“There can be no doubt that persons, old or young or middle-aged, who commemorate themselves by inscribing their names or initials in churches or other historic buildings are highly reprehensible. Yet the antiquarian is bound to admit that time may eventually confer interest upon such inscriptions, even if it does not entirely exculpate the original offenders.” So wrote Alfred Emden, former King’s School boy and Principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford University, in an article on ‘Footprints in the Cloisters’ for the King’s School magazine in 1951.
The ‘footprints’ Emden described are the outlines of feet carved on a stone bench with a schoolboy’s name inside and they can be seen in the south-east corner of the Cathedral cloister, just outside the martyrdom door. Two are of particular interest. Charles Abbott (King’s School 1772–81) was the son of a barber whose shop was inside the Christ Church Gate. He went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, became a barrister and was appointed Lord Chief Justice in 1818. John Blaxland (KS 1775 and 1780–83) signed and dated his ‘foot’. He and his brother Gregory, another King’s Scholar, later went out to New South Wales, where they became prominent agricultural pioneers.
Many more inscriptions have survived inside the Cathedral. The earliest so far identified — ‘Anno Dom 1639’ — was by William Staples (KS 1635–37). In the 1670s several boys carved their initials in St Anselm’s Chapel, but Robert Knaplock (KS 1675–80) managed his full surname. As a bookseller in St Paul’s Churchyard, London he retained his connections with School and City, publishing the second edition of William Somner’s The Antiquities of Canterbury in 1703.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a proliferation of carvings. One of the most extravagant came from Edward Hasted (KS 1769–77) in 1774. He was the son of the distinguished historian of Kent and one of five brothers at the School. A Justice of the Peace for fifty years and Vicar of Hollingbourne for sixty-five years he eventually earned an elegant monument in his own parish church.
Future city notables and others of minor distinction also defaced the Cathedral walls. John Nutt (KS 1802–07) would become Town Clerk of Canterbury and Henry Cooper (KS 1803–08) a five times Mayor. Christopher Packe (KS 1799–1809) would be Preacher in Ordinary to the King (and later Queen) and a Minor Canon of St George’s, Windsor. One of the most intriguing signatures seems to be by Frederick Mackeson (KS 1821–24). The son of a brewer, he joined the Indian Army, becoming a Lieutenant Colonel in 1849. He died at Peshawar in September 1853 ‘by the hand of a foul assassin’ and there is an elaborate monument ‘erected to his memory by his friends and admirers in India’ in the Cathedral Nave.
From the 1560s onwards the King’s School itself was based in the Mint Yard. It is no surprise therefore that boys carved their names on the walls of buildings, especially on or near the Green Court Gate. Among the ‘offenders’ were Edward Benson (KS 1735–39), who succeeded his brother as Auditor of the Cathedral; John Venner (KS 1765–71), who became a lawyer and was buried in the cloisters; and, inevitably, a John Smith, who might be any of at least ten boys — one of whom later became Headmaster.
King’s School boys have worked, played and scribbled on this site for hundreds of years. Reprehensible they may or may not have been, but their engravings are today worthy of preservation and investigation.
Peter Henderson taught History at the King’s School. He is now the School Archivist.
For more on the history of the King’s School.
The University will also be hosting a two-day conference on Canterbury and other UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world on Friday 24 and Saturday 25 May at Old Sessions House, Longport.