• Georgian door at Dover Castle contains around 50 etchings, including chilling depictions of hangings
  • Door will go on display in July as part of Dover Castle Under Siege

A detailed carving of a sailing ship, the date of the French revolution (1789), nine macabre depictions of hangings, and countless initials are just some of the fascinating graffiti found on a newly discovered door dating to around the 1790s, English Heritage has revealed today.

The door, which was originally located on an upper floor of the medieval St John's Tower at Dover Castle in Kent, has been painstakingly conserved to go on display in July as part of Dover Castle Under Siege.

Dover Castle Under Seige is a brand new visitor experience coming to Dover Castle this summer. We have opened up the castle's northern defences, including the medieval and Georgian underground tunnels and Georgian casemates, to visitors.

With the palpable threat of invasion from Napoleon in France, Dover Castle underwent a transformation in the 1790s, from an aging medieval castle into a modern military garrison.

Dover Castle suddenly housed thousands of soldiers. So, new barracks were built, and new positions to defend the castle from cannon fire were created, as well as attempts to bombproof the defences.

St John's Tower, which sits in the castle's great outer ditch and has a commanding view over the vulnerable northern end of the castle, would have been guarded by six to 12 men on duty at any one time, with one or two up on the tower.

With tensions high but hours to kill, it seems those men put their questionable artistic talents to use, carving more than 50 pieces of graffiti into the tower's door with knives or possibly bayonets. The earliest dated example is from 1789 and the oldest is from 1855.

Paul Pattison, English Heritage's Senior Properties Historian, said, 'Scaling a ladder to the upper floor of St John's Tower and seeing these remarkable carvings on the door was an astonishing discovery. This graffiti gives a unique glimpse into the minds of these soldiers, especially during such a charged period of time.

'As a result of the impending threat of war from across the Channel, Dover was a hive of activity with ships filling the harbour and colourful military uniforms a constant presence in the castle and town.

'What makes this door such an extraordinary object is that 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.'

The St John's Tower door contains around 50 pieces of carved graffiti.

These include:

  • three dates: 1789, the date of the French Revolution; 1798, a period of rebuilding in the castle; and 1855, when changes were planned to the tower.
  • many sets of initials and two surnames: Downam and Hopper/Hooper.
  • at least nine gruesome illustrations of hangings, a strange and macabre repetition, including one example where a man wears a military uniform and a bicorne hat. It is possibly a depiction of a real hanging, as hangings took place in Dover and served as morbid entertainment; or perhaps it's a representation of Napoleon himself.
  • a detailed and accurate carving of a single-masted sailing ship, most likely an 8-gun cutter which was a fast vessel used by the Royal Navy, the Revenue Service, smugglers and privateers. 
  • a curious symbol which depicts a glass or chalice for wine, surmounted by an elaborate cross, which may be a representation of Christian holy communion.

After its discovery, the door was removed from St John's Tower to protect and preserve it for future generations.

It was conserved by the careful removal of paint layers from the decorative surface of the door. Then the wood was cleaned, toned and treated.

  • St John Tower's Door will go on display at Dover Castle in July as part of Dover Castle Under Siege.

Dover Castle Under Siege – July 2024

A brand-new immersive visitor experience at Dover Castle will open up the castle's northern defences, including the medieval and Georgian underground tunnels and Georgian casemates, to visitors.

Dover Castle Under Siege focuses on the castle's crucial role in defending England, particularly during a forgotten 13th-century civil war and invasion that nearly saw a French prince take the English crown.

As well as enabling visitors to explore new areas of the castle, the experience includes a new exhibition with films, lights and soundscapes, hands-on elements and a new play area.

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