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London Street Signs

September 14, 2020
by the gentle author

Alistair Hall, author of LONDON STREET SIGNS published by Batsford, introduces a few local signs and reveals some of the background to these often overlooked and unappreciated pieces of typographic design which are so familiar as to be almost invisible.

This cartouche on the corner of Sclater St and Brick Lane reads ‘THIS IS SCLATER Street 1778’ though the lettering is hard to decipher after so many years.  Dan Cruickshank notes that it was probably built for the distiller Daniel Delacourt.

Around Spitalfields you find a set of Bengali nameplates which sit alongside English ones. The Bengali signs were put up in the nineties and are set in Linotype Bengali designed by Fiona Ross and Tim Holloway around 1978.

An old cast iron nameplate has been camouflaged with paint and a contemporary Tower Hamlets sign sits above it.

A cast iron plate dating from before 1917 when numbered postal districts were introduced in the city, it is unusual for being constructed out of two separate plates.

A creative paint job on another cast iron plate matching the lettering to the surrounding wall.

On the outside of The Old Rose, a former Wapping dockworkers’ pub established in 1839. This has been called Chigwell Hill since before 1746.

Extra-condensed lettering on a pre-1917 nameplate. Despite having more condensed lettering, this sign style has some similarities to those of the N.E. postal district.

A fine blue enamel nameplate featuring the Patent Enamel Company’s manufacturer’s mark, a monogram of PEC, in the bottom right hand corner.

A milk glass nameplate from the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green which was abolished in 1965. Milk glass permitted lettering to be etched into the surface of the sign which was filled with paint.

The enamel nameplate above sits on the outside of The Lauriston, formerly known as The Alexandra, established in the eighteen sixties.

A two-panel ceramic nameplate with enjoyably rudimentary lettering.

Tower St was renamed as Martello St in 1938 as part of a city-wide renaming of streets whose names were repeated elsewhere. The top sign here is from the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney, which ceased to exist in 1965, so the sign dates from some time between then and 1938.

A stone tablet with incised lettering on Rhondda Grove E3. The street, originally named Cottage Grove, was another of those renamed in the thirties.

These tiled signs were once standard throughout the City as far back as the 1870s. This one does not show a postal district – they were introduced in 1857 – so it may be earlier. Ball Court is the home of Simpson’s Tavern established 1757, the oldest chophouse in London.

A hand-painted sign on the outside of St Mary Abchurch which has stood here since the twelfth century although the medieval building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. It was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren’s office between 1681 and 1687. There is a curious informality to the ‘Leading to …’ text and the lower case ‘g’ is eccentric.

This is a rare beast, one of only a few in this style left in the City of London. The rest were replaced by the Corporation of London in the eighties and many of the old signs were sold off in 1991, together with certificates of authenticity. This style features a pleasingly simple identity, though the lettering and spacing of the street names is wildly haphazard. This street below Fenchurch St Station, is named after Sir Thomas Savage’s garden which occupied the site in the seventeenth century.

A trio of signs here just off Myddleton Sq. Up top is a die-stamped nameplate from the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury, featuring the MoT Compressed alphabet which dates from before 1965. Below is a small enamel plate which lists the un-numbered postal district. The postal districts were introduced in 1856 and the numbered districts introduced in 1917, so this is from somewhere in between. Below is lettering which is incised into the stucco of the house which was built in 1829 by William Chadwell Mylne who gave his family name to the street. Mylne was surveyor of the New River Company, founded in the early seventeenth century by Sir Hugh Myddleton to bring fresh water to London along an artificial waterway.

Just north of Old St, this elegant tablet is at the junction of Pear Tree St and Central St.

A great example of how the background to a nameplate can make a huge difference to its visibility. The black painted bricks make the nameplate stand out and emphasise the black letters.

An enamel sign on the outside of the Peabody Trust’s Clerkenwell Estate built in 1884 after the slum clearances of the late 1870s. The architect was Henry Darbishire.

A beautiful nameplate on the outside of the Eagle in Farringdon Rd, tragically this sign has vanished since it was photographed in 2016.

Condensed serif lettering in white on a black background here at a gated entrance at the junction of Strand and Fleet St. The entrance leads to Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court to which all barristers must belong.

Photographs copyright © Alistair Hall

Follow Alistair Hall’s instagram account for more London street signs

You may also like to take a look at

The Weathervanes of London 

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Martina Arata permalink
    September 14, 2020

    Very interesting!! A project to analyse writing of signs in Soho and recreate fonts was done a couple of years ago by Simon Warden (Line Form Color). The project was called Lost&Foundry and the created fonts were given to artists to create art pieces to sell and raise money for the House of St Barnabas charity. It was a very interesting project and a worthy cause

  2. September 14, 2020

    Fascinating and as always reminding us to use our eyes a lot more.

  3. September 14, 2020

    Lovely Vintage Street Names.???????

  4. September 14, 2020

    A fine and interesting Report! Thanks!

    Love & Peace

  5. September 14, 2020

    That was all so interesting and informative. It reminded me of a street name I would love
    to have – it is BURDER ROAD . I grew up there from 1946 till I left in 1959 when I got
    married. My parents lived there until all the houses were pulled down and a council
    estate was built on the site. However the BURDER ROAD sign can still be seen on the
    entrance to the road. You have inspired me to go there again and at least take a photo.

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 14, 2020

    Thank you, Mr. Hall, for this wonderful collection of “Street Art” that is invisible to so many who walk their neighbourhoods every day and don’t need to look up because they know where they are going!

    That Pear Tree Street sign is indeed elegant–and the ‘T” looks like a tree!

    I’ll look up at street signs more often, thanks to your direction.

  7. David A permalink
    September 14, 2020

    Love the variety of typography still around! ‘PearTree Street 1725’ is particularly appealing, as is ‘Cottage Grove 1823’. It is surprising how well some of the enamel signs have stood up to years of weather, pollution and war.

  8. September 14, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, these street signs, gathered by Alistair Hall, are another example of the many charms of London that have fascinated locals and travelers for ages.

    I also learned a new word (always a good thing) CARTOUCHE – “In Egyptian hieroglyphics, an oval with a line at one end at right angles to the oval, indicating that the text enclosed is a royal name.”


  9. September 14, 2020

    Love …Love… Love… !!!

  10. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 15, 2020

    These are delightful, and I can quite see how one could become obsessed by looking for all the different styles of street sign in London.

    I have always wondered why the street names of Hampstead are white lettering on a black ground, and whether there is a particular cache if you move into a street with that style of sign.

  11. Philip Marriage permalink
    September 16, 2020

    These are simply fascinating – ordinary functional objects yet displaying so much variety and typographic interest to delight the eye. I can see no reason why the Victorian cast-iron street signs in and around Spitalfields needed to be replaced with today’s cheapo tinpot corporate substitutes – such a shame.

    However the removal of the cast-iron ‘Artillery Lane E’ sign above the present-day Ottolenghi Restaurant has revealed a painted ghost sign saying ‘STREET’. If genuine, this is probably early Victorian or even Georgian as it is a long time since Artillery Lane was known as Artillery Street. Maybe one of the oldest ghost street signs still visible in London?

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