Picture credit: Geography Photos/Getty
Artillery Row Books

Scratches in the stonework of history

A new history of graffiti and rebellion is less light and bawdy than one may have expected

Writing on the Wall: Graffiti, Rebellion and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Britain
by Madeleine Pelling
(London: Profile Books Ltd, 2024)
ISBN: 978 1 80081 199 7 (hardback)
           978 1 80081 201 7 (e-book)
333 pp., 38 b&w illus.

The study and collection of ephemera such as graffiti, curious pamphlets, oddities, and absurdities can be passing amusements, although the literary effusions on lavatory walls can have limited appeal, confined, as they usually are, to bodily functions, what used to be called “privy parts”, afflictions, and crude representations of anatomical abnormalities. On occasion, though, there are memorable offerings: I can recall the door of a cubicle in a London pub decorated with the sage observation that IT GETS WORSE, a sentiment with which no sane person could disagree; and in another lavatory in the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, some exasperated student had announced I HAVE JUST HAD A MODERN MOVEMENT, which perhaps sums up what many of us think of the deplorable state of British architecture today. And way back more than half a century ago, when Golda Meir (1898-1978) was Prime Minister of Israel (1969-74) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-73) was 36th President of the USA (1963-9), some perceptive soul informed his readers in the London Underground that GOLDA MEIR IS LBJ IN DRAG (and indeed when one compared photographs of the two, the facial resemblance was extraordinary).

Pelling mentions certain publications, once familiar to this reviewer, including The Merry-Thought: or, the Glass-House Window and Bog-House Miscellany by “Hurlo Thrumbo”, printed in London for J. Roberts in 1731, in which the author suggested it would be a great pity “that the profound Learning and Wit of so many illustrious Personages, who have favoured the Publick with their Lucubrations in Diamond Characters upon Drinking-Glasses, on Windows, on Walls, and in Bog-houses, should be lost to the World”, and asked readers to consider “how many Accidents might rob us of these sparkling Pieces, if the industrious Care of the Collector had not taken this Way of preserving them, and handing them to Posterity”. 

There were many other 18th-century minor tomes, some of which I had the privilege of studying in the collection of the late Sir Basil Blackwell (1889-1984), including The Benefit of Farting Explain’d: or, the Fundament-All Cause of the Distempers incident to the Fair-Sex; Proving a Posteriori, most of the Dis-ordures In-tail’d upon them, are owing to Flatulencies not seasonally vented, by “Obadiah Fizzle, Groom of the Stool”, supposedly published in “Longfart”, and printed by Simon Bumbubbard at the Sign of the Windmill, opposite Twattling-street, in 1744, but first published by the fictitious “A. Moore” in the 1720s. The real author is supposed, on not very great authority, to have been Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). A German edition, entitled Die Wohlthat des F ….. s erklärt, came out in 1738. On occasion, the collector could be disappointed: in my case, a perusal of a little volume entitled 50 Faggots by “Julian”, illustrated by John R. Biggs (1909-88), and published in 1944 by John Miles, turned out to be a collection of harmless and delightful pieces on nature, originally published in the Catholic Herald.   

This new book purports to be “a new history of the long eighteenth century, told through the marks its citizens left behind”: that “long century” she identifies as starting from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and ending with the accession of Victoria in 1837, but here I would disagree about the late date, for the reign of William IV (1830-37) saw momentous changes, not least in legislation, which caused uproar, especially in relation to the position of the Established Church, and those changes profoundly altered many aspects of 19th-century life very far-removed from what could be expected in the Georgian Age.

Of course we know that graffiti were known in Antiquity, and many choice exemplars survived to be rediscovered during the disinterment of the ruins of Pompeii. As a student of funerary monuments in churches and cathedrals, I have often been struck (and offended) by the numerous initials carved into alabaster and other stones by generations of vandals (some spectacular examples survive in Westminster Abbey alone). In St Mary’s, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, however, some remarkable graffiti inside the west tower record the devastation and horror of the Black Death of 1349-50: we are told that the very dregs of the people survived to witness 1350, and there is an image of part of old St Paul’s Cathedral, London, with a second church corresponding to St Augustine’s, which stood to the east of St Paul’s until the Great Fire of 1666. Presumably these fascinating mediæval examples of graffiti were scratched into the stonework by those fleeing from the Pestilence in London.

William Hogarth (1697-1764) recorded contemporary graffiti, notably in his Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), where in the First Stage a man depicts “Tom Nero” being hanged from the gallows, drawn in coal on a wall, a presentiment of things to come. Pelling records the impact chalked messages could convey, not least panic, as in the anti-Papist hysteria stirred up in the late 17th century, and again horribly manifested in the riots instigated by Lord George Gordon (1751-93) in 1780 which appalled the political nation: Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84) called them “a time of terrour” and William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote of “a Metropolis in flames, and a Nation in Ruins”. Indeed, messages or slogans chalked or written with coal on walls could spread rumour and disinformation that could be enormously destructive and frightening, a precursor of the vile plague of electronic “social media” today. James Gillray (1757-1815, savagely caricatured a rioter of 1780 in his No Popery, or, Newgate Reformer (1700), showing a drunken lout wearing a ‘No Popery’ cockade, wielding a cudgel, and yelling “Down with the Bank” (referring to the attempt by rioters to sack the Bank of England). This is well covered in a chapter entitled His Majesty King Mob.

Pelling touches upon some of the moving examples of graffito left by prisoners, including that of Lady Jane Grey (1537-54, Queen of England and Ireland for 9 days in 1553) and those of Arthur and Edmund Poole (or Pole, both of whom died in 1570) in the Tower of London. Other graffiti left by prisoners of the French wars in the 1790s (some of them black, from the Caribbean), are mentioned, notably those at Portchester Castle, Hampshire. She also describes how inscriptions (some cut into glass panes) reflected the loyalties of Jacobites and anti-Jacobites, and quotes a conversation (1796) between the diarist, the Revd James Macdonald (1772-1810), and Robert Burns (1759-96) in a hostelry well-known to me, the Globe Inn, Dumfries, in which the poet had admitted his Jacobite sympathies by inscribing a verse on the glass of a window in Stirling in 1787, but realising his rashness, returned to smash the pane with his riding-crop. However, James (Pelling mistakenly calls him John) Maxwell (1720-1800), no friend of Burns, published the piece, for the potential of such works to ignite passions and influence people had long been known. 

All in all, this is a very interesting book, although rather more serious than the light entertainment and robust bawdiness I had expected from the title. The illustrations could have been reproduced less murkily (and there could have been more of them), but despite some reservations, Pelling manages to evoke aspects of 18th century society in transition, drawing on many sources, some not all that well known. But was it really essential to employ a capital B when referring to “persons of colour”?  

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