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The Signs of Old London

October 5, 2011
by the gentle author

The little wooden midshipman outside Solomon Gillis’ chandlery, 157 Leadenhall St

Even though most of the signs of old London were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, a few created just after that date survive today in the City – anachronisms affixed to modern buildings, as if they were Penny Blacks stuck onto Jiffy padded envelopes. Yet in the Bishopsgate Institute archive, I found plenty of atmospheric pictures of curious stone plaques which lasted into the era of photography, only to be destroyed by the blitz and subsequent redevelopment.

It was Charles I who gave people the right to hang out signs as they pleased, when once they were restricted to innkeepers - “for the better finding out such citizens’ dwellings, shops, pubs or occupations, without impediment, molestation, or interruption to their heirs or successors.” An elaborate language of symbols quickly grew in the common understanding, such as a dragon for an apothecary, a sugar loaf for a grocer, a wheatsheaf for a baker, a frying pan for a confectioner, and – as still seen in Spitalfields today – a spool for a silk weaver.

As time went by, the meanings of the signs became more complex and arcane as shops changed ownership but retained the signs as identifiers of the buildings. James Maddox, the coffin maker at St Olaves had the symbol of three coffins and a sugarloaf, the sugarloaf because it was a former grocers and three coffins as his personal device. Opposite St Dunstan’s in Fleet St, a sign of three squirrels first put up by Henry Pinkley the goldsmith in 1649, was appropriated by the bankers who moved in afterwards, and this symbol of the three squirrels continued to be used by the National Westminster Bank until the mid-twentieth century.

Lombard St was once famed for its array of magnificent signs, and eighteenth century prints show quaint symbols hung upon elaborate wrought iron brackets outside every single premises in Cornhill and Cheapside. Anticipating our modern concern with brands and logos, these devices suited the city before streets were numbered and when many of the populace did not read. But during heavy weather and in strong wind, these monstrous signs creaked and groaned – and, in 1718, a huge sign in Bride St collapsed killing four people and taking part of the shop front with it. Such was the severity of the problem of the forest of hanging signs crowding the streets of London, that a commission was appointed in 1762 to take them all down and fix them onto the shopfronts – thereby creating the modern notion of the fascia sign declaring the identity of the premises.

“The Commissioners are empowered to take down and remove all signs and emblems, used to denote the trade, occupation or calling – any sign posts, sign boards, sign irons, balconies, penthouses, show boards, spouts and gutters projecting into the streets etc, and all other encroachments and projections whatsoever in the said cities and liberties – and cause the same, or such parts thereof as they think fit to be affixed or placed on the front of the houses, shops, alehouses or buildings to which they belong.”

Street numbers were only in partial use at the beginning of the eighteenth century, becoming widespread by the end of the century as a standardised system to identify properties. Although many were reluctant to give up the language of signs and symbols, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the signs were commonly replaced by the familiar pattern of a board with signwriting above the shopwindow. Most of the decorative signs to found in the City of London today are pastiches created a hundred years ago as nostalgic tributes to a bygone age, though two favourites of mine are the golden owl on the House of Fraser, facing South over London Bridge, and the figure of Atlas holding up the globe on the exterior of Barclays in Cheapside.

Just three signs remain in common usage, the barbers’ pole (with its bloody red and white stripe recalling when barbers were also surgeons),  the chemists’ pestle and mortar, and the pawnbrokers’ three balls – originally blue, they turned gold in the early nineteenth century and are said to be based upon the crest of the Dukes of Medici, itself derived from coins taken by Crusaders from Byzantium.

At the sign of the Fox in Lombard St.

At the sign of the Three Kings in Lombard St.

At the sign of the Half Moon in Holywell St, off the Strand.

A physician.

A locksmith.

At the sign of the Lamb & Flag

The grasshopper, symbol of industry and personal emblem of Sir Thomas Gresham who founded the Royal Exchange, is to be found all over the City of London even today.

At the sign of Three Squirrels in Fleet St.

At the sign of the Bull & Mouth in Aldgate.

This was the symbol of the Cutlers.

Child’s bank at the sign of the Marigold in Temple Bar.

In Ely Place, off Hatton Garden – this mitre came from an episcopal palace and was set into the wall of a public house.

The maid of the Mercer’s company is still to be seen in Corbet Court off Gracechurch St.

An old sign that remains in situ outside St Paul’s tube station.“When ye have sought the Citty round, yet still this is the highest ground. August 27th 1698″

“- an old sign affixed to a modern building, like a Penny Black stuck onto a Jiffy padded envelope.”

Archive photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read about Peter Hardwicke, Signwriter

22 Responses leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011

    Great post. Love the symbolism, phonetics, language, etc., and wonder at the original thought behind it.

  2. October 5, 2011

    What a wonderful post! Old signs are a passion of mine.
    Apparently before the postal system arrived houses generally weren’t numbered, but discerned instead by the signs above them – ‘At the Signe of the Sugar-loaf’, etc
    The Bull and Mouth sign, originally on a public house at Aldgate, is a corruption of Boulogne Mouth, a battle Henry VIII fought for supremacy of that port.
    Interesting what you say about the Medici. I had always associated the 3 gold balls with the legend of St Nicholas, helping out the poor orphan.
    I really love the flaming talons – I would happily ‘hot-foot’ it to see that sign if still it exists!

