Curious Clogs and Clever Contraptions: When Sherlock Holmes inspired a Crime

Marcia Wilson

“If I had only been there!” he cried. “It is evidently a case of extraordinary interest,

and one which presented immense opportunities to the scientific expert. That gravel

page upon which I might have read so much has been long ere this smudged by the

rain and defaced by the clogs of curious peasants. Oh, Dr. Mortimer, Dr. Mortimer,

to think that you should not have called me in! You have indeed much to answer for.”


Sherlock Holmes makes much of footwear; they are fingerprints for time and place. Footwear is utterly hinged on what a person can afford to pay, and in that narrow gap of possibility rests rich details for his eye. He notes the curious matter of Sir Henry and his missing boot; Sir George’s crime. Tonga’s bare feet.  And his declaration in HOUN draws our attention because it is the only time he (or anyone else) uses the word “clog.”

 A real pity, that. Clogs are as unique as fingerprints and he could have scarce missed knowing this in his interactions with the people that wore them.

This is the Devonshire clog Holmes’ “peasants” would have worn: A single, thick block of wood comprising the sole, thick leather upper, with horseshoe-like metal rims (clog irons) to protect the nail-heads at the heel and toe, and a necklace of nails studded around the join.  Below is a closeup of a small woman’s or child’s clog, kindly provided by Bernard Molloy. Note the horseshoe-like metal heel caps, sole protectors, brass caps and studs:  [1]

We can tell that this is quite a lot of shoe.  It is perfect for the needs of the wearer, who would be using this solely outside the house: durable footwear for a rough and tumble life. It is not a shoe for gentlemen.  Gentlemen would have no need of this hard-tested footwear…and of course there is the reputation this shoe has with rebellion and, dare we say it, workers’ rights.

Without an obsessive search and destroy mission for information it is impossible to be sure of the development of the Devonshire Clog, but in 1818 the Monthly Magazine, a British Registrar of patents, lists and interesting entry:

LIST OF NEW PATENTS; and we earnestly solicit the Patentees to   favour us with copies of extracts of their Specifications.

  1. BOOTH, of Eckington, Derbyshire, turner in wood; for a method of making by a certain machine wooden clogs for pattens, wooden clogs or soles for shoes and a description of wooden clogs, commonly known by the name of the Devonshire clogs, or by whatsoever other name the same several clogs are commonly called –April 8.[2]

Growing up in America, the well-read child will encounter the word “clog” and instantly think of the Dutch and their “wooden upper” or “whole-wood” klompen.

(Let us all pause for a moment and mourn our innocent youth, when we didn’t know ‘The Boy and the Dike’ was a purple load of codswallop written by someone who had no idea a dike could never, ever be salvaged by a child’s finger in a leak!)

If the reader thought past the non-Dutch story of Dutch bravery, they could pat themselves on the back by remembering the French Sabot wooden shoe).  This proves they didn’t fall asleep during the good n’ bloody bits of the French Revolution in History class:  The word sabotage comes from the use of the worker’s sabot, or wooden shoe, but more on that later (and it isn’t what we were told in school either).

Thirdly, they might belong to that little-known fringe group of Americans known as “Clog-Dancers” whom are popularly imagined as a small but strangely determined group who embrace long hair, peasant blouses, flowing skirts, and synchronized percussion.

Clogs are as British as a cup of tea and not as uncomfortable or inconvenient as other English relics such as, say, wool underwear.  They are certainly more than a painted curio from another land and, dare we be so bold, not worthy of Mr. Holmes’ scorn.  It is one of the most successful designs of civilization.[3] And despite a roaringly healthy industry making klompen for the tourists, the Dutch still wear clogs for practical reasons: they are often safer than steel-toed work shoes because they crack instead of dent and thus spares the foot a wicked (potentially work-threatening) pinch!

Clogs are shoes made completely of wood or wood sole with a different upper unless we are discussing foam and rubber Crocs.  The Irish brogans so fondly viewed by historians and re-enactors are clogs.  Our ancestors had plenty of practice in developing something that could take punishment and get us out of a mess.  They are durable, resistant to wear and tear, can be repaired by at the time most common tools, waterproof and easily dried.  They could be heavy or light depending on the wood.  The variety of clogs in the world is astonishing, as they can easily adapt to the unique needs of the owner and can be carved to fit individually.  Their success and longevity is all to their few limitations: availability of material, the ability to manufacture, and the originality of the creator in adapting the footwear to the demands of the immediate environment.

Clogs have upturned toes so the foot can roll the shoe forward.  This replaced the mechanism for taking a natural step.  A solid chunk of shoe will not flex like muscle and bone. The upturn, called a cast, is practical and can be quite graceful on the clogs of women and children. Marilyn Monroe was fond of them.

For the stylish foot, clogs were carved on the outside for their tastes.  Men and women both had excellently crafted designs along their cultural norms. The Spanish albarca is be carved with impressive fine designs, almost embroidery-like in their intricacy. Some of these clogs are so artistically conveyed they need to be seen to be believed. There is even a rare pair of fighter’s clogs with the name of a woman etched in the toes!  In places where carving was less important, the metal tips and efficiency of design were the core fashion statement.

Clogs are not the footwear one will find on a gymnast, swimmer, or aerial performer, but they are a godsend among Percussion Dancers.  You will see them among Morris wheels, wrestlers, and artists, musical theatres, Vaudeville performers, and Riverdancers. Do not be surprised to see them worn proudly among the African Stepping, Gumboot, and tap-dancers, whom evolved from cloggers wishing a specific range of sound to go with their dancing.  But to really understand this, we need to go backwards a bit and look at the etymology behind clog.

Clogs were originally blocks of wood used to hinder movements of livestock—the word goes back as far as 14th century England as clogge, “lump of wood” and relates to the Norwegian klugu (knotty log of wood).  About a century and a half later clog came to mean anything that impeded action.  You slowed something down by tying it to blocks of wood—if you impeded someone, you “clogged up” their passage.  This is normally used for describing stoppers in plumbing and piping nowadays, but you get the idea! You certainly won’t be running in these. With sweet historic irony, Hope Gillarman said of the clog,

“a wooden sole “can’t give you enough movement to enable you to walk or run with a complete gait.” As a result of this loss of movement, clog-wearers tend to drag their feet, “which causes more postural problems,” she said.[4]

Fair enough but clog does mean to slow down.  This short, fashion-oriented article takes the time to note that clogs are simply not designed for long distance walking

The French word for sabotage does come from sabot, their clog, but not to throw into the machinery of the oppressors as many think: Sabots were the shoe of peasants and peasants were likened as being slow and clumsy.  In rebellion these workers did the Gallic version of ca’canny: Moving slowly in order not to do too much.  They did not sacrifice their precious footwear into machinery, but managed to be even more infuriating by being slow and awkward to work for their leather-shod overseers. Shuffling about in clogs will result in a lot of racket—sabotage means to make noise with sabots. A lot of noise—but no appreciable work accomplished. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman have a delightful description in their blog Grammarphobia.[5]

“At one of these were two boys, who, as most Westmorland boys, wore wooden clogs shod with iron, and of course in their movements made plenty of noise.  One day it was thought that they made rather too much, and the mother shouted out, “Gang away and lake.” …these urchins … scampered off for a game, making as much noise as a couple of galloways.”[6]

If you want to witness the spirit of these original sabotagers, look no further than the Gumboot Dancers of Africa’s gold mines. The miners communicate, make complex music, and parody their bosses and armed guards with their heavy boots as part of their musical performance.

Clogs: Percussion Dancing and Naked Fighting

Clogs as a Form of Protest: The true saboteur

“Nowt o’sort,” she said, and all of a sudden became busy about her house, making enough noise with her Westmorland clogs to show plainly that she wanted to hear no more about it then.”

