This is a spectacular ghost sign - and although huge, it's also one of the most hidden away I've ever come across. It reads:
HOLBORN BOROUGH COUNCIL
CIVIL DEFENCE HEADQUARTERS
VOLUNTEERS WANTED ENROL HERE
It dates, I would guess, from the Second World War - when, as you can see, Holborn had an active civil defence operation. It's just possible that it's from the period of the Cold War, when fear of a Soviet nuclear strike prompted a revival of civil defence teams, particularly in sensitive areas such as Holborn in central London.
The sign is entirely obscured by Holborn Library, a building completed in 1960 - this photo was taken from the local history section of the library on the second floor looking out through a rear window.
The library building itself, on Theobalds Road, has been described as 'a milestone in the history of the modern public library'. Camden Council intends to refurbish the building - the spot I took this photo from is set to become a luxury apartment, and the local history collection is to be banished to the basement.
And the former Civil Defence HQ - in a building built between the wars as a furniture warehouse (and currently used by the council for storage and as the base for a number of arts and similar organisations) - is set to be demolished, though we don't quite know when, and the site redeveloped. Its side aspect is on John's Mews, if that helps.
Holborn Borough Council, by the way, was swept away in the 1965 reorganisation of London local government when it was amalgamated with St Pancras and Hampstead in the new London Borough of Camden.
So if you are in to ghost signs - or Holborn's history - or you are just curious (which is a good thing to be) - don't delay in getting a glimpse!
I came across this exhumed shop sign today at the north end of Great Eastern Street, where Finsbury edges into Shoreditch. What a wonderfully dated business name! (Acme, if you are wondering, comes from the Greek word for peak).
The work on these premises have been progressing at a glacial pace - it seems that 'Acme Electric Co (Finsbury)' has been enjoying a public reprise for a couple of years. Another ghost sign enthusiast has discovered that the business once sold electrical calculators, transistor radios and cassette recorders.
All things that feel about as dated as the term 'Acme' - and yes, that was the name of the corporation in Looney Tunes and Wile E. Coyote!.
Well, you certainly can't miss it. A long derelict corner shop on Highgate Road - in that strange no man's land between Dartmouth Park and Gospel Oak - has gone canary. Hmmm! But look, this isn't a rant against poor taste ... it's a celebration that this you-would-have-thought-sought-after location is bouncing back to life.
I came across the picture below online (on Pinterest - I couldn't work out who to acknowledge, sorry!) taken fully a decade ago. The Chinese takeaway which occupied the spot was clearly even then an ex-takeaway ... and it's not been put to any other use in the interim.
Fish & Fowl, the slightly wacky fishmongers-cum-poulterers, didn't long survive this 2008 photo - and that site remains sadly forlorn.
The success of the Southampton Arms just a couple of doors away - reborn as a bare floorboards real ale (and cider) pub - has shown that this corner of Highgate Road is not blighted. There's a bus stop, passing traffic, a busy main road, plenty of people living nearby ... so, what's the problem?
So, what would you sell in a shop painted canary yellow? Paint? Canaries?? Well, I asked the guy who was working on the place ... his mate is setting up in a few weeks as an organic grocer's. It could just work!
And as ever when these old commercial places are done up, you get the odd surprise. An old shop sign has resurfaced just above the door. It's not at all easy to decipher ...
The guy doing the renovations says someone has put this image through some software and come up with the name: SHIRTLIFF. Well, spot on! In the 1885-6 Hampstead and Highgate Directory, what was then 145 Highgate Road was the property of F. Shirtliff, chemist and dentist.
Nice to see you again, Mr Shirtliff!
I should have spotted this before ... another of those rare examples of old London 'letter' exchanges visible on signs. This is the Arosfa Hotel in Bloomsbury - MUSeum 2115. I think this is simply the nicest of these survivals I have come across.Don't you reckon?
What makes this particularly wonderful is that the Arosfa Hotel is still in business - this isn't some ghostly relic, but the sign (OK, the number has changed, but let that be) of a working, functioning, thriving business.
And in case you are wondering - and I certainly was - the hotel's website says the name means 'resting place' in Welsh ... a language widely spoken in Bloomsbury!
Not all that far away, on Whidborne Street south of St Pancras and King's Cross stations, there's another survivor - this is quite the most entrancing street corner in central London. And there still you can see the phone number, hand painted and now rather faint (wouldn't you be after all those decades?) TERminus 4577.
