Situated in extensive private grounds at Slead Syke between Brighouse and Hove Edge, Slead Hall is almost entirely obscured from prying eyes. Its profile once dominated the hillside but as the trees and housing around it have grown increasingly dense, the ivy-swathed gates facing onto Halifax Road are the only public evidence of its existence. A house was first recorded on the site in 1316, although the present Slead Hall is thought to have been constructed in 1636. It was divided into two private dwellings in 1910 and later used to hold Italian PoWs during World War Two.
Sometime during the 1960s or 1970s, this building was the scene of a grisly discovery, when during renovations, workmen exposed the desiccated but perfectly preserved corpse of a cat which had been bricked up in the walls, presumably since the house was originally build in the 17th Century. The find was recalled by a member of Brighouse Historical Society and related to the author John Billingsley, who mentions it in his publication, West Yorkshire Folktales.
The profusion of such articles unearthed in the walls or roof-spaces of buildings constructed between the 16th and 17th Century indicates that they were placed there deliberately, not just animals that became trapped and died. Some examples even had their legs bound together to prevent escape, as the desiccation process was effected by placing the cat in an airtight cavity and allowing it to suffocate or starve to death. Such discoveries are often erroneously referred to as mummified cats, but the term “dried cats” is more accurate.
Dried cats are only one of a variety of apparently protective talismans interred in buildings during this period, with witch bottles, horse skulls and even human skulls also popular. A couple of hundred dried cats have been documented across the country, their frequency only outstripped by old shoes. However, oral accounts suggest that countless more have been discovered over the years but not properly recorded, as superstitious owners may leave them in place, whilst others simply do not recognise the significance of such a find.
Indeed, the exact significance of dried cats is still hotly contested amongst academic folklorists and social historians. A number of examples have been found deliberately positioned to look as if they were on the hunt, which has led some deflationary scholars, such as Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum and curator of an exhibition of curiosities in this vein, to suggest that cats were placed in the walls in the belief that they would deter mice, like some macabre domestic scarecrow.
Yet this theory fails to account adequately for all the facts. It ignores associated finds such as shoes or horses skulls and that such items are typically found concealed near liminal points, especially doorways, windows, gables and chimneys. This seems to favour the more common interpretation that the function of all these items was indeed talismanic, designed to prevent malignant forces gaining access to the house, especially witches, fear of whom was at its height during the 17th Century.
The significance of a cat specifically in this context also remains debated. One theory holds that their use stemmed from the magical principle “like cures like”, aimed at the popular belief that witches kept cats as familiar spirits. Another school of thought suggests that it is a corrupted remembrance of the much older tradition of foundation sacrifice, well attested in Britain during the Iron Age, whereby animals and even humans were killed as an offering to the gods in order to secure protection for the building and their remains laid beneath the foundations.