“Kissing the tulip” at Lancaster Castle

Uncovering the sexual code in eighteenth century graffiti. 

Lancaster Castle has been a courthouse and prison since at least 1196 and Lancaster Castle, like many historic monuments, has its fair share of graffiti; most has been left by prisoners, but other examples include pieces by gaolers and their families, craftsmen, spectators in the court’s public gallery, and even members of the 19th century Grand Jury. Colin Penny investigating Lancaster Castle's graffiti

This blog, however, will concentrate on one particular piece which is located in a part of the castle not open to the public. Located on an upper floor of the John O’Gaunt Gatehouse, and carved into the sandstone wall of a narrow corridor, an inscription reads as follows:

Iohn Bailey Commited Aprill: ye 15the 1741 by Brindle rs for Kissing

Immediately adjacent to the text is a small picture of what appears to be a flower and a very large and well-executed violin.

A rubbing from the graffiti at Lancaster Castle

Although almost completely unknown, this piece is not only an important example of Georgian graffiti, but may also be an historical and social document of some significance. The first point to note is the level of literacy displayed – John Bailey was clearly a man of some education. The violin is also accurately drawn, pointing to the conclusion that Bailey was familiar with the instrument and perhaps a musician by profession. In terms of its execution, the piece is remarkably well-carved and must have taken some considerable time to complete.

Sadly, John Bailey is as yet unknown and the trial records for the period of his incarceration are undiscovered. He is, however, awaiting his trial – ‘committed’ in this instance means ‘committed for trial’; the person who committed him, Brindle, likewise remains unidentified. The possibility that the word should be read as ’Brindlers’ (noting the small ’rs’ after ’Brindle) should not be ruled out, but if this were the case one would be left wondering why Bailey took such a shortcut with only these two letters. It is more likely that the two smaller letters are either intended as Brindle’s initials (probably unlikely), or that they refer to some office that he held; readers in 1741 would have understood such abbreviations more than we do now. Despite knowing nothing about Bailey, however, he has left us a very clear indication of his alleged crime.

The reference to ‘kissing’ is most important as this is the ‘crime’ for which he tells us he has been committed. To begin with, it is most unlikely that he has been sent to trial simply for kissing his wife or girlfriend in public. If every person who did so was subsequently committed for trial, all the prisons in the country would have been overflowing with such ‘felons’. Another possibility is that he was the subject of a prosecution for assaulting (or worse) a woman – here, therefore, he may be stating his defence, ‘he only wanted a ‘ kiss’. If one accepts this, however, we would be left wondering why he would want to immortalize such an accusation in stone. Another possibility is social snobbery; Bailey, ‘a lowly musician’ (if such he was) may have been having a relationship with a woman of higher social-standing – having been found out he was thrown into prison on some trumped-up charge. This seems improbable as one would have perhaps expected a more overt reference in the graffiti to this kind of unfairness. A much more likely explanation is to be found in the possibility that Bailey has been kissing someone who, in an eighteenth-century legal sense, he should not have been kissing – namely, another man.

Lancaster Castle prison

Lantern Image Archive

Until the documents relating to John Bailey are discovered all of the following is supposition, but it is possible that the key to understanding this piece of graffiti lies, not only in the text, but in the iconography and an understanding of Georgian slang. To begin with, it is almost certain that the small flower pictured next to the word ‘kissing’ is supposed to represent a tulip. In art iconography a tulip generally represents one of two things – great wealth or forlorn/unrequited love. The former of these seems to have no bearing on the case under discussion; however, someone imprisoned due to the machinations of people unwilling to countenance a relationship which contravened social boundaries could certainly have experienced the pain of unrequited love, and this should not be ruled out altogether. This argument, however, would require John Bailey to have been familiar with the subtleties of art iconography. This is by no means impossible, and there can be little doubt that he was a man of some education; to be an effective piece of graffiti, however, this would also have required the casual reader to have been familiar with exactly the same frames of reference. Can it be argued that, in a prison environment, this would have been the case? In fact, for the graffiti to have been fully understood at the time it was produced it must have used both words and iconography which were well-known to the vast majority of ordinary people, and with this in mind we should now turn to the subject of slang.