And I hope the photo below will explain why you need to hightail (meaning hurry, rush - an American origin word originating from the raised tails of running animals such as deer and rabbits) it down to Whidborne Street before it is irrevocably altered in some way.
There's a heartening number of old shop signs that have been uncovered - and kept by new businesses. This example is on Holloway Road, towards the Highbury end - more-or-less opposite that very grand Islington library. It apparently used to be a butcher's shop and is now one of those 'vintage' emporiums.
There aren't too many 01 numbers visible either - but here's one below off Oldhill Street in that enclave between Stoke Newington and Clapton (and there's an 081 also on a signboard of a Oldhill Street business which appears still to be trading). The 01 code for London was introduced from 1959, and the three letter area codes were phased out from the mid-60s. 01 was superseded by 071 and 081 in 1990. 0171 and 0181 came were introduced in 1995, and 020 five years later.
'Ouvert Jour & Nuit' ... as they say in St Giles. I spotted this tremendous ghost sign right at the heart of London only yesterday, when loitering with intent with an old friend in and around St Giles-in-the-Fields. It's on a gable wall overlooking the churchyard, obscured by a tree and probably only visible at all when the leaves have fallen.
The sign is for the 'Continental Garage' - and I guess the splash of French is just to show a touch of sophistication, though there was a Francophone community in nearby Soho right down to the Second World War. At some stage, the sign has been altered to read 'Prince's Garage'., but the earlier rendition remains more legible.
This splendid sign was new to me - but is of course known to ghost sign aficionados. There's more about it, and a photo taken eight years ago when the sign was a touch clearer, on this specialist blog. And there are some images on Flickr, this one from 2009.
The church and this garage front the rather sad stub that is all that's left of St Giles High Street, on its truncated run from High Holborn to Denmark Street. This was once a rookery, as was Seven Dials nearby ... in popular song and literature, the roughs of St Giles was often set against the toffs of fashionable St James. This song sheet from the 1860s is from the British Library's online collection and in a similar vein Douglas Jerrold wrote the 1851 potboiler St Giles and St James, now available online.
But when it comes to churches, give me St Giles - and its immediate environs, Flitcroft Street and the community gardens behind - any day. Such an overlooked treasure and so close to Tottenham Court Road tube.
The church was designed by Henry Flitcroft in the 1730s, and merits the two full pages it gets in Pevsner. It's truly magnificent, with a three-sided gallery, crowded with wonderful memorials, not the least of which is a blue plaque to George Odger, the mid-Victorian radical labour leader, moved from St Giles High Street when Odger's old home was cleared forty years ago.
This area was a stronghold of O'Brienite artisan radicalism - followers of the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien - in the second half of the nineteenth century. The O'Brienites met at the Eclectic Hall just yards away on Denmark Street, better known as Tin Pan Alley, where a handful of late seventeenth century houses still survive (though whether the music industry will cling on here is much less certain).
Denmark Street has another claim on the interests of historians of radicalism. The hugely influential Indian Progressive Writers' Association was founded by Sajjad Zaheer, Mulk Raj Anand and others in the basement of the Nanking restaurant on Denmark Street. I haven't worked out where exactly it was - but I'm working on it. .
Squeezed between Hampstead and Hendon, Golders Green is still regarded as north London's middle class Jewish enclave. It has in large measure outgrown that reputation. The high street is as much Turkish as kosher, and Bloom's - the Jewish restaurant which used to be a byword for stroppy service - has long since closed. Alan Dein - who showed me round his manor a few weeks back and is writing Curious Golders Green - tells me his uncle was the last Jewish waiter at Bloom's. In its latter years, almost all the staff were Greek Cypriots.
But let's start at the beginning - or at least where I started walking, heading from Jack Straw's Castle, no longer a pub but top end flats, down the hill towards Golders Green tube and bus station. This curious periphery to Hampstead Heath has, in places, a distinctly rustic feel. Indeed the cluster of houses on and around Sandys Road, opposite the 'Old Bull and Bush' (rebuilt, alas, in the 1920s), has a village-like feel to it.
In Golders Green proper, the grander of the two landmarks, the Hippodrome, was originally a music hall, then home of the BBC Concert Orchestra. It's now a Christian centre with a largely African congregation. A little less imposing, but architecturally more pleasing, is the clocktower at the centre of a small roundabout, built after the First World War as a war memorial. The blue face of the clock (alas, not displaying the correct time) brings a particular charm and a burst of colour to what would otherwise be an excessively solid and sturdy structure.
