Wednesday 8 September 2010

Victorian Graffiti

Spray-paint was not available to the Victorians, so was there graffiti in Victorian London? Having just removed the 'tag' that appeared on my wall last night, I thought I would check the press databases and find out. Here's some possible answers:

MARYLEBONE-OFFICE. - Yesterday two men, named  Alexander Gray, senior and junior, were charged by Mr. Keaton of Cochrane-terrace, near the Edgware-road, with defacing a newly-built wall, surrounding his premises, by chalking it all over with the words "Warren's Liquid Blacking," in startlingly large capitals.
    Mr. Keaton said that he had applied in the first instance at Warren's blacking warehouse, in the Strand, where, however, he was laughed at.
Times, March 17, 1831

The above, of course, is not an example not of vandalism, but guerilla advertising. Here's another:

THAMES -William Simpson Lawson, the agent of :a tea company, and dwelling in Stepney-square, High-street, Stepney, appeared, for the secoud time, before Mr. PARTRIDGE, to answer a summons which charged him with causing William Jones, John Smith, and Joseph Thompson to deface walls.
    The complainant in this case is Mr. Webb, manager of the advertising establishment of Mr. Thomas Smith of No. 3, Tavistock.street, Covent-garden, who rents the railway arches between the city and Blackwall for posting bills and other advertising purposes. The defendant, Mr. Mr. Lawson has figured at this court several times. Ha was fined about three weeks since for aiding and abetting a man named Isaac Thomas in defacing a wall in Diggons-street, on the Clare-hall estate, Stepney. Thomas was detected painting on a wall these words "Use the London Tea Company's famous pure teas." When he was brought before Mr. Paget he said he was employed by Lawson, and the magistrate said the principals in wall defacing ought to be summoned and punished, and not the poor and ignorant creaturen they employed to commit offences. Lawson was accordingly summoned. He pleaded guilty to the employment of Thomas, and was fined 20s. and costs, and the magistrate severely condemned the practice of disfiguring public and private walls with litnewash and plaster by tradesmen and companies. A few days afterwards Mr. Lawson was again fined in this court for cruelty to a horse he had sent out in a very unfit state to be worked. On the morning of the 3d of the present month a police-constable named Jesse Button, No. 359 K, saw two men and a boy disfiguring an arch at the Stepney railway-station with the words "Use the London Ten Company's famous pure teas." The constable took them all into custody and.seized their brushes and paint, a composition of lime, water and glue. The three prisoners said they were employed by Mr. Lawson, who was summoned, and the three prisoners were discharged on their promise to be forthcoming. Mr. Webb explained that Mr. Thomas Smith, his principal, rented the arches from the city to Blackwall for legitimate advertising and posting of bills, and that Mr. Lawson had no authority to use the arches for any purpose. Mr. Smith paid a rental of over 500l. at year for the arches, and he had been put to great expense in washing out and cleaning off the lime and plaster  announcements which disfigurett the walls.
   Mr. PARTRIDGE.—Who is Griffiths ?
   Mr. Webb.--I am sure I don't know.
   Mr. PARTRIDGE.—Whoever he is, he defaces the walls to a very great extent.
   Mr. Lawson, in defence, said he never employed Jones, Smith, and Thompson ; he knew nothing of them whatever.
   He did employ Thomas, for whose act he had already suffered.
   Button, the police-constable, said. he had a warrant for the apprehension of Jones, Smith, and Thompson. He could not find them ; they had given fictitious addresses. The police had received express instructions to take into custody all persons defasing walls.
    Mr. PARTRIDGE said be had no doubt that Lawson had employed the three persons whom he now disclaimed. The persons charged gave Mr. Lawson's name and address , and said he employed them. The defendant had already been fined for a similar offence. He should adjourn the case till Thursday fortnight. Mr. Lawson must enter into recognizances to appear again.
Times, June 24, 1864

Here's a more personal example:

MARYLEBONE - Yesterday Edward Bambrook was charged, under the Police Act, with defacing a wall in Albany-street, Regent's Park, by writing upon it with chalk.
    The case was proved by Gaze, 256 S.
    Mr. MANSFIELD. - Did the prisoner merely make marks, or write words?
    Witness. - Words, your worship.
    Mr. MANSFIELD. - What were they?
    Witness. - "What nation can fight?"
    It was further stated that the nuisance complained of had been committed for some time, and that the prisoner was believed to be the principal offender.
    The prisoner was about two years ago charged at this court with having damaged statues of the Queen and Prince Albert at the entrance to the Colosseum; but, as there was no sufficient proof of his guilt, he was liberated. He was also suspected of defacing a painting in Marylebone church.)
   Mr. MANSFIELD (to prisoner) - Why do you conduct yourself in this foolish manner?
    Prisoner. - I have been reading the book of Daniel, as well as other books in the Old Testament, and my object in writing as I have done is that of looking to the fulfillment of various prophecies. I wish to make the Bible universal.
    The prisoner was remanded till Saturday.
Times, August 23, 1861

Graffiti of a sort, but possibily more an example of mental illness or religious mania - I find several cases where it's religious slogans being chalked up. In fact, certainly in terms of what's reported in the papers, then graffiti with a moral purpose crops up in several places.

