Carving their names into history – student graffiti from the 1890s

Pictured here is a classic totem of student experience – the graffitied desk.

While at first glance this is just a piece of broken wood, this carved fragment was originally from a desk located in a lecture theatre on the old Canterbury College site, now The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora.

This piece of history has been carefully looked after by the Department of Chemistry and was highlighted during stage one of the Canterbury College Survey, when a team of researchers set out to locate items of special significance to the history of the University.

So why should we care about this desk fragment and what can it tell us about life at UC? Well for starters it tells us that certain acts of student life have not changed much.

One of the main pieces of graffiti carved into the wood states cheerily “ALL HOPE ABANDON YE WHO ENTER HERE” – a sentiment all tired students can relate to on test day!

The witty reference to Dante’s iconic poem The Divine Comedy tells us that the students at Canterbury College were probably as familiar with literature and the classics as they were with science and mathematics.

For the most part the graffiti on this fragment seems to follow the tradition of “so-and-so was here”. What is notable however, is that some of the names are of major historical UC figures.

Sir James Hight, who was awarded a knighthood in 1947 for his services to education and spent much of his career at UC, carved his name into the desk. Since he was awarded his MA with first class honours in 1894 it is likely that he left his mark as a student in the years just prior.

Another notable name on the desk is that of Jack Erskine, namesake of the current campus’ mathematics and statistics building and benefactor of the funds for the Erskine Fellowship scheme.

While Hight only carved his name as “J.Hight”, Erskine boldly went for his name and date “J. Erskine 1891-2”.

Other authors were a little less bold and only inscribed their initials, such as “J.L.Y” and “F.J.W”.

Given the dates carved into the desk, and the location of the original desk at the old College site, current UC staff have theorised that the majority of these markings are likely to have been made by science students studying at Canterbury in the 1890s and the early 1900s.

If every desk was preserved like this, how many other names we would recognise?

We could also ask if this was the preferred desk for these authors or was it just a really long, dry lecture the day that they carved their names?

After all, UC’s own John Macmillan Brown, foundation professor and indomitable academic at the College until 1895, was known on occasion to lecture for over 3 hours straight. A long time to get the font just right!

Luckily for us, we have the chance to admire the desk fragment and ask these questions because someone recognised this object as an important piece of UC heritage and chose to keep it with the Department of Chemistry.

It is not always the historian that sees these items and recognises the value of the stories they can tell us.

As stage two of the Canterbury College Survey begins, we are looking for more objects and stories just like this. If you recognise any of the names on the desk, or have spotted any other interesting mementoes of UC history around the campus, please let us know!


Find out more about the Canterbury College Collection online.

Contact the Canterbury College Survey Team, 2021.