Graffiti isn’t a new feature or problem in our environments. It’s been happening for hundreds and thousands of years – you could argue hieroglyphics are a form of graffiti (I actually remember a Channel 5 documentary I saw years ago saying that the stone and chisel were the ancient Egyptian’s equivalent of a marker pen).
What’s of interest to me as a historian and cemetery-botherer is the mark that the dead have left; still visible, still tangible, a knowing reference that someone has been here before. I’m not talking about buildings they’ve erected or hand written manuscripts in an archive or museum, but the physical ciphers that have been immortalised in brick, stone and glass. On my travels I’ve accrued a number of examples which are languishing in the Cemetery Club vaults of things to write about one day. Here are some of my favourites…
1. St Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Churchyard, London EC4M 8AD
Despite its impressive stonework and the fact it took nearly fifty years to complete, if you take a closer look at its entrance underneath its portico, many of its visitors have decided to mark their visit with a cheeky bit of graffiti. Marble usually takes a few decades to solidify once it’s been cut into blocks of stone and many early worshippers and visitors took full advantage of this ‘canvas’.
It does pose the question how people managed to do it – some of the graffiti is far up the stonework, so whether it was done by people over 7ft tall or by scalliwags atop their mates shoulders – the exact answer is lost to time. However, Sir Christopher Wren would probably be massaging his temples in frustration if he ever cast a finer eye over his greatest work.
2. The Monument, Fish Street Hill EC3R 8AH
More examples of these mischievous tourists are in the Monument, which was chiefly designed by Wren’s associate, the much-maligned Robert Hooke. Once you’ve ascended the claustrophobic 616 ft climb to the top (someone once brought a donkey to the summit), close to the doorway of the platform you will see dozens of initials, carved by proud and cheeky visitors from years gone by. I can only imagine that attractions weren’t then under such watchful eyes as they are today…
3. Debtors Cell at the Museum of London
One of its best exhibits is deep within its heart on the ground floor. Reconstructed, plank for plank, is a cell from the former Wellclose Prison, which was in the basement of a long demolished pub in Wellclose Square, just off Cable Street in East London. It was in use between 1740 and 1760 with the landlord of the Neptune pub (which was directly above the cell ) also happened to be the gaoler.
This space, which is no more than 6ft by 10ft was more of a holding cell than a long term place of confinement – its inhabitants usually insolvent debtors who were awaiting transport to Newgate Prison for falling behind of paying what they owed. Long hours in isolation, with straw on the floor and basic furniture to hand, led some to start carving their names/artwork/poetry directly into the wood of their prison – notable examples being by Edward Burke and Edward Ray. Where these men and their bones ended up is a mystery, but their anguish (and boredom) is forever captured.
4. Elbe Street – a residential street in Fulham SW6
An area close to my heart is where my maternal family lived and worked for nearly 150 years. Sand’s End in Fulham is now a much smarter affair than it was in the late 1880s and 1890s when the estate was built in what was once countryside at ‘Sand’s End’ – literally, the last place in the Thames where a naturally occurring beach could be found.
The streets were full of children. Hop-skotch, tag and football would all be played in streets that hadn’t surrendered to the car as they have today. This was an area where your doors were left unlocked and neighbours knew each other; a peculiarly alien concept in the London of today, sadly. The houses bear the scars of these former occupants – pennypolishing, names and doodles have been scratched into the brickwork, a sad echo of a time when children weren’t glued to games consoles and iPhones.
5. Brompton Cemetery, Fulham Road, Kensington, London SW10 9UG
The echo of childhood can also be found in Brompton Cemetery. The first nationalised cemetery in the UK, after being beset with financial management issues which warranted a government buyout in the 1850s – on the outside flank of the eastern colonnade, in one of the brick wall niches, a child at some point in the 19th century decided to etch the alphabet in their very best copperplate script.
See if you can find it – I wonder who it was and where they ended up. Were they visiting a deceased relative or were they distracting themselves with nothing else to do?
All photos (unless otherwise stated) © Sheldon K Goodman 2017.