‘kissing’, ‘tulip’ and ‘fiddle’ had acquired sexual connotations…

According to Cassells Dictionary of Slang by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the terms ‘kissing’, ‘tulip’ and ‘fiddle’ had acquired sexual connotations. With these meanings in mind it is possible that Bailey either was caught in a sexually compromising position with another man, or later reported to the authorities. He may even have been the victim of one of a number of raids on ‘Molly Houses’ that were taking place throughout England at this time, the most infamous being that instigated by the Society for the Reformation of Manners against a house run by ‘Mother Clap’ in London in 1726, which resulted in three men being hanged. Indeed, the appearance of the small ‘rs’ after Brindle’s name could point to his being a member of the ‘Reformation Society’. The fact that, according to  Cassell’s, no reference has been found of instances of ‘kissing’ and ‘tulip’ with their associated slang meanings prior to the nineteenth century should not stand in the way of the current argument. The first written references to a particular slang meaning need not (in fact almost certainly do not) refer to the beginnings of such a meaning. Words could have been in common usage for many years before they found themselves committed to paper. There is also the accident of survival to take into account – a document which has come down to us need not necessarily be the earliest. As a result, the graffiti at Lancaster Castle could be the earliest known examples of these slang terms and help push the accepted date of their usage back to the eighteenth century.

Out and proud?

One further point needs to be mentioned; if the above hypothesis is correct, Bailey is clearly not afraid or embarrassed. Rather, he is openly advertising the fact that he has been imprisoned to await trial for  homosexual practices, and one must assume that either he feels relatively safe to do so or is completely unafraid of the consequences. That he was able to complete his graffiti tends to point towards the former conclusion; John Bailey may have been ‘out and proud’. The fact that he was able to finish his graffiti, and the fact that it was not subsequently destroyed points to the conclusion that the prejudicial beliefs of the few people who chose to join the Society for the Reformation of Manners were not shared by significant sections of populace.

Although no record of Bailey’s trial has yet surfaced, the Lancaster Castle Gaol Delivery for 1st January 1742 does still exist, and Bailey is not listed as a prisoner at that time, and this leads to a number of possibilities. The first is that he has been executed; this seems unlikely as there is no record of his execution (although our records are, as yet, incomplete). The second is that he was found guilty and transported to the colonies; again, this seems unlikely as there is no record anywhere of a John Bailey transported from Lancaster in, or around, 1741. More likely, is the fact that he succumbed, as many did, to a disease contracted whilst a prisoner in the castle. Conditions at the time were far from ideal, and diseases such as Typhus (Gaol Fever), Typhoid and Cholera were frequent killers. A transfer to another prison for Bailey is very unlikely as, in 1741, Lancaster Castle was the County Gaol and to have taken him out of the county would have been very unusual. Another possibility is that John Bailey was released; he may have served a term of imprisonment – if he did it was a short one of no more than 8 months. Alternatively, if he was committed in April for the August Assize the case against him may have collapsed, or he was simply found ‘not guilty’.

John Bailey remains something of an enigma; we may never really know who he was or what became of him. His graffiti, however, may tell us a great deal about the prejudices inherent within eighteenth century society; it may also tell us a great deal about the tolerances present within that same society. At the end of the day, he was allowed to finish his graffiti, it was not subsequently obliterated or defaced, and it has remained in situ for 271 years. Of course language, and slang, evolves and the meaning of the graffiti has to a large extent been lost to the casual reader; there can be little doubt, however, that this is a social document of some significance and one of the most important pieces of graffiti in the north of England.

The blog is based on a lecture given by Colin at the Outing the Past! conference held as part of LGBT History Month at Lancashire Archives on 26th February 2011.

In pictures: A graffiti tour of Lancaster Castle from BBC Lancashire.

“Castle slowly gives up its long-hidden secrets” Lancaster Guardian.

Colin Penny has also given other talks in Lancashire Libraries. To find out about future events, visit out What’s On guide at Lancashire Lantern Community Information.

Other blogs by Colin about Lancashire Criminal Past were Prison Life 200 years ago and Prison Life (Part Two).

Dr. Colin Penny works for the Lancashire Museums Service as the Team Leader at the Shire Hall, Lancaster Castle

Visit the Lancaster Castle website

Visit the Lancaster Castle website to see an interactive tour or read more fascinating stories about the people who were tried, convicted, acquitted or executed at Lancaster Castle

Lancashire Museums @LMuseums on Twitter

See also the website “Homesexuality in Eighteenth Century England
by Rictor Norton.

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Outing the Past is an ongoing project at Lancashire Archives.