Pew and Choir Stall Graffiti from Kent and a little from elsewhere

A possible Man o’ War, Box Pew, St Augustine Brookland

Graffiti isn’t only found on stonework in churches, castles and houses.  Alan Anstee of the Kent Medieval Graffiti Survey talks about some of the fascinating graffiti he’s seen on wooden church pews and choir stalls.

When I was first asked to write something on pew graffiti, this seemed a reasonable little project, but when I looked at my records I found only a few pews with graffiti. Although modern graffiti is seen from time to time it is rarely of interest. However, I did find that the older box pews and choir stalls that I had seen had quite a lot of graffiti, as did some of the other timberwork, doors, screens and shutters etc, so the task was extended to include the more interesting of these. However, even choir stalls are not simple, as I know one church where the choir stalls originated as the desks of a school. Secular buildings also have graffiti and couple of those I’ve noted will be mentioned.

The graffiti shown in this work is based only on the graffiti I have found, mainly while surveying churches for the Kent Medieval Graffiti Survey (KMGS), apart from that found on the odd wander into other counties. I must state that although I work with the KMGS, I am not an expert on graffiti and any ideas and views expressed here are my own, as are any errors, although I have discussed some things with others. I should also thank the volunteers of the KMGS who helped take many of the photographs.  One thing I must apologise for is the quality of some of the photos, the woodwork in many churches is heavily coated in varnish which often makes the use of a raking light almost impossible. Finally, it is easy to see what you want to see when looking at graffiti and although I’ve tried to be objective some interpretations may seem odd to others.

In terms of graffiti on wood, many churches have had their pews removed, losing much graffiti, others have open 19th or 20th century pews. Whilst others have earlier box pews, these seem to have first appeared in the late 16th century and, as might be expected, generally have much more and usually better graffiti than more modern open pews, although the graffiti found differs little from that found on the masonry of churches, except being mainly post-medieval, some types of graffiti are rare. A few churches still have the remains of their medieval rood screens and the graffiti found on some of these has been included.

I have divided graffiti into a number of groups that will be looked at individually. These are Apotropaic, Initials/Names and Dates, Merchant/Guild Marks, Religious, Ship Graffiti and a section on less common items.

I have noticed some trends. In a couple of churches, the pews at the rear, at least in the late 19th and 20th centuries, seem to have been used by children. The childish boats in the rear south box pews at All Saints Graveney suggest this. The inscription, “No boys in this pew”, or similar, on the doors of pews in St Augustine, Brookland and St Mary-in-the-Marsh, also suggest their use by children.

Boats were a popular theme, not all were childish but these were found mainly towards the rear of a church’s box pews. One sailing vessel can be dated fairly accurately to 1895 at the earliest. This was on the panelling, installed between 1895 and 1910, dividing the south choir from King Stephens chapel, in the church of St Mary of Charity, Faversham. Few of these vessels are at anchor and only one in my records is a steam ship. This suggests that most of the sailing vessels might pre-date the age of steam. It must though it must be remembered that commercial sailing vessels were in use well into the 20th century.

One church that will be mentioned, St Mary, High Haldon, has no graffiti on pews or choir stalls, but the tower and west end of the church are built of timber, specifically French chestnut felled around 1350. The little of the tower visited had some graffiti and the panelling of the passage through to the church dates from the 17th century and is covered in graffiti. Unfortunately, it is also covered in noticeboards and notices. The main reason for including this church, apart from the quality of the graffiti, is that an ancestor of mine was baptised here in 1823.


Daisy wheel and circle, stairs to porch upper chamber, St Nicholas at Wade

Ritual protection marks are found on choir stalls and pews but not in huge numbers. Compass drawn circles and designs are found, in at least one case in box pews, which probably date from the second quarter of the 18th century. Two others were found on the vertical post supporting the handrail of the medieval stairs to the porch upper chamber of St Nicholas at Wade.

Possible ritual circles have been found on the pews and stalls of several churches: St Clement Sandwich, St Mary East Guldiford and St George Ivychurch. This latter church has three overlapping compass drawn circles inscribed on the choir stalls, which are dated to the 15th century. Those of St Clement are also late medieval but the circles are in an odd place on the misericord and may be carpenter’s marks. The East Guldiford circles cannot be earlier than the mid-18th century but as the conjoined VV (referred to in the captions here as a W) was in use as an apotropaic mark at this time perhaps circles and compass drawn designs were as well.

The compass drawn designs found on the panelling in the passage way from the west door to the nave of St Mary High Halden may be ritual protection marks. This panelling, I was told, has an early 17th century date, so they may date before the middle of that century. However, as the middle of the century, especially, was known for the influence of the Puritans, the question arises as to whether such superstitions would have been permitted, King James the First and Sixth believed in witches and the Pendle witch trials of 1612 suggest that in the early years of the century, at least, such marks were likely to have been used as a protection against witches.