  3. October 5, 2011

    Thank you for this – the wonderful pictures, and a fascinating read. DL

  4. October 5, 2011

    Brilliant post! It pays to keep an active eye on these old city streets, even where least expected.

  5. October 5, 2011

    A fascinating post – confirming my own suspicion that house numbers were a very late invention. My early 18th century ancestor, Joseph Greene, who was a goldsmith, apparently lived at ‘the Golden Ball and Ring’ or ‘The Ring and Ball’ at the corner of Little Tower Hill and the Minories.
    (http://mprobb.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/new-information-about-joseph-greene-citizen-and-goldsmith/)

  6. October 5, 2011

    The Lombard Street signs visible today were created for the coronation of George V to brighten up the City a bit … I quite like the grasshopper, all the same

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/victorianlondon/5948375874/

    best wishes,

    Lee

  7. October 5, 2011

    Terrific post with your usual high level of research, thanks.

    I too have a particular fascination with visual signs. I’ve been trying to get my East Village neighborhood on board with a sign initiative. Slow going but I’ll pass this along for inspiration.

    Question; the grasshopper as a symbol of industry? I take it as true, but does anyone know when that switch came about? Aesop would be miffed.

    Many thanks for your wonderful writing, P

  8. Julie permalink
    October 5, 2011

    love it all.the bull and mouth is brilliant.

  9. Michael permalink
    October 6, 2011

    The first photo is the “Little Wooden Midshipman” immortalized by Charles Dickens in Dombey And Son. The figure is now one of the exhibits at The Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, WC1. According to their website: ” Dickens saw it at their premises in Leadenhall Street which he describes as those of Sol Gills. The firm later moved to Minories taking the figure with it. The Midshipman was evacuated when war broke out in 1939 and came to the Museum in 1946.”

  10. Jimmy A permalink
    October 6, 2011

    Hoare’s Bank on Fleet Street still trades “At the sign of the Golden Bottle” and their archives contain the original:

    http://www.hoaresbank.co.uk/behindthescenes/behindscenesfleet2.htm

    Their banking hall is also fascinating example of a living tradition!

  11. October 9, 2011

    That’s wonderful! I’ll look out for them now.

  12. October 10, 2011

    Stunning collection of photos. The Warwick Lane sign has survived. See http://www.londonremembers.com/site/1844

  13. October 17, 2011

    love the pics – completely inspirational

  14. January 3, 2012

    This makes me want to visit London and go on a search!!!! ;-)

    I find it mad and beautiful that such a historic sign is positioned next to Caffe Nero and everyday commuters.

    I wonder how many of them have ever actually stopped to have a look at it! History is indeed all around.

    Thanks for sharing.

  15. Austendw permalink
    May 3, 2012

    The Half-Moon that you show wasn’t in fact the Southwark Half-Moon, but the sign at Half-Moon Passage between Holywell Street and the Strand. A full description can be found here:
    http://archive.org/stream/londonsignsandin00normiala#page/44/mode/2up

    It appears in countless prints, watercolours and photos of Holywell Street. Here it is again in my favourite – a watercolour by the wonderful John Wykeham Archer, dated to April 1847, and held at the BM:

    http://www.britishmuseum.org/collectionimages/AN00686/AN00686072_001_l.jpg

    The Southwark Half-Moon can be seen here:

    http://archive.org/stream/londonsignsandin00normiala#page/40/mode/2up</url?

  16. Born Londonah permalink
    May 21, 2012

    Feels like home here =)

  17. July 20, 2012

    @ Peg – Grasshopper symbol – part of Gresham Family crest . The picture shown I believe is the Grasshopper Weathervane on the top of the Royal Exchange, a wonderful early photograph.

    “According to an ancient legend of the Greshams, the founder of the family, Roger de Gresham, was a foundling abandoned as a new-born baby in long grass in North Norfolk in the 13th century and found there by a woman whose attention was drawn to the child by a grasshopper. A beautiful story, it is more likely that the grasshopper is simply an heraldic rebus on the name Gresham, with gres being a Middle English form of grass (Old English grœs). The Gresham family motto is Fiat voluntas tua (‘Thy will be done’).” Extracted from Wiki

    Although the Fable fits the family well, they certainly worked hard for the good of the Monarchrs and the City of London.

  18. Lorena permalink
    October 4, 2012

    Just wonderful. Thanks so much for posting these. Saving your blog in bookmarks and…just know you have given me so much more to research and truly enjoy.

  19. ChocolateDandy permalink
    October 23, 2012

    The museum of Paris has an amazing hall full of equally impressive signs. Remember reading that the French (like the English) were hardly literate and thus for similar reasons symbols became markers of trade …
    Love the post
    Ben

  20. Nicola permalink
    February 10, 2013

    Brilliant. Just what I’ve been trying to find out about.

  21. Colin permalink
    November 18, 2013

    What a fascinating story about the signs of London., My ancestors, (I believe) had a sign of the hanging boot outside their shops and warehouses in Cheapside & Lombard St., they were John Hose circa 1730′s and his son and grandson carried on the business of a cordwainer at 33, Lombard st. Can you add anything to the story.
    Regards

  22. Edwin Hayslip permalink
    February 7, 2014

    Wonderful collection.

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