I’m down in Wiltshire staying with my mum for a couple of days, as I quite often do since my dad died. Having unexpectedly got to a temporary lull in my work To Do list, I treated myself to a morning wandering around my old home town of Frome, just across the border in Somerset, where I was confronted by an array of some of my earliest childhood memories. There was the Memorial Theatre, where my dad took me to see a stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was about five or six. There was the house where, aged about seven, I had my first sleepover with a friend, who tricked me into thinking that my bed for the night was the bath. There, over a shop window, was a distinctive name that could only be that of the same person I dimly remembered from primary school.
I went into the church we’d attended as children and found that it was now a bakery and café, with people sipping fancy coffees where the pews had been. The pulpit and raised area at the front of the church, where I have vivid memories of singing Away in a Manger during a primary school carol service, was gone, but the room was still presided over by the now-redundant organ.
It got me thinking about the layers of history – personal, local, national – that make up every corner of, well, everywhere. The echoes of one’s own past take on added poignancy when someone has died, but the traces of businesses long gone also have the capacity to capture the imagination. This is why I’ve always been fascinated by what are known as ‘ghost signs’ . These evocative reminders of the past are often brimming with social history and nostalgia, and on my wanderings in Frome I discovered that a particularly magnificent example had recently been revealed on Bath Street (right opposite what had once been the Abbey National building society, where as a child I had been terrified of the armoured knight in the window).
This one is, as many are, a palimpsest, with several phases of the building’s history represented by layers of its former signage. An echo of Frome’s agricultural past according to Frome Nub News, Yeovil Tractors went out of business in 1948 (Ransomes and Fordsons being, of course, tractor brands), and beneath that is a sign for ‘York Motor Works’. And there’s an even older one underneath that, which says ‘Hot and Cold Water Fitters’. You can also see old AA and RAC logos on the front of the building.
I particularly enjoy it when a ghost sign advertises something that’s now defunct – whether a particular business, or a whole way of life. This one in Kempsey, Worcestershire, betrays this building’s past as a coaching inn where horses and carriages could be hired.
This is one of my favourites in Bath, a city renowned for its numerous ghost signs. I love the fact that it advertises both Devon and Dorset butter – I wonder whether there was much of a difference between the two?
Another of my favourite Bath ghost signs is this one above Hobbs. The ‘Circulation and Reading Room’ lettering is prominent, but if you look closely, you’ll see that there are further words between the windows – ‘Bookseller, Binder and Stationer’ on the left, while the right one makes reference to the ‘state lottery office’. From what I can understand, this was some sort of forerunner to the National Lottery and was last drawn in 1826 (more here, but it’s paid).
An even earlier chapter in the UK’s history is recorded in this intriguing ghost sign that I spotted on Stratford-upon-Avon’s Town Hall the other night. Under the ‘God Save the King’, the date given is 1769, meaning that the King being referred to is George III. The bunting left over from the recent Platinum Jubilee celebrations certainly seemed apt.
Ghost signs are not always painted; this one in Frome is affixed to the side of the building. I’ve been unable to ascertain, via Google, whether Colman’s Blue “for laundry purposes” was made by the same people as the mustard – does anyone happen to know?
Here’s another intriguing example of a ghost sign not painted on. In this one in Bath, cast iron lettering stands up on the roof advertising J. Ellett – Smith and Plumber. What’s interesting about this is the fact that these days, you’d never get a plumber who was also a smith!
I have a whole folder of ghost sign photographs on my phone, but that’ll do for now. If you’re interested in the subject, I can recommend a couple of good accounts to follow on Twitter: Ghostsigns and GhostsignsUK.
–originally posted on Substack in June 2022–