Saturday, 27 December 2014

Going nowhere

I love this redundant sign. It’s at the back of a building in Salford which has reinvented itself several times over. Starting as a Scottish Presbyterian Church in 1846, it was given a new life in 1912 as a cinema. It closed in the 1950s, and reopened in 1967 to serve as a bingo hall for 18 years. Now, it’s a church again, home to the New Harvest Christian Fellowship. You'll have to go in at the front, though. 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Withy Grove Stores

I love this decrepit old Manchester building and its once-fine sign. And its history is more colourful than the sign suggests. In 1723, a group of Spanish steel workers were working their passage to New York. They stopped in Liverpool and put their steel skills to good use, joining a company which supplied the maritime trade with iron clad strongboxes and seaman’s chests. When the Leeds and Liverpool canal was opened, the business expanded with this store in Withy Grove, Manchester, which opened in 1850, and in Leeds. The business is still trading today.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Liberty of Norton Folgate

A Liberty was an area in London considered independent of the city’s normal administration. They tended to attract people eager to be unrestricted by the usual rules and regulations – actors, writers and criminals, for example. Norton Folgate, in Spitalfields, was home to Christopher Marlowe in 1589, and later boasted a playhouse which specialised in Victorian melodrama. The Liberty ended when it became part of the borough of Stepney in 1900.

The land for these Norton Folgate almshouses in Puma Court was bought in 1851 and the houses were built in 1860. Recently modernised, they are governed by Church trustees and Tower Hamlets council.  

Saturday, 6 December 2014


Brave little sign at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Completely ineffective, of course. 
And all the better for it. The courtyard was full of tourists and children expressing delight, and the atmosphere was really rather nice. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Kitchen comforts

I spotted this little badge of quality on a kitchen cabinet in Dunham Massey, an 18th century National Trust house in Altrincham, Cheshire. In the 1850s, Jeakes was an innovative company, supplying country houses around England with fitted kitchens, larders, meat closets and ranges. After the founder’s death in 1874, the company became Clements Jeakes, and in 1906 it supplied Dunham Massey’s new kitchen equipment. Dunham Massey is worth a visit for its kitchen alone.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Jamaica Wine House - an old story for modern times

Dickens, Johnson and Pepys must have spent a great deal of time inebriated, as every old London pub seems to claim them as a patron (there’s a drinking game in there somewhere). The Jamaica Wine House is no exception – Pepys is thought to have been a customer.

This fine sign is suspended above St Michael’s Alley, off Cornhill in the City of London, making it marginally easier to find this tucked-away drinking den. Now called the Jamaica Wine House (though better known for selling beer), it’s also known as the Jam Pot, and was built on the site of the Jamaica Coffee House, previously known as Pasque Rosee’s Head, or sometimes as the Turk’s Head. Do keep up.

Pleasingly dark, creepy and wood-panelled, the current building is Victorian, built in 1869 and Grade II listed. It is on the site of the Jamaica Coffee House, built after the fire of London. The original coffee house was opened before the fire, in 1652, by Pasque Rosee, who is variously recorded as being Armenian, an Italian-born Greek or Turkish.

The first London coffee house
Rosee was a servant to Daniel Edwards, a merchant; they met while working in the Ottoman Empire. When they came to London, Rosee’s coffee was so liked by Daniel’s family and friends that Daniel helped Rosee to set up a stall in a shed in the churchyard of St Michael’s, under a sign of Rosee’s head. This is said to be the first coffee shop in England (a claim made in a Royal Society report in 1699), though some say that glory belongs to a Jewish man named Jacob, with a coffee shop in Oxford opened in 1650.

Keen to educate the London public in this new art of coffee drinking, Rosee promoted the product with a handbill, claiming it had medicinal properties that could help sore eyes, coughs, dropsy, gout and scurvy, and that it would prevent miscarriages and drowsiness.

Hostile hostelries
The coffee was so popular that it angered local alehouse keepers who saw Rosee’s business as a threat. They protested against him on the grounds that he wasn’t a freeman of the City, sending a petition to the Lord Mayor to stop Rosee trading. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? These immigrants come over here, they open historic coffee shops …. The challenge was overcome by forming a business partnership with Daniel’s father-in-law’s coachman, who was a freeman of the City. In 1656 they were able to move to a building on the current site of the Jamaica Wine House, just 27 feet deep and 19 feet wide, at an annual rent of £4. 

