By Madeleine Pelling

Profile Books. 333 pages. £25. ISBN 978-80081-199-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Graffiti is a word that causes apprehension today, though perhaps for different reasons than it did in the past. The loose patterns that cover so many shop-front shutters, walls, and fences, sometimes not without a degree of artistic merit, but too often being little more than meaningless scrawls, are often unsightly. They convey nothing beyond the fact that the perpetrators wanted to make marks of their existence. Was that all someone writing on a wall in the eighteenth century had in mind? Not if Madeleine Pelling is to be believed and her entertaining account of why people wrote on walls, windows, and just about everywhere else, makes a strong case for accepting thay they often had something else beyond the purely personal to comment on when they wrote a slogan or even sometimes just a number on a wall.

It’s true that, then as now, carving one’s name or just initials into a handy stone or tree did amount to nothing beyond registering the fact that the writer had “been there and done that”. In this connection it’s worth noting that people in the past were often no more respectful of historic or cultural items than they are now. Pelling points to “The English proclivity for leaving a mark on ancient structures across the world” and notes that a visitor to Pompey’s pillar in Alexandria in 1849 saw “the names of two Englishmen – Thompson and Button – carved into the stone”. A little later the French novelist Gustave Flaubert noticed the names and remarked “There is no possibility of seeing the column without seeing the name of Thompson.....This idiot has embodied himself in the monument, and perpetuated himself with it”.

Pelling’s aim, however, is to show how some graffiti, in the period she’s concerned with, did often amount to more than an attempt to give a name some sort of permanency: “Across walls, windows, doorways, wooden panels, fireplace surrounds, carriage sides, coins, weapons, the margins of books and many other pliable canvases, Britain’s surfaces glistened and buzzed with words and symbols put there by its inhabitants”. And she sees them as “a history of the eighteenth century via the lost voices of those who lived through it”.  Graffiti was “increasingly the language of the disenfranchised” and “allowed everyone a voice, albeit often fleeting”.

The social and political turbulence prevalent in the eighteenth century lent itself to strong passions which were frequently expressed through graffiti. The educated could express their ideas and desires in print, but in a time when literacy was not widespread a simple slogan on a wall might suffice to present a challenge to those in authority. “45” referred to the 45th issue of John Wilkes’s The North Briton, published in 1763, a radical journal which, among other things, “attacked the government and crown for seeking to end the Seven Years War with France and Spain, believing their failure to press for success a poor reflection on British global power”. It additionally, “accused those in high office of harbouring Catholic sympathies”, and being secret supporters of “the Catholic James II and VII and claims by his descendants to the English throne”. It has to be remembered that there had been two invasions of England by Scottish armies, in 1715 and 1745, both of which failed but left strong memories of plots to reinstate the Stuarts and the Catholic religion. Wilkes had a powerful following, “drawing huge crowds, exposing aristocratic scandal, facing arrest and imprisonment and, eventually, betraying his liberal credentials by leading armed soldiers against British civilians”. The latter refers to his role during the Gordon Riots in 1780, when “King Mob” went on the rampage in London and threatened the stability of the city and the nation as a whole.

Pelling’s account of the Gordon Riots is compelling. They were largely instigated by Lord George Gordon stirring up the crowds with anti-Catholic speeches, but they quickly got out of hand and were used as a pretext for general looting and arson by criminal elements. The Protestant Association, with Gordon at its head, may have intended only to pressure the Government into repealing the Catholic Relief Act, which eased the restrictions on Catholics entering certain professions and owning certain properties. But the people wanted a quick decision and when they didn’t get it “No Popery” became the slogan that appeared on walls, windows, and other locations as the mob moved around London attacking the houses of the high-born, storming prisons, including Newgate, and freeing those inside, and setting fire to numerous buildings. There was even an attempt to take over the Bank of England which was repelled by troops who were by then slowly regaining control of the streets. Pelling says that by the time the rioting subsided around 300 people had been killed and many more injured. She refers to several novels which incorporated the Gordon riots into their stories, one of them being Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. It’s where I first came across them,  when reading Dickens at a young age.

Memories of the Gordon riots episode no doubt re-surfaced in 1789 when news of the French Revolution reached England, and lords and ladies trembled as they heard of the arrests and executions of the rich taking place in Paris. There was a strong anti-monarchy movement and it tied in with other concerns : “In Manchester, one local magistrate complained how ‘the public eye is daily saluted with sedition with chalk characters on our walls’ “. And he added that NO KING introduces the topic, no matter whether it’s “bread or peace”. In Halifax in 1812 the words, “Vengeance for the blood of the innocent” were “chalked on local doors in response to the shooting by soldiers of machine-breaking protestors there weeks before”. In 1817 the postmaster in Manchester wrote to the Home Office to “warn that, about the town, the words Be ready – Be steady – Liberty or death had begun to appear with alarming frequency”. This was “just months before the infamous Peterloo massacre that saw eighteen people killed by cavalrymen”. Peterloo occurred in 1819.  Strictly speaking, the events in Manchester and Halifax lie outside the eighteenth century, some would say, but the moods and manners of centuries don’t terminate on exact dates. It could be argued that the “long eighteenth century” only really ended with the arrival of Victoria on the throne in 1837. 

