Ghost sign hunting

Last week I visited Notting Hill’s wonderful Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising at their new home on Lancaster Road. For anyone who’s never been, it’s a lovingly-curated collection of posters, ephemera and everyday items in their original packaging from the Victorian era to the present day arranged in roughly chronological order. Although I had been once before it occurred to me on this second visit what a unique resource it is for family historians. I can think of no other place (with the exception of the equally fantastic Geffrye Museum) which succeeds in creating such a vivid, colourful picture of what our ancestors’ world must have actually looked like, from the adverts they would have passed on their way to work, to the contents of their larders or children’s toy chests. If you’re based near London I strongly recommend you go and see it for yourselves, and if not you can find out more in this interesting write-up from the Guardian website.

After my visit, I noticed the faded writing on the side of the building below while walking up Portobello Road.

Ghost sign at 59A Portobello Road, London, 2016.

This, combined with what I’d just been looking at in the museum, reminded me of an evocative term I’d come across not too long ago: ‘ghost signs.’ This refers to the old, often barely legible traces of signs for long-departed businesses which one can occasionally still find gracing the sides of buildings. In many cases they can provide an interesting glimpse into a building’s history and the lives of its former occupants, as in the example below at the corner of Regent Square and Sidmouth Street.

Ghost sign at 55 Sidmouth Street, London, 2016.

Although the original sign appears to have been painted over at least once and a large chunk of it has completely faded away, you can still make out phrases like:

Cures Wounds & Sores


King’s citrate of magnesi[um]

Invented in 1844

The original safes[t]

& best

These fragments suggest the building was at one time a chemist’s shop, and according to blogger Sebastian Ardouin it had indeed been a branch of Bates & Co. of 1 Regent Square. Unlike the various soap boxes, cereal packets and ‘liquid beef’ posters which make up the Museum of Brands’ collections, these rare survivals of Nineteenth and Twentieth century advertising cannot be preserved indefinitely under glass, but perhaps some form of national photographic database could achieve the same effect. I initially thought this might be a good project for the Museum of Brands but it appears something similar is already under way courtesy of the History of Advertising Trust. Their archive of over eight hundred ghost signs can be browsed by subject (e.g. ‘Alcohol & Tobacco,’ ‘Tradesmen & DIY’) or searched by keyword (e.g. ‘Leeds,’ ‘Buckton’) and anyone can add their own photos.

Clearly this is a valuable tool for social historians, but perhaps, as the archive grows, it could be of use to family historians too. I love the idea that there might still be an old sign for my great-great-grandfather’s china shop on the side of some neglected Doncaster terrace, or for my great-great-grandmother’s pram business somewhere in Leeds, and maybe with the help of this database I’ll eventually be able to track one down. The closest I’ve come so far is my father’s discovery of his fifth great-uncle German Wheatcroft’s initials ‘GW’ scratched into the wall of a warehouse he’d worked at by the side of Cromford Canal.

German Wheatcroft initials
‘GW’ initials (German Wheatcroft?), the ‘Gothic’ Warehouse, Cromford, Derbyshire, 2015.

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If, like me, you can’t get enough of this sort of amateur sleuthing I recommend this post from James Ward’s always-entertaining blog I Like Boring Things. In it he attempts to solve the mystery of a partially obscured 1980s poster at Waterloo Station using (among other things) a contemporary Pet Shop Boys video. Next week I’ll be returning to my own family history, specifically that of my grandfather Frederick England’s maternal family the Lings, but until then happy ghost sign hunting.