A century ago, the prisoners in the cells at Richmond would have gladly torn the castle walls down. It has taken the digital technology of today to do it.
The graffiti of two world wars is scrawled on the fragile plasterwork of the 19th century military cell block beneath the town’s Norman fort.
It survives only because the Army never got around to applying a new coat of whitewash.
The incarcerated souls who inscribed it – some of them conscientious objectors headed to a likely firing squad, others just sweating off the effects of a night on the tiles – would not have expected their descendants to be able to read it. But in a 21st century example of the mountain coming to Muhammad, the walls are being folded into a flat pack and taken on the road.
Some 2,500 items of graffiti have been etched on the walls at Richmond Castle by malcontents from the 1870s to the 1960s.
The most significant are the cries from the heart of the 16 conscientious objectors detained there during the First World War, taken to France and sentenced to death for refusing to obey orders. The sentence was later commuted to ten years’ hard labour.
One of the 16, Lewis Barry, a socialist from Derbyshire, wrote: “You might as well try to dry a floor by throwing water on it, as try to end this war by fighting.”
The work of some of the later graffiti artists was more prosaic, encompassing pastoral scenes and regimental numbers.
“During the second war, we can see evidence of people being held in the cells just for perhaps being a little drunk and disorderly the night before,” said Kevin Booth, senior curator at English Heritage, who is behind the project to make the scribbles portable.
It is being offered as a free exhibition to village halls, schools and museums, especially in areas that might have a connection to some of the former prisoners.
“We have created a digital model of the inside the cells and you can literally walk yourself around the cell block at your own pace, in any direction you want,” Mr Booth said.
“You can get close to each piece of graffiti and read it in your own time. It’s just an extraordinary mixture of imagery and personal sentiment, loyalty and love.”
It will have its premiere outside the castle next weekend, at Richmond Station, a Victorian former railway building brought back to life as an art gallery.
“It can be erected in different combinations to suit different rooms,” Mr Booth said. “Basically, we can flat-pack it in the back of a van and take it to where it’s wanted.”
The full history of the military cell block is still being pieced together. Not even the Army has all the details – and visiting brass from Catterick were astonished to see the graffiti still there.
“They were horrified – not by the graffiti itself but by the fact that the Army hadn’t acted according to procedure and painted it over every few years,” Mr Booth said.
Further research may uncover yet earlier 19th century graffiti, concealed between layers of lime wash.
Some of the 20th century cell artists, meanwhile, are thought to have drawn their doodles during games of darts and, in the case of the 1960s examples, while the cells were being used for storage.
Angela Hobson, community participation officer at English Heritage said: “This exhibition is a brilliant opportunity for individuals to come and discover more about this unique historical record.”