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The Signs Of Old London

January 6, 2018
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 as anachronisms affixed to modern buildings. 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”

Archive photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read about

Old Signs in Spitalfields

Ghost Signs of Stoke Newington

Peter Hardwicke, Signwriter

11 Responses leave one →
  1. January 6, 2018

    These signs are so fabulous. I love them and wish that such things were still in use.

  2. January 6, 2018

    The Half Moon and Bull & Mouth are truly wonderful, disturbing pieces of commercial branding. After passing beneath them I’d need a stiff drink to drive the heebies away.

  3. Barbara Hague permalink
    January 6, 2018

    This is the most interesting yet – thank you for all your work.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    January 6, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the lively collection of signage through the centuries in London. I love to meander through the old streets and observe these intriguing objects, along with the statuary which appears everywhere.

    Glad to see that the creaky old grasshopper from Thomas Gresham’s (1519-1579) Royal Exchange survives. As you know, he left his fortune to found Gresham “College” which still survives and continues a “four-century-old tradition of providing free public lectures within London.”

    An excellent collection of past lectures/program is available at this site.

  5. January 6, 2018

    The sign with the three running legs, I believe, is a Triskele, an ancient Celtic symbol first symbolizing the triple goddess of maid, mother, and crone, but modified through time as the running legs, a symbol of the cycle of a human’s life.

    Where is this particular sign located, please? Thank you so much for another wonderful read.

  6. January 6, 2018

    Bravo . . .
    Greetings from the central USA.

  7. Saba permalink
    January 6, 2018

    Wonderful, I want so much now to spend a chunk of time in London.

    I am curious about the “1715, S. Wm. Cutler” sign with the two faces that appear to be black faces. Could this have been a slave trader? If anyone knows the answer, please respond here.

  8. Debra Matheney permalink
    January 6, 2018

    These are lovely. Thank you so much for seeking them out.

  9. January 7, 2018

    Thanks for these photos of old shop signs; they are great. More on the real shopkeepers at 157 Leadenhall Street and the fate of thr little midshipman can be found here:

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 8, 2018

    Another fascinating and graphic Blog. I knew about some of the signs, but not the majority shown here. I have seen a similar equivalent when travelling to places such as rural Italy and Madeira, where the trade was/is depicted in colourful paintings, or on decorated tiles set into the buildings’ walls. They clearly communicate their message. Perfect for the illiterate – or for those not speaking the language! I love looking out for unusual signs around the UK, such as those who subscribed to one of the fire insurance companies, though admit I’ve occasionally bumped into another pedestrian while I was busy looking up! Thank you again for yet another great post.

  11. Max Davis permalink
    January 15, 2018

    The figure of the Knight at Warwick Lane can still be seen

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