This post is a bit of a mash-up really. It combines two of my favourite things here at Chez L’abeille: walking around London and spotting ghost signs.
What, I hear you ask, actually IS a ghost sign? Well let me tell you. According to Mr Ghost Signs himself, Sam Roberts, it is a “painted sign, fading on walls.” Should you wish to read Sam’s academic research and argument for this definition look here. I’m happy to accept the word of someone who has done an immense amount of research and what’s more is very happy to walk you round and show you. I’ve followed Sam and his work on ghost signs for quite a while, more recently on twitter and through contributions to an earlier crowd sourced flickr album, where ghost sign hunters around the planet shared their passion. He also leads walks in London so a few weeks ago I signed up to follow him in real life and headed over to Bermondsey Street to meet up outside No 55.
I’ve actually got a couple of ghost signs near me. The best one is the marvellous Cutts and Co. Printing Office sign on the corner of Chadwick Road, but there’s also a completely washed out expanse of white paint high up on another wall in Bellenden Road. I’d not given this one much attention but after spending a few hours walking around Borough and Bermondsey with Sam I’d learned a thing or two. This seemingly pointless expanse of whitewash has scalloped corners. This means it was once a sign! There’s nothing left but white paint so I can go no further with it but wherever you look around London those fading painted signs are lurking, sometimes where you least expect them.
It was a pretty grim day with a cold easterly wind so walking was quite a good idea and stopping for a long time was freezing which meant our small band of hunters went a quite a pace. Having spent years working in and around the Borough I thought I knew most of the signs, but it turned out there were some surprises in store. I’m not sure how I ever missed the Bermondsey Wire Works but there it was, as big as a Victorian warehouse facade!
We marched further into the Borough heading towards Borough High Street. I didn’t know that this area had a long history of leather working but the fact we were walking along Morocco Street was a bit of a clue! On the front of the beautiful London Leather Hide and Wool Exchange building in Weston Street is a small low down sign which allows the more interested observer to look in more detail. This is where the scalloped corners came into focus. Sam explained that this was done on fixed signs so that the fixings wouldn’t damage the sign. In painted signs the convention was also used. Up close the sign writers careful brush strokes can be seen. Is this where the pressure of the brush has been altered to give shading maybe, or just where the brush was freshly loaded?
Out onto Borough High Street you can still see the Albion Clothing Co. sign on a wall above a low-level building. Unfortunately it is likely that this sign will be lost to the future as the adjacent plot is to be developed and built up as a hotel. Prehaps the developers will find imaginative ways to prevent this magnificent monster of a ghost sign from being permanently lost.
There are many examples of ghost signs in and around Borough Market, which was a hard-working fruit and veg wholesale market before it became the trendy food destination it is today. It is an area of much regeneration and development so it was good to see some sensitive approaches to ghost signs in action. I guess all is not yet lost! Sam pointed out two signs which may or may not be original – this area is used a lot for film sets and it’s not impossible to have signs which have been added for atmosphere! As an area that is run through with high level train lines many signs were also painted so they were visible from the tracks; was this the Victorian equivalent of direct marketing?
Most signs were painted onto walls but we uncovered one, literally, that was painted onto wooden panels. Unfortunately years of damp and drunken passers-by means the lower parts of the wood are slowly rotting away. I think it would be lovely to see such signs sensitively covered so that they are at less risk from the elements. Preservation of these fading artworks is a hot topic – should they just be left to fade or do we renovate and preserve them somehow. Does the act of preservation stop them from being what they are or should we be holding onto our disappearing advertising heritage before it weathers into oblivion? After the recent repainting of a faded sign in Brockley it would seem to me that renovation is something that shouldn’t be done without careful historical research and careful thought.
Although the walk covers a small area I was surprised at the number of signs I had not seen before, but also interested to hear the stories behind the buildings and their owners that the signs reflect. Sam has a real knowledge of the history behind these fragile painted signs which he shares with enthusiasm and insight. Currently he is developing an interactive map to record them around the world which I shall be watching with interest and hopfully adding to!
They may not be around forever so get out there – look up, look down, look around. Ghosts signs are a bit like historical Pokemon – Gotta catch them all!
Further info on Sam’s Ghost Sign Tours can be found here
©Chez l’abeille 2017