Gay Graffiti at Lancaster Castle


~900 words


Last modified: February 11th, 12,021 HE

Dr Colin Penny, Museum Director at Lancaster Castle, delivered a presentation on graffiti within the walls of the former prison as part of LGBTQ+ History Month 2021.

Penny began by explaining that graffiti, citing the examples of Herculaneum and Pompeii, represents the voice of people who don’t leave any other record. It is also endangered, with exterior pieces particularly at risk.

Penny then described a 1806 case in which 24 men were arrested for sodomy and other homosexual offences, as part of a campaign of persecution led by such groups as the Society for the Reformation of Manners (and described in great detail elsewhere). Penny pointed out that many who would otherwise be considered nigh-on saints were not immune to this anti-homosexual prejudice, with prison reformer John Howard (the first civilian afforded the honour of a statue within St Paul’s Cathedral) committing his son to an asylum after he was convicted of homosexual offences (in which he died, thirteen years later) and abolitionist campaigner William Wilberforce organising the Society for the Suppression of Vice to carry on the work of the Society for the Reformation of Manners.

Penny explained that the Society relied on informers as the crimes of sodomy and homosexual activity were only really prosecutable in the presence of an eyewitness; some of these informers were motivated by payment, some by blackmail and some by personal enmity towards the accused (including previous partners). In the 1806 case, a police raid of a molly house resulted in a number of arrests (including the woman who owned the house, who was sentenced to be pilloried, imprisoned for two years and fined, and who likely died during or shortly after the pillorying).

The accused were worked on by police and magistrates, who offered incentives to turn King’s Evidence and threats for those who refused (for one, many of the men had wives and children). Eventually, six turned on the others, including one man called John Knight, whose evidence (along with that of a Thomas Taylor) led to the conviction and execution of five of the others.

Graffiti from Lancaster Castle

Penny presented the above image of a piece of graffiti found within the prison cells which, whilst we cannot be certain, appears likely to have been carved in response to this betrayal by Knight (whose name is visible in the bottom-right, and who by this point would have been removed to another holding area). Graffiti, said Penny, could immortalise for posterity the immediate reactions of those who experienced an event; not even diaries, which are compiled hours to days after the events they describe, can match this.

Graffiti from Lancaster Castle

Penny then presented the piece of graffiti above: the prisoner’s name, the date, and the peculiar phrase by Brindlers for kissing, followed by a detailed drawing of a violin. As there was no law against public kissing in England at the time (though there was, apparently, such a law in Naples in the 1590s, because some people really need to get laid), Penny argued that there must be a hidden meaning to the statement.

Discounting the possibilities that the man had been convicted for sexual assault (i.e., I was only trying to kiss them) or for romancing above his social class, Penny pointed out the small drawing after the statement: a tulip. To an educated man (and the violin suggests that this was such a man) versed in art iconography, a tulip could represent wealth or unrequited love. However, given that neither of those make much sense in relation to the kissing, Penny suggested we should instead move from the high-brow to the low-brow for our answer: from art iconography to slang.

Tulip, in the mid-19th-century, meant penis. Penny stressed that the mid-19th-century represented only the oldest written evidence of the term’s usage, and so actual usage almost certainly pre-dates that. Similarly, this may explain the presence of the violin (or, rather, the fiddle). Finally, Penny suggested possible explanations for just who, or what, Brindlers may mean: Brindlers (i.e., people from the nearby town of Brindle)?; reputed sodomite (i.e., another homosexual, turning King’s Evidence to save his own skin); or perhaps Reformation Society?

We can’t ever know for sure, and Penny had been unable to find a copy of the assize calendar for 1741 that would explain the eventual fate of the artist, but Penny concluded that this graffiti, especially in contrast to the previous one, was optimistic. It would have taken quite some time to carve the message and the violin into the stone wall, and the piece was located within a heavily-trafficked corridor in the prison. Guards would have seen the man working on it, and let him continue. Many judges threw out cases brought to them by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, either due to their use of paid informants or because they had no interest in prosecuting them. And, despite now being 280 years old, the piece had survived undamaged.

All this, said Penny, shows that there was a great deal of tolerance in that society, from judges down to jailers.