Skip to content

The Old Signs of Spitalfields

January 14, 2011
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 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.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan Lendroth permalink
    January 14, 2011

    My favorite is the reminder that Cheshire was formerly Hare Street, no doubt a handy piece of information for any lost 19th century ghosts.

  2. paul permalink
    January 14, 2011

    I believe that the sign ‘Commit no Nuisance’ was a polite form of notice meaning ‘Don’t Piss Against This Wall’ directed at the patrons of The Ten Bells and may perhaps date back to the Eight Bells.

  3. the gentle author permalink*
    January 14, 2011

    I have discovered there is a an entire gallery of “Commit no Nuisance” signs here

  4. January 14, 2011

    An excellent and fascinating collection of pictures


  5. January 14, 2011

    From your comment that “commit no nuisance” is universally ignored in Commercial Street I assume that it is a street to be avoided.
    Your blog goes from strength to strength, keep it up !

  6. January 14, 2011

    Fascinating. I’m just about to take some photos on the theme of ‘age’, I think I may pay a visit to Spitalfields. My husband works there, but like all such people, he scuttles to and fro and notices little!

  7. RIOBCN permalink
    March 20, 2011

    This site is wonderful – I always felt a little sad that these signs would be lost…
    Thank you for recording them!

  8. Shawdiane permalink
    January 3, 2015

    Thank you. This site never ceases to amaze me with the diverse subjects of interest. You really do open up our eyes to things we simply choose not see or do not think to look at on our daily walk abouts. I have a passion for the world around me from our past & never realised there are you good people out there taking note of our little treasures. Well done & keep up the good work.

  9. January 7, 2018

    My father, a barber, had the striped revolving round tube over his shop that was first opposite Cheshire Street (why was the name changed?) where we rented the top floor of a Jewish grocery shop. We moved to Vallance Road near the overhead trains, and then to Columbia Road next to the shellfish shop Lee’s I th ink now a fish and chip shop run by Asians? when I was last there about 8 years ago. I see that the flower market still takes place on Sundays.
    Are any of these signs still up?

    Also, re Spitalfields High School, my high school, why was it torn down? I read somewhere, that the school was built over a 12th century nunnery, and when torn down, bones thought to be those of nuns were found. And I used to see men in Spitalfield Market walking with three baskets of fruit or vegetables on their heads, gracefully, not holding on to them. Shame to see them now pushing barrows, or has that changed too? Why did they raze the school and move the market? I believe Fournier Street was or is noted for French dissidents and is or was a furriers’ Street. Please correct if wrong. On m y last visit, I went to 122 Cambridge Heath Road, where my Polish-Russian Jewish grandparents had a grocery shop. There was a granary in the back of the yard where my Zada weighed and filled bags of beans or rice. Some of this experience appears in my book, Cockney Girl. I am now writing about being an evacuee from East London during WW2, sent to Newmarket and then Ely. Horribly homesick for East London until I landed though British-born, in a Jewish refugee hostel, The White House, in Great Chesterford. I was very happy there, last two years of the war.
    My aunt lived in Maida Vale when it was still posh. Gilda Haber, PhD

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS