Books

From castle walls to Banksy: How graffiti has given us the writing on the wall throughout history

Graffiti is nothing new. For most of human history people have written on the surfaces around them to have their say

Graffiti from 1750 in Wellclose Square prison, near the Tower of London. The prison was beneath a pub called The Cock and Neptune. The pub’s landlord acted as gaoler. Image: Matt Crossick / Alamy Stock Photo

What can graffiti tell us about the past? When we pass it on our streets today, we might be forgiven for thinking it is a modern phenomenon. From provocative works by Banksy to spray-painted pro-Palestinian messages, it’s rarely out of our news cycle. But writing on the wall is nothing new. In fact, for most of human history, almost everyone took to the surfaces around them – from cave walls to tavern windows – to have their say. 

In medieval Britain, graffitists would carve into the stone walls of churches as well as their homes, leaving behind crosses, depictions of ships, weapons and tools, all intended as prayers asking God to bless their endeavours. Then there were hexafoils, or daisy wheels – ornate patterns thought to ward off evil spirits and keep out the devil. Many of these surviving marks give us unique insights into the ideas and fears that drove our ancestors’ daily lives.

But it was in the 18th century that graffiti became the powerful, troublesome media we recognise today. This was a turbulent period, overshadowed by revolution in America and France. At home, Britain’s streets teemed with merchants, servants, newspaper sellers, ballad singers, drunks, politicians and the homeless – all eager to speak out in a fast-changing world. In this tinderbox, graffiti – gossip, slander, jokes, porn-ography, proclamations, calls to arms – had never been so powerful. It could inform and spread ideas, incite violence, entertain and annoy.  

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Some even made it onto the page, written down by Georgians whose curiosity was piqued by the scribblings they saw. In 1731, a bestselling book, The Merry-Thought: or the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany, published some of London’s most bawdy graffiti, spotted by its anonymous author everywhere from the royal court to the local privy.

Outside a Chancery Lane brothel, for example, we hear from one disgruntled customer complaining in chalk, “Here did I lay my Celia down/I got the P-x, and she got half a Crown.” Sex workers often answered in kind: “I became all Things to all Men to gain some/or I must have starved.”

Graffiti weighed in on public scandal too. In a Chelsea tavern, one gentleman took to the wall to lament the loss of his fortune during a financial crash in 1720. Beneath, another unsympathetic drinker responded simply with: “Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Many of the marks made during this time survive on our historic buildings. You need only climb to the attic of a stately home, peer down a cobbled alleyway or scour the windows of an old church to see them. There, you’ll find the voices of the disenfranchised, the angry, lonely, lusty and vengeful. At the Museum of London a reconstructed prison cell, saved from a debtors’ prison near Tower Hill, lends remarkable insight into the lives of the city’s poorest.

Among the graffiti carved into its wooden walls are pistols, ship’s anchors and sails, hinting at the maritime connections of inmates trapped there until they could pay their debts. Initials, names and dates give personal touches and flashes of emotion. One poem, written low on the wall as though by a prisoner lying down, begs: “All You That on This Cast an Eye, Behold in Prison Here I Lie, Bestow You in Charety [sic], Or with hunger soon I die.”

Graffiti was not only left by those on the edges of Georgian society, but also by its most powerful institutions. Among the best surviving examples are pieces made by soldiers around the British Empire – names of ships, surnames, dates of service and battles carved into far-flung outposts along the Canadian coast, on rocks in the Caribbean and ancient ruins in Europe.

At a barracks in Berwick-upon-Tweed, soldiers stationed along the England-Scotland border left intricate smoke graffiti (made by holding a candle around a stencil) depicting playing cards, women, their weapons and local landmarks. Many would go on to fight against the Jacobites in 1745-46, when Charles Edward Stuart, the grandson of the exile James II, attempted to unseat the Hanoverian monarchy in Britain.

Across Britain, wartime graffiti scars the landscape. At Edinburgh Castle, prisoners captured during the American Revolution carved into the wooden door of their shared cell. A gallows and hanged man, labelled as the then-British prime minister Lord North, and a ship flying the stars and stripes can still be seen there today.

Likewise, on the south coast, Portchester Castle played host to French prisoners – among them, thousands of previously enslaved black men and women – captured during the Napoleonic wars. There, French places names, regimental insignia and dates of capture line the crumbling battlements. 

Together, this unique archive gives us a commentary on historic events, left behind by the very people who lived through them. Free from museum collecting strategies or curatorial agendas, historic graffiti remains in situ, waiting to be found by anyone curious enough to look. And once you start discovering the voices of the past hidden all around us, you won’t be able to stop. 

Writing on the Wall; Graffiti, Rebellion and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Britain by Madeleine Pelling is out now (Profile Books, £25).

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw
Books

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel
Books

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel

Top 5 queer love stories, chosen by Justin Myers aka The Guyliner
Queer love: Two men standing under a rainbow umbrella in front of a field
Books

Top 5 queer love stories, chosen by Justin Myers aka The Guyliner

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know