Here's an interesting example of how obscenity laws could be brought into play:

BOWSTREET. Elizabeth Fairbanks, aged 18, a wastepaper sorter at a stationer's, was charged with writing obscene words on the wall of a house.
    Mr. Howard, one of the church Wardens, stated that for some days past his attention had teen called to a certain house in Chandos-street as being one of immoral character. On Sunday night he was passing that way, and saw the prisoner a younger girl writing on the wall of the house in question. The prisoner had a can of some black fluid in her hand, and was dictating to the younger girl certain indecent  words, which the other was writing with a brush on the shutter. After that the prisoner took the brush and  also wrote the same word, (Witness repeated the expresions, which implied that the house was one of bad character.) He. gave her into custody.
   The prisoner's employer said she had hitherto borne a good character, and he had never known bet to be guilty of any indecency.
    Mr. Flowers said, if that was so, he was only the more surprised that she should be guilty of such conduct now. He could not comprehend how any young woman, with the slightest pretence to decency, could bring herself to repeat such words, even in writing.. Yet, she had not only done that, but had stood there calling people's attention to those words. Perhaps the worst part of her conduct was, that she had told the younger girl to do the same.
    The prisoner said the other began it.
    Mr. Flowers ordered her to pay a fine of 10s., or be imprisoned for seven days.
The Morning Post, Jan 31, 1865

Interesting that the purpose of the writing, above (ie. to shame the brothel's owners/visitors) is ignored by the magistrate, in preference for a respect for private property and decrying the use of inappropriate words in public.

Here's a more amusing and personal example:

UNION-HALL.—George Good was charged with caricaturing an old gentleman named Heather, the proprietor of Golden Cottage, Kennington, and defacing the boards in front of his house.
   The complainant stated that he had latterly been very much annoyed by some person drawinK his likeness in chalk, with a pipe stuck in his mouth, on the boards in front of his cottage The caricature caused a number of persons to assemble in front of the house, whose boisterous mirth was anything but pleasing to him. He added that, determined on finding out who the person was, he watched, and caught the defendant busily engaged with a lump of chalk, writing his (Mr. Heather's) name underneath a figure representing him, and he therefore gave him into custody.
    Mr. Traill inquired whether there was anything indecent in the character of the figure drawn, or obscenity in the writing on the boards, as in that case he could inflict a heavy fine on the defendant.
   The complainant admitted that there was not, only that it made him look very ridiculous, and caused crowds to collect round his door.
The defendant said that he did it to be revenged for an insult offered to him by some person living in Golden Cottage, who called out after him, and said that he was like Good, the Murderer, by name and by nature.
    The defendant was fined ten shillings.

The Morning Post, 1842

I do find bog-standard graffiti in a letter, relating to Glasgow from the Glasgow Herald of 1859:

"... The next thing to which I would refer is the abominable and disgusting appearance of almost every street. It is disgraceful to see the manner in which the otherwise elegant ranges of buildings are all smeared over with chalk, althuogh it took no more offensive form than merely ugly scrawls and filthy blotches; but when you are met at almost every turn with filthy words, it is surely time that something be done ..."

Was this unique to Glasgow? Here's a police report from the Isle of Wight Observer in 1870:

"Norah Gough, Olive Edmunds, Maria Ellis, and Susan Russell, girls under 15 years of age, living in South-street, were charged by the police with defacing a wooden fence in Church-lane ... writing with chalk on the fence. On being told to desist and that they were liable to a penalty, they commenced again, Gough writing obscene words and using obscene language. ... Superintendent Grapes said he frequently received complaints about obscene writing on walls and other fences in the town and it was difficult to detect the offenders ... "

My guess is that graffiti, with chalk, at least, was so commonplace in London that it rarely gets a mention in the London press; or elsewhere. The police certainly dealt with it ... here's a form letter from a Police Catechism (a training manual for policemen) from 1903:

43. A gentleman complains to you of rude and indecent words being chalked on the outside of his premises, by children from a neighbouring street. Having before complained to the police of similar nuisance, with no effect, he now wishes strong measures to be taken. What steps would you take?
    P.C   ...............(No.)   ...............(name), reports that at   ............... a.m.   ...............inst., a gentleman   ...............(name)   ...............(occupation)   ...............(address), complained of great annoyance caused by children from   ...............Street (adjoining) chalking rude and indecent words on the outside of his walls and shutters ; and also stated that having before complained of similar nuisance, he now wished strong measures to be taken to prevent a recurrence.
    P.C. at once obliterated the words complained of, and informed complainant that he would duly report the matter so that it should be read out to each relief; and in the meantime he would keep strict observation to detect the offenders.

Back in 2010, I am beginning a system of strict observation on my own walls, and I expect the local constabulary to do the same, once they've finished obliterating the words for me, of course.


  1. I suppose the Victorians could be content that chalk was the commonest material used, as this is easily washed off. Today's graffiti are apt to be a lot more garish, because of the availability of colour, and difficult to remove.

    I remember that when we were kids in Brighton, chalk was so readily available that we used it all the time for drawing on walls and the pavement though we were never arrested for doing so!

    The most famous graffito of Victorian times, if it we considered it to be such, was perhaps the sentence "The Juwes are the men That Will not be blamed for nothing", chalked over a door, probably by Jack the Ripper. He used chalk too.

  2. I wrote an article a few years ago for Family History magazine on Victorian Rock carvings on Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire. I've added to my blog on this page,as may be of interest-