Friday, 10 March 2023

Ghost signs: messages from the past by Matthew Wainwright

The high street was another matter: now that the day was underway it was a crawling, heaving, swelling mass of life. Horse-drawn omnibus carriages rumbled constantly to and fro, overflowing with passengers, advertisements in bold letters plastered over every available surface. 
Out of the Smoke - Chapter 15

Advertising, in one form or another, has been around since the dawn of civilisation. From political messages inscribed on a tablet in ancient Egypt, to interactive video screens on the streets of present-day Tokyo, people have always tried to get their messages across to other people in the most effective way possible.

The Narmer Palette: It possibly depicts the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms in Ancient Egypt.

You could argue that the Victorian era was a boom time for advertising. The middle classes were becoming more well-off, which meant they had money to spare for all kinds of things that would make their lives easier. And this meant that companies had a growing market to appeal to.

In the 19th century you could find adverts everywhere: in newspapers, in magazines, in books, on the sides of omnibus carriages, and on the sides of buildings. The average person in a Victorian town centre of any size was bombarded with colourful images and slogans wherever they went.

Street advertising in 19th century London
Watercolour by John Orlando Parry, "A London Street Scene" 1835, in the Alfred Dunhill Collection

Virtually all of these adverts have now disappeared, except where they are captured in drawings and photographs or preserved in museums. But if you look a little more carefully, you may just see the echoes of some of these adverts on the buildings around you …

Stroll through just about any medium-sized town or city in England, and you will see a jumble of different kinds of buildings. Some of these buildings are new — all glass and steel — and others are old, built of red brick. On the sides of some of these buildings, if you look carefully, you might just see something called a ghost sign!

A ghost sign lurking behind some more recent advertising ...

Ghost signs are … well, just that: they’re the ghosts of old advertisements, originally painted directly onto the sides of buildings and now faded — sometimes almost to nothing.

Can you spot the ghost sign ...?

The earliest record of a painted advert is from 1803, when a German visitor wrote about a sign advertising razor blades in Ludgate Hill — which means that ghost signs are a window that enables us to look over 200 years into the past!

Ghost signs can tell us the kind of shops and businesses that were around in an area, what people were most interested in, and what business wanted people to buy.

A ghost sign advert for an estate agent in South London

They can also tell us about the language that people used: instead of advertising a cafe, for instance, you might see ghost signs talking about a ‘dining room’ or a ‘coffee and dining room’. It’s a fascinating insight into the way people spoke, recorded right there on a wall for everyone to see!

I love things like ghost signs. They’re a reminder that history isn’t just in the past: it’s all around us, right there for us to see. If you take a moment, stop and look at your surroundings, you’re sure to find something that someone has left behind. My advice is: look up. You’d be surprised what you might see on the side of a building or perched on a roof!

Writing challenge

Imagine a child living 200 years in the future. They come across a ‘ghost sign’ left over from today! 
  • What is the sign they find? Is it an advert for a game or a film, or perhaps for a new book? Is it a shop sign?
  • What do the surroundings of the sign look like? Is it still a town or a city, or has it become something completely different?
  • How would that child feel about the sign, and what would they think about the people who made it (us)?
A modern painted sign in London that might become a ghost sign one day ...

Write a short scene of the child discovering the sign. Describe the sign and its surroundings, and write what the child thinks and feels about the sign. Happy writing, and keep time tunnelling!


Matthew Wainwright is an author of historical fiction for children and teenagers.

Out of the Smoke is available at all good bookshops and online.

You can find out more about Matthew and his books on his website.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Girl Racer: recreating the world of the Circus Maximus by Annelise Gray

My childhood reading obsessions were with books about ponies. I had a whole shelf devoted to them – the Jill series by Ruby Fergusson, an a...