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Old Signs Of Spitalfields

July 27, 2017
by the gentle author

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 anyone 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. In fact, I am reliably informed that this sign is actually employing the language of euphemism to instruct customers of the Ten Bells not urinate against the church wall. 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 former scrap metal dealer in Vallance 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.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 27, 2017

    What a beautifully poignant post. ‘Commit no Nuisance’ – a prohibition and a philosophy for living!

  2. Buzz permalink
    July 27, 2017

    Fantastic blog. I love old signs and they absolutely need to be preserved!

  3. July 27, 2017

    Until the 1990s, a sign outside a garment factory in Greatorex Street conjured a titillating vision: SPECIALISTS IN NIGHTIES. Around the same time, in Hanbury Street, appeared a scrawled note on a scrap of paper in the window of an old shop whose display comprised three tins of peas, a wilting geranium and a pile of old newspapers: ‘We also have a branch in Chittagong’.

  4. July 27, 2017

    Wonderful ghosts from the past. Valerie

  5. July 27, 2017

    Excellent way to start my day, reading this. I love ghost signs too and cannot be more cheered than by the addition of a pointing, smartly dressed hand. Thanks for this and keep up the noble work.

  6. Leana Pooley permalink
    July 27, 2017

    I hope that Mr Root and H. L. Jones are up on a cloud feeling well pleased that their names have lived on for so long.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    July 27, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wow, you are observant. Thanks for sharing these vestiges from the past. Food for thought:

    “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.”

  8. Lisa permalink
    July 27, 2017

    Thank goodness someone cares so much! These are all so evocative-the last trace before obscurity. Strangely sad but also really comforting, thank you! (Will be more diligent in recording ones I see now:)

  9. Jennifer Griffith Vincent permalink
    July 27, 2017

    Thank you yet again, both for the post and the stewardship. The former is ‘so evocative’, as another poster mentions. I’m looking at an image of my great-grandmother’s baptismal record from 1862, with the family residence recorded as Hare Street, and the father’s occupation silk dealer.

  10. Beryl Happe permalink
    July 27, 2017

    My mother always called Cheshire street, Hare street, and I always wondered why. This is the first reference to it I have ever seen.

  11. Beryl Happe permalink
    July 27, 2017

    I was leafleting a road and came upon a house with a beautiful sign, all done in bronze it boldly stated ‘Ladies of ill repute not welcome’. I hastily beat my retreat just in case.

  12. Joyce permalink
    July 28, 2017

    I absolutely love your articles. As an .English lady from .Essex, resident in Kentucky, I get very home/England sick. Your daily treasures remind me of the London I only partly knew, but wish I knew completely. I’d love to return home, but it’s not possible with all the changes. Even when I visit, no G P will see me……it saddens me.
    Please continue your wonderful work……many of us just love it. Vand, thank you.

  13. July 30, 2017

    Também tenho esse gosto pela conservação de “memórias”, há aquelas que formaram nosso caráter, e é tão bom encontrá-las fora de nós. Sou literalmente apaixonada por esses “símbolos”. Um beijo!

  14. August 1, 2017

    Great!

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