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Keeper Of The Dead Signs

January 16, 2021
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

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”

Off Charlotte Rd, a courteous hand directs you to non-existent showrooms

Diaphanous oblivion on Commercial St

You may also like to take a look at

Ghost Signs of Stoke Newington

Ghost Signs of Bermondsey & Southwark

17 Responses leave one →
  1. January 16, 2021

    “Commit no nuisance” is one of my all-time favorite signs and bit of useful advice. (and I also have a photo of the steam works sign in my collection. Thanks for the memory).

  2. January 16, 2021

    Dear Gentle Author,

    I hope you are well. Thank you so much for today’s post about your self-appointed role as the Keeper of The Dead Signs in Spitalfields. A wonderful start to the day and I found it really moving. I’ve always taken notice of of old signs, gravestones that you can barely read etc. but I shall take an even closer, considered and thoughtful look in future.

    Warm regards, Sue

  3. Sue Flook permalink
    January 16, 2021

    I’m so glad to know that there’s another keeper of dead signs out there! I have a far smaller collection. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and photographs.

  4. January 16, 2021

    Thanks for these pictures, and for the reminder to keep looking up and around! The Dexion shelving for sale reminded me of injuries sustained when we were trying to put them together in our first home, nearly 50 years ago – potentially lethal items!

  5. January 16, 2021

    Glad you do it. I like to keep an eye out for pointing finger signs. So polite.

  6. January 16, 2021

    A nice repository of forgotten founts

  7. January 16, 2021

    One can only say this: Time passes mercilessly over EVERYTHING… Beautiful Observations!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  8. January 16, 2021

    Thank you, Keeper of the Dead Signs. What a wonderful profession.

  9. Malcolm permalink
    January 16, 2021

    Many are the old signs that I wish I had photographed. Perhaps my favourite was within the old Whitbread Brewery in Chiswell Street. I had occasion to work there for a few weeks back in the early 1970s. This was when the stables were still operational and the magnificent shire horses were still employed to deliver beer by brewers dray. The exit door from the gents toilet had a beautifully etched decorative glass panel upon which was inscribed “Gentlemen please adjust your dress”. Sadly, like so much of the old City of London, the brewery was closed down in 1976 and eventually redeveloped. I sometimes wonder where that door is now…

  10. January 16, 2021

    This is a fine post about ‘ghost signs’ (in the current vernacular). I have one two of these Fashion Street locality examples on my Ipswich Historic Lettering website (which garners old lettering from other towns, wherever I happen to pitch up) on my Spitalfields page. I’m delighted to see other signs in the area. I have two other examples of ‘Commit no Nuisance’: one in Tewkesbury and one in St Albans.

    Caroline’s Miscellany (online) has information about the elaborate building taking up much of the north side of Fashion Street (including the derivation of the street name): The Moorish Market on part of which is the ‘Steam Dept.’ sign.

    Let’s hope the ongoing gentrification of the area preserves and celebrates these parts of local working class history, rather than expunging them.

  11. January 16, 2021

    I love these old signs.

  12. paul loften permalink
    January 16, 2021

    There was a sign outside my old school, Parmiters in Approach Road which read”Raines Foundation.” it could have been both a dead sign and a ghost sign. Our school was at this site for hundreds of years and the sign appeared when Parmiters moved to Watford in the 70’s.
    Raines took it over around 1985 and now they have gone. they were not there for 30 years but when it recently closed the East London advertiser sent a journalist there to write an article about the sad closure. The article somehow forgot to mention that the site was originally Parmiters school for hundreds of years and that Raines was only there for around 30 years. This fine old building will now probably turn into an office block or expensive flats.
    The ghosts of the Parmiter’s old boys were said to be heard whispering “It was us that wore away the steps” not Raines. The old school keeper BillRoberts swore he saw a ghost in one of the classrooms on the top floor.

  13. David Antscherl permalink
    January 16, 2021

    Well, those signs triggered some memories! I recall Dexion shelving as well, Caroline. Fortunately, as my father was an engineer, no injuries were sustained.

    The ‘courteous hand’ directional sign was known as a ‘printer’s fist’ in letterpress days. It was faithfully copied by the sign painter, whose work has survived remarkably well.

    Thank you, G.A. for today’s reminiscences.

  14. Lady Dod permalink
    January 16, 2021

    This last sign “Diaphanous oblivion on Commercial St” very much intrigues me. I would love to take different light spectrums to the paint and see what it says underneath!

  15. January 16, 2021

    Create no nuisance is great . As are all the signs, gives a kind of footprint of previous people and businesses.

  16. Sue permalink
    January 16, 2021

    Dexion Cheap.
    Always puzzled me in the small ads. in the Evening News on a Saturday. I never liked to enquire of my parents in case it was rude!

  17. Susan permalink
    January 17, 2021

    I love this. I just LOVE this.

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