Latte legacy
Between 1674 and 1680, the coffee shop became the Jamaica Coffee House, serving business people with interests in Jamaica and the British West Indies. It seems that Rosee was later obliged to leave the country as a result of an unexplained misdemeanour. His story lived on, and his character and coffee were featured in plays and popular street poems, making fun of his foreign accent and poor English (English was probably his third language, after Greek and Turkish).

His legacy was a new type of business which spread all over the country. London’s coffee houses were known as great meeting places to share news, discuss business, debate politics, write and exchange ideas. And, of course, they still thrive today. Drink to Pasque Rosee in the Jamaica Wine House, and remember him next time you pop in to a cafĂ© for coffee.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Plough on

This handsome stained glass window advertises the Plough on Heaton Moor Road in Stockport. Heaton Moor is now a thriving suburb, but it was largely farmland until the mid -19th century. The railway station, just up the road from the Plough, was built in 1852, and shops and houses developed along the road to service the needs of the new commuters. The Plough was built in the 1880s, and reminds us of the area’s rural roots: over its door is a lovely sandstone picture of a ploughing scene.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

123 go

This handsome sign is a landmark in achingly trendy Shoreditch. It’s on the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane, in hipster territory. The smart mid-Victorian terrace dates from around 1878-1883. The growth of the cabinet making industry at this time brought new buildings to the area, often on conspicuous corner sites. This building has been associated with the clothing industry, restaurants and illegal gun trade. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Bleeding heart yard

Tucked away off Greville Street in an area of London variously described as Hatton Garden, Clerkenwell or Farringdon, this evocative sign is linked to a legend.

The story goes that in 1626, society beauty Lady Elizabeth Hatton held a grand ball in Hatton House, and danced the night away with a mysterious man. The well-dressed gent, said to be the European Ambassador, took her by the hand and led her out through the doors to the garden. She was not seen alive again. The next morning, her body was found torn limb from limb in the cobbled stable yard behind the house, her heart still pumping blood.

Sorry to spoil it all, but it seems none of that’s true. Lady Elizabeth did exist, but didn’t come to that gory end. She died in 1646 and was buried in a church in Holborn. But the legend has endured (with other garnishes typical of this type of scary story – the gentleman was said to be swarthy and deformed and was therefore, of course, assumed to be the devil). It’s more likely that the name derives from a pub called The Bleeding Heart, which once stood nearby. The yard, which was featured by Dickens in Little Dorrit, still offers an atmospheric glimpse of old London. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Simon's bridge

In 1860, a 24 year old named Henry Simon emigrated from Germany to Manchester, to join the city’s German community. Simon became an engineer with a knack for inventing, and his ideas included steel rollers and sieving machines for the milling industry. His company later became the Simon Carves engineering company, which is still located in South Manchester.

Simon died in 1899 and left money for this bridge to be built over the Mersey in Didsbury, to improve access to Poor’s Field, which was owned by the church and rented out to provide funds to buy items for the poor, such as blankets and clothing. It’s rather a fine looking bridge, painted vibrant green, and it’s shame that present locals saw fit to scrawl all over it. If you’d like to visit and pay your respects to the entrepreneurial Mr Simon, the bridge is near Ford Lane. It’s an interesting area for history so to find out more visit the Mersey Valley website here.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Atmospheric orphanage

This crumbling sign for the Sir Ralph Pendlebury Orphanage can be seen on the busy Lancashire Hill in Stockport. The deserted steps and gothic gateway are easy to miss in the tumble of traffic on the way to the town centre.

Sir Ralph Pendlebury (1790–1861) was mayor of Stockport, and he created a charity with an endowment of £100,000. The orphanage named after him was opened in 1881. The charity gave relief, such as clothing, education or finding employment, to orphans of parents who had lived in the Stockport district for not less than two years. The building, on Dodge Hill, was designed by Scottish architect J. W. Beaumont, and it had room for about 250 boys and girls. It was later used by the Red Cross Society and became a hospital for wounded soldiers from 1914-1919. It still exists today: it is grade II listed and, fittingly, is now a care home.

This old entrance is no longer used, so it sits there doing duty as a memorial to the past. Crumbling, covered in overgrowing greenery, dark and dank, it’s pretty creepy. So it’s no surprise that rumours of ghosts abound: Pendlebury Hall claims a one-armed soldier, a white lady and singing children among its hauntings.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Offices past

This delightful ghost sign lives on in the Chinatown district of Manchester. The offices at 36 Charlotte Street were known as Fraser House, and were built in about 1855 by Edward Walters. The building is now grade II listed.

