The Old Signs of Spitalfields
Commit no Nuisance
I am the keeper of the old signs in Spitalfields. I have embraced it as my self-appointed duty, because although many are “dead” and others have become “ghosts,” disappearing into ether, they are all of interest to me. By “dead” signs, I mean those that no longer have a function, where their useful life is over, and by “ghost” signs, I refer to the next stage in the afterlife of signage where the text fades into illegibility until eventually no trace remains.
Some old signs are prominently placed and some are hidden in obscure corners but, irrespective of their locations, their irrelevance has rendered them invisible – yet I welcome them all into my collection. The more shabby and disregarded, the more I like them, because, as the passing years have taken away their original purpose, these signs have become transformed into poetry. In many cases, the people whom these notices address are long gone, so unless I am there to pay attention to these redundant placards and grant them dignity, they can only talk to themselves like crazy old folk rambling in the dark.
Given that the street name was altered generations ago, who now requires a sign (such as you will find at the junction with St Matthew’s Row) to remind them that Cheshire St was formerly Hare St, just in case of any confusion? I doubt if even the oldest resident, ninety-six year old Charlie Burns in nearby Bacon St, can remember when it was Hare St. And yet I cannot deny the romance of knowing this older name, recalling the former hare marsh at the end of the street.
Ever since someone pointed out to me that “Refuse to be put in this basket” could be interpreted as an instruction to reject being placed in the basket yourself, the literal netherworld implied by signs has captivated me. Now when I see the sign outside the travel agent in Brick Lane with the image of Concorde, I yearn to go in and ask to buy a ticket for Concorde as if – through some warp in reality – the sign was a portal inviting me to a different world where Concorde is still flying and this office in Spitalfields is the exclusive agent. I am fascinated by the human instinct to put up signs, craving permanent declarations and desiring to accrete more and more of them, whilst equally I recognise it is in the survival instinct of city dwellers that we learn to exclude all the signs from our consciousness, if we are to preserve our sanity.
To my mind, there is an appealing raffish humour which these old signs acquire through longevity, when they cock a snook at us with messages which the passage of time has rendered absurd. “Commit no Nuisance” painted discreetly in Fournier St on the side of Christ Church, Spitalfields, has long been a cherished favourite of mine. I wonder what genius came up with this notion, which if it were effective would surely be emblazoned on every street in the world. It could solve many of the problems of humanity at a stroke. Although, unfortunately, it does rely upon a certain obedient compliance from those most likely to offend, who are also those most unlikely to pay attention. Almost faded into illegibility today, with pitiful nobility, “Commit no Nuisance,” speaks in a polite trembling whisper that is universally ignored by those passing in Commercial St.
Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, signs can still propose a convincing reality, which is why it is so perplexing to see those for businesses that no longer exist. They direct me to showrooms, registered offices and departments which have gone, but as long as the signs remain, my imagination conjures the expectation of their continued existence. These old signs speak of the sweatshops and factories that defined the East End until recently, and they talk to me in the voices of past inhabitants, even over the hubbub of the modern city. Such is the modest reward to be drawn from my honorary role as the keep of old signs in Spitalfields.
Generations have passed since Cheshire St was known as Hare St.
This sign at the entrance to Dray Walk in the Truman Brewery, closed twenty years ago, was once altered from “Truman’s” to “Truman Ltd” when the company was sold, and, with due respect, the name of successive company secretaries was updated in stencilled lettering. These considerations are mere vanities now upon a dead sign surrounded by ads for the shops and bars that occupy Dray Walk today.
Travel agent on Brick Lane offering flights on Concorde.
Steam department works office in Fashion St.
Today’s top prices at the scrap metal dealer in Valance Rd.
Incised on the side of Christ Church Spitalfields: In case of fire apply for the men of the engine house and ladders at the Station House, No 1 Church Passage, Spital Square. 1843. A precaution adopted after the great fire of 1836.
No more enamelling on Brick Lane.
No more veneers on Great Eastern St.
Car Park on Petticoat Lane.
Registered Office in Commercial St.
Charlie’s Motors once offered services from £30 in Brady St.
On Christ Church, Spitafields: All applications about Marriages, Burials & c. at this church must be made to Mr Root. Note the reference to Church St – renamed Fournier St in the nineteenth century.
Car Spares on Three Colts Lane.
On Commercial St, “Woollen” overpainted onto “Glass Globes”
In Aldgate, Ben Eine adorns Stick ‘Em Up! sandwich bar.
Off Charlotte Rd, a courteous hand directs you to non-existent showrooms.
Diaphanous oblivion on Commercial St.