Horse-shoes Nailed On Ships

A correspondent asks if any of our nautical readers can furnish a plausible reason for the prevailing custom of fixing a horse-shoe on the foremasts of ships in his Majesty’s service, and whether it is a common practice in other vessels, as it has been often seen in the ships of war in the royal dockyards.

In reply to a question in your December Magazine, p. 482, allow me to state that it is usual to nail a horseshoe on the foremast of vessels in the merchant service, and the shoe must be found by accident, or it is believed to have no virtue. The reason assigned for doing it is, that it keeps witches and wizards from hindering the voyage or damaging the ship. Sailors are many of them very superstitious, and have a firm belief in its efficacy. They have also their lucky and unlucky days. Sunday is the most fortunate : whatever voyage is begun on that day is sure to be prosperous. Friday is the most unfortunate, as a voyage begun then is sure to be an unfortunate one.

If your correspondent is accustomed to be amongst sailors on the water, he has most probably observed them in calm weather whistling the wind, to induce it to blow and many of them believe it to be a very powerful charm. We smile at the poor Laplander, who bags his wind, ready tied up, for him to use at his pleasure, whilst our own people are almost as credulous.

Some stable-keepers in this neighbourhood hang up a flint stone, with a natural hole through it, in the stable, to prevent the Devil riding the horses in the night, which they tell you he will do if the stone does not hang there.

GEO. BAYLEY. Upon turning over the leaves of your last two volumes this morning, a few observations occurred to me, which I subjoin for insertion.


The custom of nailing horseshoes on the masts of ships, lintels or thresholds of doors, etc., is very antient, and originated in a superstitious belief that no witch can injure the inmates of a house or vessel so protected. Aubrey, in his ” Miscellanies,” says : ” It is a thing very common to nail horseshoes on the thresholds of doors, which is to hinder the power of witches that enter into the house. Most houses of the west-end of London have the horse-shoe on the threshold. It should be a horse-shoe that one finds.” Again, in Gay’s fable of the ” Old Woman and her Cats,” the supposed witch says :

” Straws laid across my pace retard,
The horse-shoes nail’d each threshold guard.”

Country wenches, when they experience any peculiar difficulty in making butter, will sometimes drop into the churn a horse-shoe heated, believing the cream to be spell-bound, and that this operation will destroy the charm. I have read in ” Glanville,” or some such work, of this experiment being once tried by a weary churner, when immediately an old hag, a reputed witch, who lived close by, shrieked violently, and exclaimed that she was scorched. Upon examining her body, the mark of a horse-shoe was found distinctly branded on her flesh ! !I Passing under the arcade of the Royal Exchange a day or two since, I observed a horse-shoe nailed to one of the benches belonging to the ticket-porters, so that the superstition it seems is not yet extinct even in London.