Directly opposite the Hippodrome is one of the very few businesses close at hand which is identifiably Jewish - a kosher patisserie which feels as if its time is past, and certainly wasn't deluged by customers on this admittedly damp Sunday morning, but which does a tasty apple strudel. (They are baked not here, I was told, but on the premises of the main store at Finchley).
As you walk through Golders Green. the shops and businesses become more kosher as you approach the railway bridge - and from there to the North Circular, the area is emphatically Jewish, with a synagogue, Jewish schools and a fair amount of Hebrew/Yiddish signage.
It's on the final stretch of the walk, approaching the North Circular, that I came across a wonderful ghost sign for an old launderette, boasting a double wash in twenty-eight minutes. Alan Dein had pointed it out on an earlier walk.
And need I say - it's on the gable wall of what is now a kosher supermarket.
Malden Road has seen better days. At least, I hope it has. When Karl Marx and family lived here, on Grafton Terrace, the locality would have been new and, not posh but smart at least. Sharp's Fishing Tackle Shop - I'm not sure whether it's still going, and the window display is about as flyblown as can be - is at the down-at-heel extremity of the street. Victor Eggleton, by the way, appears to be the name of the barber who had a business here decades back.
Next door, the undertakers has a wonderful blue lamp, surmounted with a crown - it's really fantastic to find such a very special architectural flourish amid this slightly forsaken corner of Kentish Town.
Two minutes' walk away as the road crosses the railway lines, slowly fading, is a wonderful Guinness ghost sign - replete with performing seal (I guess this predates the toucan). I'm no expert, but I'd say it's from the 1950s or earlier. The first use of a seal balancing a pint of Guinness appears to date as far back as 1930 - the fridge magnet featured below is still on sale.
Shop renovations bring with them moments of magic. Fleeting moments when remnants of another era resurface, and then just as quickly are again submerged, often forever.
That's what's happened at a disused corner shop along Dartmouth Park Hill in north London (on the junction with Bickerton Road to be precise). I posted about 'Crick's Corner' earlier in the year when the corner shop business run by the Patels - they used to deliver my newspapers - was about to close. The shop is now being refurbished. And driving past the other afternoon, I could see that old signage on clouded glass long since lost to view had come to light - 'Confectionery', 'Library', 'Periodicals', there was a fourth but the glass is broken. The shop used to be, between the wars, a library - lending out novels for a few pence a week.
Within days, these evocative signs - they look as if they date from the 1920s or 30s - were replaced by clear window glass. We will never see them again.
But it was wonderful to get a last glance of a shop front from perhaps seventy or more years ago.
The old 'Crick's Corner' signage still survives - for the moment.
I think it only got into the new century because it was hidden behind an advertising board which, some years back, was removed.
The developer is clearly hoping to find a commercial use for the property - though that may not be too easy. It's got a good corner site, but there's not much passing trade - as the Patels discovered.
When I wrote about Crick's Corner before, an old friend Bob Trevor - who grew up along this stretch of Dartmouth Park Hill - got in touch to say he remembered when it was still a commercial library and old-style mags and sweets shop. He recalled: "Another landmark of my life gone. Mr Crick used to cash cheques for my father, deliver newspapers and the 'Boy's Own Paper' for me. His son and daughter-in-law lived next door to us in No 79. My mother and Mrs Crick jnr were great pals. In those days there was a parade of shops stretching from Chester Road to Raydon St. Happy memories."
Part of the charm of ghost signs is the slow, ethereal fading away - if the inscription wasn't visibly ageing it wouldn't have that magic about it.
But it's still frustrating when you come across a ghost sign that's no longer fully legible. Take this one, for 'John Hirst, Builder, on the gable end of the house he lived in, in Dartmouth Park. What does it say?
Even the most assiduous of ghost signers has failed to make it out in full. But here's my best attempt:
????? Sanitary Work
If anyone can fill-in the blanks, do let me know. The sign is at the junction of Twisden Road and Chetwynd Road, NW5.
The admirable Kentish Towner has had a good look at the ghost signs at the heart of Dartmouth Park. There's a more detailed, and illustrated, account by M.H. Port, 'Living and Building in Victorian Dartmouth Park', published by the Dartmouth Park Conservation Area Advisory Committee. Many of the streets in Dartmouth Park, especially those on the southern side, bear all the hallmarks of speculative builders. They would buy a small lot of land, cram in a few houses, and the telltale sign is the variegated design - walk down a street such as Spencer Rise, and you get small clumps of houses all with the same design, then a jarring change not just to design detail, but often the number of floors as well.
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