them, as that was a lucky number. Some people would hang them sideways like the letter ‘C’, and this is supposed to symbolise Christ.

The amalgamation of paganism and Christianity clearly comes to the fore when it comes this practice. The horseshoe’s association with luck predates Christianity, and yet, as I referred to in the opening paragraph, people have always found it difficult to let go of long-held superstitions that haven been passed down from one generation to another. I wonder if some early Christians with pagan forefathers may already have had a horseshoe above their door and simply decided to turn it on its side to reflect the new religion? Nailing it in place also had the obvious connection with nailing Christ to the cross.

To this day, the horseshoe symbolises luck, and a quick scan of any card shop shelf will reveal a healthy crop of examples of the image. But I wonder how many readers still have horseshoes nailed above their doorways? And which way up is most commonly seen where you live? And has anyone spotted one that is turned on its side like the letter ‘C’?

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 28th and the Gazette & Herald on 26th May 2021