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.

* * *

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.

Newspapers as an Historical Resource

Hi all, welcome to the first of what I’m hoping will be a regular series of blog posts about the characters and stories I’ve unearthed during my first five years as a family historian. My main aim is to provide a source of information for the small number of individuals who happen to be researching the same people as I am (do get in touch if you’re one of them!), as well as a place to share research tips

I’ll also be posting on a number of loosely related topics which are of interest to me such as social history, music, online resources and my work as a local studies librarian. The reblogged post below (originally published on 18 January 2015 on the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals’ Local Studies Group blog) falls squarely into the latter category, but may also be of interest to anyone wanting an overview of the range of digitised historic newspapers now available online. More typical posts to follow over the coming weeks…

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A few weeks ago I attended a half-day event at CILIP HQ on the use of newspapers for historical research. The event, organised by CILIP Local Studies Group, featured two very interesting talks by Edmund King, former head of the British Library‘s newspaper library, plus a personal account by Diana Dixon of the way local newspapers have enabled her to piece together previously untold stories from her family history.

Most of the day focused specifically on digitised newspaper databases, and in particular the British Newspaper Archive which Edmund King oversaw the creation of at the British Library. Like Diana Dixon I had used the BNA for my own family history research and at the local studies library where I work, but had not previously appreciated the full range of international newspaper databases which can now be searched online. Some of these databases mentioned by Edmund King in the first of his talks included:

  • Chronicling America – Historic American newspapers from 1836-1922, sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of Congress (free)
  • Gale News Vault – A broad selection of international newspapers and periodicals (paywall)
  • Google News Archive – Google’s discontinued newspaper scanning project, whose content is still available to search (free)
  • Ireland Old News – Transcriptions of old Irish news articles (free)
  • – Database of 3,400 newspapers, mainly American (paywall)
  • Trove – The National Library of Australia’s digitised newspaper collection (free)
  • Welsh Newspapers Online – Welsh and English-language newspapers from 1804-1919, digitised by the National Library of Wales (free)

Several of the above can be cross-searched via, which is attempting to create a single-search interface for all the world’s online historic newspapers (they have quite a long way to go admittedly, but a noble aim nonetheless). As local studies specialists we might question how useful international databases like these are to our daily work, which tends on the whole to focus on local people and events. The truth of course is that historically these ‘local people’ often moved around considerably, especially within the Empire, and events on one side of the world would often be reported on the other due to the complex web of family and business connections which linked people across the globe. Indeed, comparing the regional and international reportage of local events can often provide unique insights into these events which local sources alone could not.

Next Diana Dixon provided a very useful overview of some of the ways local newspapers can be used by family historians. In the past I had used reports of local births, marriages and deaths as an alternative to ordering GRO certificates, but had not thought to examine the long lists of wedding guests and mourners frequently included in these same reports to put together a detailed picture of an individual’s extended family and social circle.

After tea and coffee Edmund King’s second talk focused on some of the more unusual items which can be found in the British Newspaper Archive. We would naturally expect to find reports of local events, births, marriages and deaths etc., but many of the ‘lighter’ pieces can be equally revealing. These include poetry, cartoons, celebrity portraits, ladies’ fashions, maps, literary reviews, serialised novels and items of musical interest, which can all help flesh out the world in which our ancestors lived.

All of the above were all illustrated with examples, and one of the best in my opinion was a brief mention in the Oxford Journal on the 23rd of February 1765 of a visit by:

“One Wolfgang Mozart, a German boy of about eight years old…who can play upon various Sorts of Instruments of Music, in Concert, or Solo, and can compose Music surprizingly ; so that he may be reckoned a Wonder at his Age” (p. 3, col. 1).

It is inconceivable to think this wonderful description would have been found without the BNA’s search engine, and it is worth remembering how lucky we are to have such an excellent tool at our disposal.

It was a very interesting and informative day, and a great opportunity to meet with colleagues and share experiences. If there are any historical newspapers in your library’s collections which you would like to see digitised, you can submit a request on the BNA forum.