See the Graffiti Bored British Soldiers Carved Into a Castle Door More Than 200 Years Ago

Old wooden door with a window and a man on the other side

Historians were surprised to discover more than 50 carvings on the door, including initials, last names and depictions of hangings. 
English Heritage

Starting in the 1790s, thousands of British soldiers were stationed at Dover Castle in case of a possible invasion by French troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Apparently, they had lots of time on their hands: Historians recently discovered more than 50 drawings, initials, dates and more carved into a wooden door from the castle’s tower—including one that may depict Bonaparte being hanged. Experts suspect the men used knives or bayonets to make the graffiti between 1789 and 1855.

“With tensions high but hours to kill, it seems that those men on duty put their questionable artistic talents to use,” according to an announcement from English Heritage, the nonprofit organization that manages the castle.

Now, after undergoing painstaking conservation work, the door will go on display as part of the new “Dover Under Siege” experience slated to open at the castle in July. As part of the new offering, the castle’s northern defenses will be open to the public, including its medieval and Georgian (as in George III) underground tunnels, as well as its Georgian casemates (a type of armored enclosure).

Castle surrounded by trees

Dover Castle is situated on the southeast coast of England, just across the Strait of Dover from France.

English Heritage

Built starting in the 1180s, Dover Castle is located in southeast England just across the Strait of Dover—the narrowest part of the English Channel—from France. Amid growing fears of a French invasion in the 1790s, the historic structure was renovated from an “aging medieval castle” to a “modern military garrison.” Thousands of soldiers were brought in to keep watch and, if necessary, defend against an attack.

At any given time, six to 12 men were tasked with guarding St. John’s Tower, situated in the castle’s outer ditch. One or two men kept watch from inside the tower, where they had a view of the castle’s northern end.

Some of those soldiers passed the time by carving graffiti into a door on the tower’s upper floor. They inscribed three dates that align with historic moments: 1789, the date of the French Revolution; 1798, during a rebuilding phase at the castle; and 1855, a year when changes to the tower were in the works.

They also carved a wide array of initials, as well as two last names: Downam and Hopper/Hooper.

Historians were particularly fascinated by the drawings, including nine that appeared to depict hangings. This was not surprising, given that hanging took place at Dover Castle and “did serve as morbid entertainment,” per the statement from English Heritage.

Person leaning over a wooden door with a tool

The door was found on the upper floor of St. John’s Tower at the castle.

English Heritage

One of the hanging illustrations shows a man wearing a military uniform and a bicorne hat, a headcovering common among European army and naval officers of the day. Historians aren’t sure whether this drawing was meant to depict Napoleon, whether it was an illustration of a real hanging that took place at the castle or something else entirely. (In reality, Napoleon was never hanged. The French emperor and military commander died in exile on the island of St. Helena. The official cause was stomach cancer and gastric ulcers, but his death has long been a controversial mystery.)

Another “detailed and accurate” carving shows a single-masted sailing ship, according to the statement. The vessel was likely an 8-gun cutter used by the Royal Navy, the Revenue Service, smugglers and privateers.

Historians also identified a carving of a wine chalice with a cross that may have been a representation of Christian holy communion.

It’s not clear who made the graffiti or whether they ever intended for anyone to see it. But, even so, the carvings offer a “unique glimpse into the minds of these soldiers, especially during such a charged period of time,” says Paul Pattison, senior properties historian for English Heritage, in the statement.

“It is a rare and precious example of the ordinary person making their mark, whether that be simply for the purpose of killing time or wanting to be remembered,” he adds.

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