Cartmel Abbey in Cumbria has at least two merel designs on the top of the misericord. These are regarded by some as gaming boards but this is unlikely with small marks such as these, which makes it more likely that they were designed for use as apotropaic marks. Merels with relatively late dates have been found and the late 17th century desks of Hawkeshead Grammar School have at least six. Again, these look to be too small to be gaming boards but that is conjecture. It has been suggested that one reason for the wealth of graffiti here was the issue of a penknife to each new student. However, one pair of initials on these desks has a merel separating the individual letters. One has also been seen in a 16th century Hall House in Sutton Valance. This is on a vertical timber post supporting the ceiling and is the end of a partition wall.

The conjoined VV, sometimes referred to as a witch mark is possibly the best known of the apotropaic symbols. This has been interpreted by Timothy Easton as standing for Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins), an invocation to the Virgin Mary. The conjoined VV was found in several choir stalls,  St George Ivychurch is a good example, where several were found fairly close together. Others were found on the choir stalls of All Saints Maidstone, the panelling of the stalls of Carlisle Cathedral and the stalls of St Mary Cobham. The smallest, found at Cobham, is only a centimetre square and an inscription this small might equally be a W, it’s hard to be certain but there is no other letter to go with it. One of the larger conjoined VVs seen was in the 14th century timber tower of St Mary High Halden, although the timber on which it is incised is probably later in date.

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Memorials, Initials, Names and Dates

Memorial, choir stalls, All Saints Maidstone

Initials, names, dates and memorials are perhaps the commonest types of graffiti found on pews and stalls. The Kilroy was here type of graffiti can often be hard to distinguish from memorials. Both often have a date, which in memorials may indicate the date of death and in the latter case is perhaps just the date of the visit. A house shape, usually with a date in the roof and initials in the body of the building is usually believed to be a memorial. This is especially true if there are flags or crosses on the roof. Where two dates are used these are probably the life span of that person.

What are believed to be memorials have been found on the stalls and shutters of the ringing chamber of All Saints Maidstone, the stalls of St Mary Faversham and the late 16th century door of St Laurence Bapchild. Many of the earlier ones at Bapchild are not in a house shapes but in a simply frame, the earliest is JB 1596. Another is 1696 JWC of B, which may indicate a man from Bapchild, perhaps who died and was buried elsewhere.

One thing that was noticed is that occasionally letters and numbers are back to front, perhaps an indication of the level of literacy. This has been seen on masonry as well as timber. The memorials may date from a period when poorer families did not have the money to pay for a grave stone. They may then have got a literate friend to inscribe the details but as some letters and numbers were written back to front, they may have been shown what they wanted inscribed and did it themselves, hence the errors.

Some of the names on the choir of Carlisle Cathedral, such as CHRISITOBER SPNCLA, in this case the PH in Christopher being run together to form a B and in SPNCLA the P and E are run together. In others we see letters written back to front, altogether giving a rather peculiar effect to modern eyes, but I have no idea why this was done.

It is quite common to see lightly scratched initials, which are hard to read and equally hard to photograph. Perhaps these were written by timid choir boys.

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Merchant and Guild Marks

Guild mark, Carlisle Cathedral

I have only found one merchant mark, with reasonable certainty, on timber in a Kent church. This is at St Clement Sandwich, in an area of the choir which, a church warden believed, was used by guilds. All the others I have seen are in the choir of Carlisle Cathedral.

However, there is one mark which could conceivably be a merchant mark and I would appreciate the views of others. This is on the choir stalls of St George Ivychurch but I’m not sure what it is.

The marks from Carlisle are intricate and generally well produced. Some appear incomplete, that with an unfinished date 15, for example. Those in my photographs that are dated are all from the 16th or early 17th centuries. Again, it is believed that this choir was used by guilds and merchants, possibly being endowed by them.

I expect that many other cathedrals and the larger churches of cities would have these guild marks, as would some large churches but here I’m only writing about those I’ve seen myself.

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Religious Symbolism

Cross, choir stalls, All Saints Maidstone

Although in my experience, crosses are common on masonry they are relatively rare on pews and choir stalls. The only church where I’ve found them there is All Saints Maidstone. Why they are so rare I don’t know, except perhaps that as the vast majority of pews and stalls are post-reformation; and possibly the protestant ethos suppressed them. However, there is a very faint cross on the screen of the north chapel of Minster Abbey Sheppey. There is also a small compass drawn cross on the rail of the screen to the south chapel of St Peter and St Paul Newchurch.

Although rare, I have seen the occasional Marian mark on older timber furniture such as the M’s on the 15th century sedilia at St Laurence Rodmersham. It is also possible that some of the Ms mixed in among the other letters and initials on pews and stalls are Marian marks. Equally there is a chance that these could have been intended as apotropaic marks rather than simply votive marks.

