Ghostsigns, Gravestones, and the Painted History on our Walls

A guest post by Sam Roberts, who runs Ghostsigns.co.uk! Sam’s aim is to create a permanent record of ghostsigns around the world as they are a unique record of commercial, craft and advertising history.

Grave of Robert and Elizabeth Ellis, Abney Park Cemetery
Grave of Robert and Elizabeth Ellis, Abney Park Cemetery

Last month this gravestone provided another piece in a puzzle that I have been working on through my research into ghostsigns, the fading remains of advertising painted on walls. It is located in Abney Park Cemetery, the entrance of which is just a stone’s throw from this sign advertising the many skills of Mr R Ellis.

R Ellis Ironmonger, Northwold Road, London
R Ellis Ironmonger, Northwold Road, London

Ellis was born and bred in Hackney, living and working on Stoke Newington High Street until his move to Northwold Road in 1877. This move may have been to escape the home where he and his wife Elizabeth had lost two children before the age of one. George Richard Ellis died at 11 months in 1875, and Herbert Robert Ellis was just three weeks old when he passed away shortly after Christmas in 1877. The family also lost their brother, Edward Ellis, between the deaths of these children in 1876.

At their new address the business continued until Robert’s death in 1898, after which his widow ran it for another 21 years until, at the age of 83, she brought an end to this branch of the Ellis family tree.

This story of a local businessman and his family helps in dating the painted sign to the late 1800s, making it worthy of antique status. However, it is afforded no protection by virtue of this fact. Unlike other outputs of skilled craftsman, such as cabinet makers and jewellers, these painted signs are at the mercy of the weather and property developers. Their value, or otherwise, depends on the taste and views of the owners of their host buildings. Some of these perceive them as eyesores, while others appreciate their role as pieces of local, craft and advertising history.

There is a lively debate among ghostsigns enthusiasts about these issues of protection, conservation, and even restoration. The signs evoke passionate responses in people, especially when they are lost or interfered with. I believe that they are part of an ever-evolving urban landscape, their charm bound up in their stories of survival against the odds and their fading ghostly presence on streets across the country, and indeed the world. They have come this far without the need for legislation, perhaps we should allow them to continue in this way.

This is not to say that I don’t care about them; I clearly do given my seven years conducting independent research into them. However, my approach to working with them is not one of lobbying councils and others for protection. Instead I have taken the path of documentation, research and raising awareness.

My work has resulted in the ongoing output of the Ghostsigns blog and website, the creation of a national photographic archive at The History of Advertising Trust, and the writing of numerous articles and book contributions on the topic. Most recently I have also started leading walking tours in Stoke Newington as a way of getting people engaged with ghostsigns at street level while they are still able to do so. Mr Ellis’ sign is one of the stops on this tour.

I believe that raising the profile of these beautiful pieces of painted history in these ways will result in their wider appreciation and, perhaps, their increased value in the eyes of property owners and developers. I leave you with some highlights from the UK and would love to know of any that you find as a result of reading this article.

Lee’s Century Baking Powder, Belvoir Street, Norwich
Lee’s Century Baking Powder, Belvoir Street, Norwich
Black Cat Cigarettes, Dingley Road, London
Black Cat Cigarettes, Dingley Road, London
Bates’s Salve, Sidmouth Street, London
Bates’s Salve, Sidmouth Street, London
S Errington, Dulwich Road, London
S Errington, Dulwich Road, London
Nestlé’s, Hot Bath Street, Bath
Nestlé’s, Hot Bath Street, Bath
Walker Bros/Waterman’s, Stoke Newington Church Street, London
Walker Bros/Waterman’s, Stoke Newington Church Street, London

Sam Roberts’s walking tours can be booked via the Ghostsigns website where the blog can also be found. New photographs and research can be made via the contributions process.

All photographs © Sam Roberts 2013

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3 thoughts on “Ghostsigns, Gravestones, and the Painted History on our Walls

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