–a woman’s reaction to a Missionary’s less than subtle approach.[7]

Percussion Dancing is a popular form where the sound the dancers make is as important as the dance.  Stomping on the floor and heel-and-toe tapping for sound effects mark percussion dancing.  Having worked in a heavy manufactory, I can tell you it is almost impossible to keep from responding to plucks of rhythm and timing in your surroundings; it keeps you alert and focused without getting dull. Within a few weeks your brain will develop an awareness for pattern and begin to create melodies. In the days of 12 or more hours without proper rest breaks this was a way to keep going .

Clogging as a Martial Art

Clogs were used with skill and violence in Britain’s Northwestern lands, but never against unfeeling machinery.  Purring, believed from the Gaelic word for scraping, was a fantastically efficient way of getting through a disagreement.  Against the proper British notion that fists were for gentlemen, these gladiators enthusiastically kick-boxed their way through their quarrels, and the casualty list was high.  Getting kicked in the head by a slipper-toed savate fighter or punched by a fist has no comparison to one’s skull meeting a dense wooden club tipped with metal and studded with nails.

It should be no surprise that purring rarely lasted long and corrugated shins were proud marks of combat.  The savage nature of the fights (contestants might be completely nude but for their shoes), guaranteed that the mainstream public would be ignorant or poorly informed of this culture.  It would be a crazy editor who would permitted details of nude fighting.  It was a serious sport that only died down after WWII.  It is a hard sport to learn about because surviving participants are leery about getting arrested even now. Even the shoes are all but invisible; they were buried with their owners.  Wood is wood and old soles went to other uses. The language has kept delightful word-relics such as “leather and timber kiss” (combat with clogs), “pop your clogs” (to die), “clog-ball” (lump of snow on the heel), “Cloggy-dick” (someone who stupidly wears clogs where they aren’t normally used because as everyone knows, “Bad news goes about in clogs; good news in stockinged feet.”). “Clogs to clogs in three generations” (the effort to rise from poverty rarely lasts to the third generation), “clever clogs” (smart fella), and of course the promise to give a good thrashing is the offer for a “clog toe pie” which is completely against the spirit of lighting the “Yule clog” at Christmas.[8]

It might be a good idea to renew our acquaintance with these words because the Shin-Kicking Association of Britain (SKAB) is still trying to bring this back as an Olympic sport. The last petition only managed 7 out of 100 signatures, but…you never know.

You could honorably avoid a blow in purring by dancing; the best dancer was the best fighter.  Because of the clog’s ability to make a racket, it was inevitable that it added to the artistic forms of the wearers: clogging depends on the ability of the dancer to use their feet to add and enhance the rhythm and sound of the dance.  Solid wooden shoes had a disadvantage against the type of clog worn at the Lancaster mills, where the heel and toe of the foot were each surrounded in “horseshoes” of metal to protect the shoe and the uppers were of an almost indestructible oiled and waxed water buffalo leather.  Imagine going up against that in one of the Lancaster fights!  The ear compared the sound of the Lancaster dancers to that of the massive weaving looms at work. These metal tips could really add to the range of sound.  This set the stage, so to speak, for the art of tap-dancing.  One notable Lancaster dancer is Charlie Chaplin, who joined an entertainment troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads. He may have stayed in the first steady job of his young life had his asthma not put an end to his clogging—but it also freed him to seek other work.  His original sense of timing began with stamping his clogs on the downbeat; as an actor that timing was fine-honed two years later when he landed the role of Billy the Page for William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes.

Going Back to One’s Roots: Even Gentlemen Wore Clogs at One Time!

But this is not the only tie clogging has with the Holmesian Canon.  As stated earlier, Holmes only used the word clog once, and that was in HOUN.  But interesting stories have a way of being circular, and in The Adventure of the Priory School we see Holmes encounter a fascinating use of shoes as crime.

“There is one other small point upon which I desire some light. This fellow Hayes had shod his horses with shoes which counterfeited the tracks of cows. Was it from Mr. Wilder that he learned so extraordinary a device?”