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Ship Graffiti

Three-masted ship, Box Pew, St Augustine Brookland

The ship graffiti found ranges from excellent to childish scribbles. At a guess, those I’ve seen date from the 18th to early 20th centuries. The type of ships depicted are normally difficult to determine, most of these vessels are small sailing vessels with a single mast and may well depict fishing or small merchant vessels. However, one craft with a single mast on the box pews of St Augustine Brooklands, seems to have a row of gun ports and is possibly a small man-of-war.

Another at St Clement Sandwich is on a piece of reused timber, now part of a misericord. This is shown by the top of the mast and sails being cut off. Where it originated and when it was drawn is not known, nor what sort of vessel it represents or when it was inserted in the misericord.

Only one of the ships seen appears to be a steamship, this is one of those that seems to have been drawn by a child. It is among a group of vessels in the south rear box pews at All Saints, Graveney, which judging from the graffiti was mainly used by children.

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Other graffiti

No boys in this pew, St Augustine Brooklands

In some churches, graffiti is found that is in few if any others and these are described in this section.

To date, I have found only one church, St Mary East Guldiford, Sussex, with representations of buildings on the pews, apart from the house shapes used in some memorials. In St Mary, four buildings were found in the box pews and of these, the two larger ones, appear to be houses. Whilst it is difficult to say what the smaller ones are as they are only about 2cms long but both seem to be flying flags, so they may have been drawn by someone seeking divine protection for their home.

This church is also the only one found with depictions of animals and humans. None of these are of any real quality but a couple are at least amusing. The head of the man in a top hat smoking a pipe is one such, as is the other man in a top hat.

Only two pieces of heraldic graffiti been found in these locations, one is a very nice, detailed shield on the top of a misericord in St Mary Wingham. The other is a rather faded ink drawn shield on the inside of the remaining box pew at St George Ivychurch. Whilst the former is possibly medieval, the latter is probably 18th or 19th century.

Two churches, St Augustine Brookland and St Mary-in-the-Marsh, have inscriptions on box pew doors basically stating girls only. These, at least, imply that the girls did not want to mix with the boys. This seemed to make no difference to the graffiti found there.

The final two photos are from the organ panelling of St Peter and St Paul Shorne, had this been on a later structure I might have thought some of the compass drawn graffiti to have been pre-Reformation. Over half the length of the panelling is covered in graffiti mainly from the 20th century, I’ve never seen so much graffiti in such a location before.

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Much of the graffiti found on the timberwork can also be found on the masonry. On the later pews and choirs initials and memorials seem to predominate, while the other types of graffiti are rare.

However, there were some surprises, the compass drawn designs in the tower structure at St Mary High Halden for example. Whilst several of the designs at St Mary East Guldiford are amusing and well-drawn and some of the ships there are as good as any I’ve seen. The same can be said of the ships at St Augustine, Brookland.

Another surprise was the initials, names and memorials on the ringing chamber window shutters of All Saints, Maidstone. In some churches bell ringers often seem to have left their mark but I’ve never seen them do so on shutters before, largely because I can remember no other church with them.

This exercise has shown that it can be well worth the effort of searching the timber fixtures and fittings for graffiti. For further information on the work of Kent Medieval Graffiti Survey, they can be found on Twitter as @graffitiKent.

Correspondent: Alan R Anstee

Search terms: Circle (compass drawn) with lines, circle (compass drawn), Concentric circles (compass drawn), daisy wheel (compass drawn), Interlocking circles (compass drawn), overlapping circle (compass drawn), four petalled compass design, swastika design, merels, Marian Mark, W, IW, I, Thomas, Ilden, T, I, cross, TT, DI, Thomas, LA, HK, MW, TT, DI, Thomas, LA, HK, MW, TT, DI, Thomas, LA, HK, MW, WW, ITF, E, I, H, TW, N, HH, IB, DI, HB, IG, JM, EP, SO, Merchant’s mark, RH, WB, iN, TH, RH, WB, IN, IC, IC, H, Will, ILP, TW, T, IA, 1735, I, I, H, HI, DM, IR, IP, JR, IT, GH, TT, TP, T, I, RT, R, D, TR, A, W, N, M, IE, T, TW, IR, I, R, R, R, T, T, IM 1662, IW, HE, BP, IA, H, IR, I, IH, IC, I, L, I Seath, Jan 3 1804, 1696, IWC of B, BCI, 1652, RM, 1645, IB, 1596, I Suth, 1797, TN, 1675, Ja Wichkham, 1794, 1707, H, AD, T, S, T, R, IA, TN, 16, 5, WN, 16, 0, IB, 1596, butterfly cross, EW, IR, Richard Spenc, A, IP, William Monk, William James, Chris Spenclay, Chrisitober Spencla, J Cook, GR, WS, C Ransley, 186, guild mark, buildings, house, 1700s, 1790s, 1600s, 1670s, 1640s, 1500s, 1590s, 1650s, 1800s, 1690s, 1730s