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The Signs Of Old London

September 18, 2020
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.”

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

7 Responses leave one →
  1. September 18, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for a fascinating history lesson: I am inspired to start looking up and around more carefully on my walks round the city.

  2. September 18, 2020

    Another eye opener! Reminds me of when I bought I spy Books as a child. It seems we are returning to glyphs with our emojis in this age of spelling decline and auto-correct. In fact we may lose offices and shops altogether. So it gives me great satisfaction to see so much history still around in London.

  3. September 18, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for collecting and displaying these tidbits of material culture that survive in London today. Each one speaks volumes.

    Missing London as usual…

  4. September 18, 2020

    My eye has settled on the broken “Half Moon”, and I can’t stop speculating about it. What (or who) caused the break? Did some drunken passerby grab a bit of rope and try to “lasso” the sign? Did a rowdy crew of workmen pass by with a ladder, and “lop” off the tail of the moon? Or, or, or?
    And one look at his disapproving, disappointed face says it all. “Hey, you GUYS…….What’s the big idea of breaking off m’tail, mates????”.
    Like many pieces of folk art that I’ve seen over the years, the broken condition makes this
    sign even more special; somehow more humane and distinctive.
    Thank you for this wonderful treatise on signs and your amazing City.
    Stay safe, all.

  5. paul loften permalink
    September 18, 2020

    Thank you for bringing these signs to our attention . I shall now keep an eye out for them . The sign in Warwick Lane is so finely carved and well preserved . The craft that went into their making is to be admired and should be displayed as an incentive to future generations. I had an email this morning regarding the appeal date for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry . Is it possible that we can raise enough voices to save this ancient craft in the place where it belongs ?

  6. September 18, 2020

    So much wonderful history just above our heads.

  7. September 22, 2020

    So Very Beautiful Statues. I Love Them!!??????

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