It would be wrong to give the impression that Pelling’s emphasis is solely on “rebellion”. She covers a wide area of mark making, with, for example, chapters on the graffiti left by prisoners, both civil and military. Conditions in any kind of prison in the eighteenth century were sure to be grim. Money could buy some privileges and extra comforts but most prisoners were poor and not in a position to be helped by anyone on the outside. I was reminded of The Pickwick Papers and Mr Pickwick coming across Mr Jingle, the strolling player, in prison where he’s sold his boots and other items to raise money for food. It’s difficult to imagine what life was like for the French and other prisoners-of-war captured during the Napoleonic era and confined to the hulks, the old ships used as prisons. When prisoners effected some graffiti it was usually in the shape of their names and a few basic details, such as the dates of their incarceration.

There’s a chapter headed The Bog House Miscellany, about a publication grandly titled, The Merry Thought; or The Glass Window and Bog House Miscellany : “Advertised in London’s leading newspapers, it represented a cacophonous collection of graffiti found across London’s coffee-houses, taverns, streets and, most unusually, its privies”. It was, says Pelling, “populated with lively and subversive voices – from cuckolded husbands to love-lorn apprentices, weary tavern maids to frustrated scholars.....In its pages, readers recognised some of their own darkest desires, prejudices and commonalities”. Pelling quotes a few of the entries : “Here did I lay my Celia down/I got the p-x, and she got half a Crown”. “Good Lord, who could think,/that such fine Folks should stink?”. “There’s Nothing foul that we commit,/ But what we write, and what we sh-t”.

I was reminded of a friend of mine who, in the 1960s, had a small poetry press and decided to publish a little book of rhymes and other items collected from lavatory walls, back-alleys and similar places. He was prosecuted and fined for sending indecent material through the post. It would have been interesting to compare what he printed in his publication to what appeared in the Bog House Miscellany In terms of what was considered acceptable then and in the so-called liberated and “Swinging Sixties”.

Some graffiti surmounts the political or pornographic and tells a personal story that can touch the heart. The strangest and in its way most moving account in Writing on the Wall is the story of  James Doe who committed suicide near Bristol in 1797. He was skilled as a handpainter, decorating china in the Staffordshire potteries, though affected by the switch to transfer printing that was beginning to come in.  He moved around, working at various jobs, and at some point lived in a room in a disused building outside Bristol. When his body was discovered in the nearby river the local constable, Joseph James, found that Doe had covered the walls of his room with what amounted to an autobiography. He copied it carefully and later published it in Bristol. It was then picked up by the Gentleman’s Magazine, which had a national circulation, and people who had known Doe at various times in his lifetime began to contact James with information about him. Everyone spoke of him positively, saying he was a kind man, a good worker, and sober in his habits. It was known that he had helped a fellow-worker who had got into trouble and spent time in prison, and this led to the identification of someone Doe had referred to as K-s-m in his wall writing. It seemed that Doe had contacted him some time later when K-s-m had established himself in business, but the latter appeared to have forgotten their old friendship and declined to provide Doe with any form of assistance. On the wall Doe had written, “I forgive him, and am well assured that what he enjoys is by his merit and industry. Long may he and his partner in affection live to enjoy the fruits of his labour”.

I’ve given a very abbreviated account of Doe’s life and death, and Pelling makes it much more meaningful in human terms. It’s a story that, as well as giving a personal picture of one man’s life that might otherwise have been forgotten, also provides information about general conditions for those who could be affected by changing methods in working practices and the fluctuations in trade. Life for the poor was precarious.

I’ve tried to give a broad view of the contents of Writing on the Wall, but there is much more to the book than I can indicate. Pelling neatly relates what was happening in the streets to what artists were doing, with Hogarth and his contemporaries sometimes showing people making marks on walls, and even on the coats of pompous lawyers and the like.  One final thing I’d like to mention is attitudes towards graffiti in the nineteenth century. According to Pelling, “By the middle of the nineteenth century...the hold that mark making had over the population was starting to wane. Its role in rebellion and the often violent and radical redistribution of power had done it no favours.....Victorian Britons would reframe it as the impolite scribblings of a dangerous lower order, something that could threaten the balance of things”. Harrison Ainsworth’s novel, Jack Sheppard, serialised in 1839/40, and “based on the real-life Georgian highwayman and Newgate escapee of the same name”, shows him to be “clearly destined for a life of delinquency from the start thanks, in part, to his relationship with mark making”. The walls of the slum room he grew up in were covered with “topsy-turvy sketches of a world upside down; a king crawling on his knees and the devil ruling over him, men boxing and highwaymen racing on horseback else hanging from gallows”.  

Writing on the Wall is a book to read and enjoy, but it is also instructive. It takes us back to a time when they really did do things differently. It makes it colourful but dangerous, and  shows how authority could so easily be made uneasy by what was scrawled on walls. People can now express themselves in different ways so mark making on a window or a wall is no longer necessary. But sometimes a chalked or painted slogan that still occasionally appears can catch the attention and make one think about what is and what could be.