Ghost signs are those old faded advertisements left on the side of buildings which serve as reminders of days gone by. There are numerous ghost signs scattered across London and to spot them, all you need to do is look up. They provide us with clues to what life was like and the history of the high street. Below is a list of some of London’s top ghost signs.
Russian Matches in Kilburn:
This is a double ghost sign from around the 1930s. The most dominant advert is for Russian Criterion Matches. It instructs customers to collect packet labels in exchange for ‘great gifts’. Fruit bonbons, Russian caviar and a Turkish Rug are all up for grabs. This was a Soviet attempt to infiltrate the market in Britain. However, their attempt failed due to the outbreak of World War 2 and this is one of the few clues to a former Soviet capitalist venture.
Cloggs and Custard in Clapham:
When you are next in Clapham Junction keep your eyes peeled for this little dude in cloggs promoting Peterkin Custard. The sign is likely to originate from the 1920s. However, little is known about the company and the mascot. One theory is that Peterkin translates as ‘Little Peter’ and is a character in a children's book, featuring a Dutch boy in similar attire.
The History of Transport in Clapham:
This ghost sign along Cedars Road in Clapham tells the history of London Transport. They reveal the location of a stables and later a garage. The signage here announces that horses were bought and sold on these premises and overlooks what was an auction house. The other signs tell us that as the age of the motor car dawned it became the home of Cedars Motor Engineering Company.
Take Courage in Southwark:
Next to Borough Market this is probably one of London’s most famous ghost signs. ‘Take Courage’ advertises Courage Brewery which was opened by John Courage in 1787. The sign is situated in a location allowing it to be visible to passengers on trains leaving London Bridge. However, it is one of London’s more recent Ghost signs originating some time after 1955. Controversially the sign was bought for £3million. Bargain right?
Paper Bags in Spitalfields:
Once upon a time, this place sold paper bags. Even though this sign has clearly been restored it is certainly still a message from a time gone by, where the sale of paper bags was seen as a novelty. In fact the shop was situated perfectly, next to Spitalfields fruit and veg market, providing visitors and traders with much needed paper bags. The company was started by Jeremiah O’Donovan, an Irish immigrant who escaped to London following the 1830s potato famine. Who would have thought that a humble paper bag would have such a story behind it. However, I’m not sure if a bag for life will ever be looked back on with a sense of romanticism.
Dress Coats for Waiters in Soho:
This is one of Soho’s few surviving ghost signs. The mustached waiter in a tailcoat advertises dress coats for six shillings and a tuppence. The target audience being waiters and hotel employees who would need cheap threads.
Check out my video exploring these ghost signs by bike below.
Curiocity: An Alternative A-Z of London (Paperback), by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose.
Look Up London, ‘The Old Signs of Spitalfields’, https://lookup.london/old-signs-spitalfields/
Ghost Signs, https://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/