Editorial Feature

The Long, Forgotten History of Graffiti in England

From the Romans to Banksy

“Virtually all our sites have some form of graffiti,” says English Heritage historian Andrew Hann, "you go round any historic site, particularly a ruined one, and you’ll discover graffiti everywhere. Some of it’s modern, written by trespassers who’ve just come on the site and scratched their names on the walls, while other graffiti is actually quite historic.”

We tend to think of graffiti as part of contemporary, urban street culture – made famous by figures like Banksy – but do you know where the word actually comes from? It was coined way back in 1851 and was used to describe something much, much older than that. 'Graffiti' and its singular form 'graffito' come from the Italian 'graffiato' meaning 'scratched'. The term was used by archaeologists to describe the ancient inscriptions they found carved on the walls in the ruins of Pompeii. Some of the oldest examples were the most simple, and a form that you still see on bus stops everywhere today: “Gaius was here.” This perfectly demonstrates what so much graffiti is really about: ordinary people, across history, making their mark on the world around them.

The Forum at Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background, by unknown photographer, 1860 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Roofie paints at 5Pointz, 8.30.13 (From the collection of Street Art NYC)

So the graffiti at English Heritage sites shows us something very special. Aside from the revered architecture and sometimes dry history of successions and title deeds and trade routes, it shows the real people inhabiting and interacting with these sites and, instead of kings and nobles and lords, it tends to most often show us ordinary, regular people a little like us. As Andrew says, “history tends to be written by the powerful, it tends to be written by the people in charge”, but with graffiti, “it’s a hidden history: it’s a history of the transgressors, the people at the bottom of society, or the people that are often forgotten.”

Andrew has dozens of favorite examples from sites across England. For example, “even if you go to Stonehenge there’s graffiti which has been scratched onto the stones by 18th-century antiquaries recording their presence there… Across all our sites there are lots of little homilies, religious quotations, pictures, drawings.”

At Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, “a couple of doors were discovered in one of the garden buildings covered in graffiti scrawled by many generations of gardeners. Little quotations and sometimes just names and dates saying when they were serving in the gardens”.

“There are some interesting pieces at Bolsover Castle, which some people think are witch marks. Other people think it's probably more likely to be masons' marks, but we don't know for sure.”

The examples span the country, from Carlisle, to Dover, to Belsay, and time, with examples ranging from hundreds of years old to the present day.

Carved graffiti at Carlisle
Carved graffiti at Dover
Graffiti at Belsay

Some of the graffiti examples are very artistic. In a small room just off of Virginia Courtauld’s boudoir at Eltham Palace, there’s a little room called the ‘map room’; “we were told that this was where Virginia and her secretary used to plan their trips abroad, sailing off in their yacht around the world. We expected to find a map in there, or a map or two, but it had all been painted over by the army that occupied the site later. When we peeled the paint off, little by little with a scalpel, we discovered not only one map, but about eight or nine maps, and around them had been painted a little mural of lots of sort of little caricatures of features linked to the maps. So next to China there was a dragon and a pagoda, next to Ireland a shamrock, and next to the map of England there was a Union Jack flag. There was this amazing series of little watercolor sketches. We really didn't expect that at all.”

Map of the World, with marginalia showing gemstones and a volcano (From the collection of English Heritage)
Map of the Middle East with a mural showing an oasis, camel and Bedouin tents (From the collection of English Heritage)

Often graffiti was scratched onto the walls by people kept there against their will. At Portchester Castle, “where prisoners of war were kept during the Napoleonic wars, the prisoners there scratched little drawings of boats onto the walls of their prison cells. And then there’s Richmond Castle where there's a prison where conscientious objectors during the First World War were kept, and they left some amazing graffiti scratched onto the walls with charcoal and pencil lead.”

Inside the Cells of the Conscientious Objectors at Richmond Castle | A 360° Tour

Voices from the Walls: WWI Conscientious Objectors at Richmond Castle

At Richmond, “you've got layers of graffiti because the cells were whitewashed and then new graffiti put over the top; there are generations of graffiti on top of each other. The pieces made by conscientious objectors are often very moving – made by men, some of whom, were forced to go to the front line against their will, who were just left there and told that, if they didn't fight, they'd be executed for cowardice. And some of the verses they've written are very poignant, as well as some quite amusing stuff in there as well. That’s probably my favorite graffiti in all of our sites.”


Richmond Castle: Conserving the Cell Block Graffiti

For Andrew, graffiti raises some interesting questions about human nature and of history itself: “It's sort of a case of transgressive behavior. It's going against the established norm to be writing or scrawling something on walls, but it’s something that’s happened throughout human history.” And what about people who tag or vandalize sites today? “We occasionally get graffiti damage to our site in the present day, and we have to remove graffiti from the walls of some of our buildings now. When is graffiti historical artifact and when is it vandalism? It’s a difficult dividing line.”

Graffiti at Deal Castle

Every English Heritage site is a palimpsest of English history. Every site is layered, like a cake. If you were to take a knife and slice through that cake, you’d find layers upon layers of time periods squashed on top of one another; an 18th-century country house, built around the core of a much earlier house, itself built on the foundations of an abbey cloister, which was built on the site of a Roman fort, and so on. But graffiti offers a way for these different time periods to speak to one another. Modern people making their mark on an ancient structure, 17th-century people leaving their comments on a 12th-century building, 19th-century archaeologists leaving their marks on a neolithic stone circle.

For Andrew, graffiti allows us to travel through all of English history: graffiti documents everything, ”you know, you’ve got warfare, you’ve got prisons, you’ve got lovers who are just scrawling their names on a wall when they’re there, you've got famous people who have been held prisoner in various places, you’ve got examples that are very artistic. There are all sorts of different angles to it” – all of the aspects of English life itself. Across English Heritage sites, the history of the country is literally written into the fabric of the walls.


You might also like:

- 5 English Heritage Sites That Changed English History Forever
- The Real Housewives of English Castles
- Explore the English Heritage collection

Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris
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