In Search Of London's Oldest Graffiti

M@
By M@
In Search Of London's Oldest Graffiti
A surviving "G Davis is Innocent" graffito in Stepney from the mid-1970s. But London has much older graffiti

Graffiti ain't nothing new. People have been scrawling their names and desires onto walls since time immemorial. The ruins of Pompeii are enlivened by dozens of examples, and some hilarious Hellene was busy etching penises onto rocks half a millennium before that.

London is not quite so ancient, but the urge towards chiselled immortality strikes our citizens just as readily. Take a behind-the scenes tour of any old building, and you're sure to find the personal marks of long dead stonemasons, carpenters and anyone else who once lingered with mischievous intent. Here, in reverse chronological order, are a few we've discovered on our adventures.

1980s workmen of Greenwich

The names D Brooker and LP Higdon are scratched onto a concrete wall

The Old Naval College has been patched up a few times over the centuries (most recently after Thor and Malekith had a bit of a ding-dong on the front lawn). If you head up into the twin domes (which you can't), you'll see that every generation has left its mark on the building. We spotted a scratched glass message from as far back as the 1790s, but our favourite is this double-act from the 1980s. If anyone knows D Brooker or LP Higdon, pipefitter and plumber respectively, tell them to get in touch.

20th century: Inept paper hanging in King's Cross

Blue graffiti tells us that Fred Haynes can't hang wallpaper

We photographed this bitchy comment in 2010 on a wall of the old fish and coal offices at King's Cross — where today you'll find the Tom Dixon lighting shop. Who knows when it was daubed on the wall... or if it's still there?

19th century: Future prime ministers

A brown wooden wall with dozens of names carved into the wood

Harrow School has many a magical room, but none more so than the Fourth Form Room. You may have seen it in the early Harry Potter films, where it was used as a Hogwart's Classroom (the famous Wingardium Leviosa scene was filmed here). Its other claim to fame is that hundreds of schoolboys have left their names all over its panelled walls. The names date back to the 17th century, but it's the Victorians who dominate. Among them are the signatures of four future PMs: Palmerston, Peel, Perceval (the assassinated one) and — as shown above — a certain Mr Churchill. We couldn't spot an A. Dumbledore.

19th century: Brass-necked scaffolder

Graffiti on a weather vane

OK, that's probably oxidised copper rather than brass, but we won't let facts get in the way of a good pun. The neck in question is the base of the weather vane on top of St Bride's Fleet Street. Mr HR Kench used the opportunity of some 1888 repair work to carve his name with pride upon the base of said vane. Actually, there's probably another pun about vanity in there somewhere, but we've already met our quota. You can find out how we managed to get up to the weather vane in this here video.

18th century: The Worshipful Company of Graffiti Writers

A graffito with the date 1771 scratched into a stained glass window

As we've seen in Harrow, graffiti can decorate the poshest of places. Even the Square Mile's livery halls are not immune. The example above is from Cutlers' Hall — perhaps etched onto the window with one of the knives the cutlers were famous for. That below comes from Stationers' Hall — another trade whose members are no strangers to making their mark.

A faint piece of graffiti in a doorway says 1728

16th century: Tower of London graffiti

Stonework showing a cross and shield chiselled out of a wall
Image by Jonathan Cardy under creative commons licence

By far the most impressive ye olde graffiti can be found in the Tower of London. Here, prisoners had months or years to contemplate their existence, and few outlets for creativity other than chipping away at the stone walls. This exceptional handiwork (there's far more of it than shown above) can be found inside the Beauchamp Tower, and has been well documented by the Gentle Author. You can even explore some of it in 3-D.

15th century: Headstone Manor in Harrow

The date 1411 is scratched into a wooden door

Harrow's local history museum sits within one of the oldest buildings in London. Headstone Manor dates back to the 14th century and its great barn is a wonder to behold. Here we find, etched into a door, the oldest graffiti we've yet ever encountered in London, a simple date of 1411 is crudely scratched into a door. Whether it's genuine is hard to say, but if so, this was placed here 150 years before Shakespeare was born. That's proper old.

All images by the author unless otherwise stated.

Last Updated 22 April 2022