            The Duke stood in thought for a moment, with a look of intense surprise on his face. Then he opened a door and showed us into a large room furnished as a museum. He led the way to a glass case in a corner, and pointed to the inscription.

            “These shoes,” it ran, “were dug up in the moat of Holdernesse Hall. They are for the use of horses, but they are shaped below with a cloven foot of iron, so as to throw pursuers off the track. They are supposed to have belonged to some of the marauding Barons of Holdernesse in the Middle Ages.”

Holmes’ Interesting Observations–and that of his Readers

Clogs with reversed soles have been used as late as WWII to fool enemy soldiers, but the cleverness and methods change with the demands of the times.  Truly the early Barons had money to burn if they used iron instead of wood to falsify their tracks!

Holmes ranked this clever gimmick as almost as interesting as his paycheck by His Lordship.  He has solved many cases, but how often have we seen crimes inspired by Holmes?

In 1922 a team of hard-hitting Florida moonshine hunters discovered their quarry was not only enterprising, but well-read fans of Sherlock Holmes:


This is a patten or overshoe clog, with the thick wooden block carved up to look like hooves of cattle.

Shiners wear “cow shoes”

A new method of evading prohibition agents was revealed here today by A.L. Allen, state prohibition enforcement director, who displayed what he called a “cow shoe” as the latest thing front the haunts of moonshiners.

The cow shoe is a strip of metal to which is tacked a wooden block carved to resemble the hoof of a cow, which may be strapped to the human foot. A man shod with a pair of them would leave a trail resembling that of a cow.

The shoe found was picked up near Port Tampa where a still was located some time ago. It will be sent to the prohibition department at Washington. Officers believe the inventor got his idea from a Sherlock Holmes story in which the villain shod his horse with shoes the imprint of which resembled those of a cow’s hoof.  May 27, 1922, The Evening Independent




Kohn, Ingeborg. Pg. 19, Charlie Chaplin, brightest star of Silent Films, 1st Ed., Sept. 2005

Cow shoes used by Moonshiners in the Prohibition days to disguise their footprints, 1922 By RHP | Posted on: March 26, 2014 | Updated on: March 26, 2014:

The Cloggies: An Everyday Saga in the life of Clog-Dancing Folk Online comic, now available only in archives and occasional used book sales. Warning: Rough and Tumble humor…as you might expect!

Online Etymology Dictionary:

The Phrase Finder:

Animal Prints: Carved Shoes That Leave Behind Realistic Tracks; April 11, 2012:

Northern Soul: Purring and Parring: the mysterious history of Clog Fighting Jan. 8, 2016, Helen Carter

For a good-hearted single page lecture on one of the few clog-makers left in the UK, please go to and if you suit the description of being “fat and fifty” consider joining his Morris Dancing troupe. Or at least buy his clogs for your own Morrising.


[1] With much thanks to Bernard Molloy, of Molloy’s MEGA ANTIQUES CENTRE, Takapuna, Auckland, NZ see endnotes at the end of this article for further information

[2] Phillips, Sir Richard. The Monthly Magazine, or, The British Register, Vol. 46, Part II London: Printed for Sir Richard Phillips, Price 16 shillings, half-bound, printed by J.W. and C. Adlard, 23, Bartholomew Close. P. 437

[3]  P.4 Therapeutic Footwear: A Comprehensive Guide; Tyrrell & Carter; Churchill, Livingstone, Elsevier, ©2009



[6]Fayers, Thomas. Labour Among the Navvies p. 3  Wertheim, Macintosh, and Hunt, 1862

[7] Fayers, Thomas. Labour Among the Navvies p. 127-128 Wertheim, Macintosh, and Hunt, 1862

[8] A real wealth of wooden shoe proverbs and expressions still rests in the Dutch language, but including these would be only for my personal gratification and swell the size of this article to monstrous proportions.



Published in: on September 22, 2016 at 3:10 am  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: