Writings on the Wall: Preserving the Prisoner Graffiti at the Tower of London


Posted on Tuesday, September 22, 2015 by The Royal Mint Museum

An electrotype of Prisoner graffiti from the Tower of London

Electrotype of prisoner graffiti at the Tower of London
Since completing a catalogue of the coinage, medal and seal material in the main store, we have taken the opportunity to look more closely at some of the remaining objects. Of particular interest was a set of boxes labelled ‘Tower of London’, containing a series of electrotypes featuring various inscriptions and ranging from crudely scratched names and dates, or tags, to lengthy passages of text and detailed artistic impressions.

The electrotypes were made from wax moulds of the graffiti carved by prisoners in the stone walls of the Tower of London, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Tower became the country’s foremost state prison.

Tower of London and electrotype of prisoner graffiti
The White Tower (Tower of London) and a prisoner inscription electrotype from the Royal Mint Museum collection

The copper electrotypes vary in size from approximately 15 to 50cm in length, some with a single image or script and others with a multiplicity of different inscriptions. Letters in the corner of the objects helpfully indicate the tower of origin, with the majority having B for Beauchamp Tower, BA for Broad Arrow Tower or S for Salt Tower. Most of the graffiti is in the Beauchamp Tower and many of the people whose names are carved in this tower held powerful positions in Tudor society but were imprisoned for political or religious reasons. The wall inscriptions tend to cluster in specific locations, much the same as contemporary graffiti on public buildings.

Electrotype of prisoner graffiti at the Tower of London
Electrotype of graffiti in the Beauchamp Tower from 1571

Background:

In August 1912 the Royal Mint was asked by Frank Baines, Architect in Charge of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings at the Office of Works, for assistance to “obtain some permanent records of many of the prisoner’s inscriptions in the Tower of London by an electrotyping process”. In the letter Baines stresses that “the matter is of very great importance” because “many of the inscriptions are in perishable stone, some of which is in a state of powdery decay.” At this time the Mint was busy using its newly-installed electrotyping plant for the production of postage stamp plates but nevertheless agreed to take on the project.

The Royal Mint annual report from 1913 gives a general description of the progress of the work, led by Edward Rigg, Superintendent of the Operative Department. Wax moulds were taken of the whole series of 268 inscriptions. Due to some of the cuts being very deep the artificer who took the moulds had to take special care to ensure “that correct facsimiles were secured and that no damage was done to the structure”. The plan was for two replicas to be made from each mould.

Prisoner graffiti at the Tower of London
Examples of the original prisoner graffiti at the Tower of London

Correspondence between Baines and Rigg provides us with an insight into the process by which this work was done and the serious consideration taken for the preservation of the original stone carvings. In one letter Baines expresses concerns that oil used on the stone before the moulds were taken was causing discolouration. Rigg’s response assures that the discolouration will fade and that the use of oil is essential: “It would hardly be safe to omit the slight dabbing of oil owing to the risk of the wax mould drawing out loose fragments of stone.”

There was some difficulty in moulding the “undercut” carvings, which are those cut around the edges to produce letters or images in relief. According to Rigg they could not “be moulded in the ordinary manner”, and experiments were carried out at the Mint using pieces of Gatton stone with rough cut designs to try and improve the method.

In 1914, Rigg reported the completion of the work, 458 electrotypes with a total area of 332.8 square feet were delivered to the Office of Works. Overall, the quality of reproduction was greatly admired.

Examples:

Electrotype from the Royal Mint Museum of Edmund Poole graffiti next to the original graffiti at the Tower of London
Edmund Poole: electrotype and original wall carving

Arthur and Edmund Poole were brothers accused of conspiring to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne and were imprisoned as traitors. Queen Elizabeth I spared their lives but they eventually died whilst still in captivity. Various inscriptions in the Tower are attributed to them.

Electrotype from the Royal Mint Museum of Edward Smalley graffiti from the Tower of London
Edward Smalley: electrotype
Edward Smalley graffiti at the Tower of London
Edward Smalley: original wall carving

Edward Smalley was the servant of a member of parliament who had neglected to pay a fine for assault. He was imprisoned in the Beauchamp Tower for one month in 1576. His name appears twice in the Tower.

Electrotype from the Royal Mint Museum of Giovanni Battista Castiglione graffiti from the Tower of London
Giovanni Battista Castiglione: electrotype

Giovanni Battista Castiglione was the Italian tutor of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) and carried private letters to the Princess whilst she was imprisoned in the Tower. He was imprisoned in the Salt Tower in 1556 by Elizabeth’s half sister Mary I on charges of plotting against the Queen but was later released. Above is one of two inscriptions thought to be made by Giovanni Battista Castiglione. The electrotype is not quite as successful as others, perhaps due to the shallow nature of the original carving.

Electrotype from the Royal Mint Museum of foot symbol graffiti from the Tower of London
Foot symbol: electrotype

Much of the material is religious in sentiment. This image of a wounded foot from the Salt Tower is a Catholic symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, while an image of a wounded hand can be found in another area, similarly representative of the wounds of Christ. The monogram ‘IHS’ appears numerous times in the prisoner inscriptions, a symbol of Jesus Christ in the form of an acronym.


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Welcome to the Royal Mint Museum Blog. Here you’ll get to meet the faces behind the Museum and find out how our hard-working team cares for this exceptional and varied collection. You’ll find entries on our favourite objects, how we’re looking after the objects, and the work being done to interpret and research the collection. You may also from time to time get a sneak preview of exciting projects and future exhibitions.


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