Friday, 19 September 2014

This wall is the entire property of the county of Middlesex

Strange little sign in Sans Walk, in the Clerkenwell area of London. Why did the county of Middlesex only own this one wall? Why did they invest in a sign to boast of this paucity of property? It's a mystery. If you know more, please do tell.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Confection of delights

This sign, on the corner of Shaw Road and Heaton Moor Road in Heaton Moor, Stockport, looked so great against the blue sky that I had to take a picture.
When the nearby railway station at Heaton Chapel was built in 1852, shops and houses sprang up around Heaton Moor road to meet the needs of the new commuters. This building was originally George Hallmark’s Bakers and Flour Dealers, and when it was converted to the Kro Bar they kindly kept the old signs.

If you’re interested, there’s a great photo of the shop in 1905 in the somewhat mesmerising book “The Four Heatons through time”, by Ian Littlechilds and Phil Page. For ideal results, read it in the Kro Bar. 

Monday, 1 September 2014

Stockport station - so good they named it twice

A man walked into Stockport Station recently and asked the guard if he was in the right place – he was due to pick up his friend from the London train arriving that evening at Edgeley Station.  The guard laughed and said he was in the right place, but he was about 40 years too late. In answer to the man’s puzzled face, the guard explained that the station was called Stockport station, but it had once been known as Stockport Edgeley station, to avoid confusion with the nearby Stockport Tiviot Dale station - which had closed in 1967.

And it is confusing. The modern front of the station is called Stockport, but at the back of the station (where the short stay car park is), this wonderful mosaic sign remains - to the confusion of some visitors. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

I'm a fire watcher

I was thrilled to find this ghost sign from World War two on a building in China Lane (on the corner of Dale Street), central Manchester.

The fire watcher’s job was to look out for incendiary bombs, and put the fire out before it spread. The Fire Watchers Order of 1940 required factories and large businesses to provide their own fire watchers. Hundreds of incendiary bombs were dropped at a time, and a fire watcher’s equipment included a bucket of sand and a bucket of water.

There’s a good account of what it was like to be a fire watcher in Manchester on the BBC here. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Local hero

Nelstrops Albion Mills in Stockport.

I’ve gone past this mill countless times, and have always admired the white wash of flour up the side of the building. It was only when I saw Nelstrops flour for sale in a local shop that I was prompted to look into its history.

It turns out that Nelstrops is the only independent family miller in the North West. The company was founded in 1820 by an enterprising 19 year old, William Nelstrop, who later became Mayor of Stockport. According to the company’s website, he was offered a knighthood by Queen Victoria for his role in defusing the anti-corn law riots, but refused the honour – partly because he sympathised with the poor who could not afford bread, and partly because the lower wheat prices would benefit his business.

The business is still run by his descendants, and the Albion Mills on Lancashire Hill have survived fires and blitz. The sign on the top says the building was erected in 1820 and rebuilt in 1894.

Read more on the company's website

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Ghost train

You're surrounded by history in Plymouth's Barbican area. This wonderful ghost sign has survived competition, depression, blitz and redevelopment, and happily towers over tourists today.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Tired of London, tired of signs

I spotted this sign in Old Gloucester Street, in the Russell Square area of London. All London streets have a fair quota of blue plaques, and this area is no different. I love a good blue plaque, but am often disappointed that I've never heard of the person commemorated. This sign forgave me for my lack of historical knowledge and made me smile.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Yours is the one on the right

There were many fine things to photograph in Stockholm, but I chose this. Anyone fancy a Plopp?

Two for the price of one
Or maybe this is more appealing?

Friday, 11 July 2014

Ring of despair

This sign is on the upper floor of the Southwell Workhouse in Nottinghamshire. The building is run by the National Trust, and is the most complete workhouse in the country.

Most of the building has been restored to how it would have looked to its inmates when it opened in 1824, but the upper floor has been left as it was found when the Trust took over in the late 1990s. The dismal sign caught my eye – there is something of a cry for help in it. It seems to scream despair, even though it probably dates from more recent times when the room was used as offices rather than a dormitory for paupers. 

The workhouse later became an infirmary and a home for the elderly. The building was in use until the 1980s, as a hostel for the homeless and a home for single mothers.

Go if you can - it's worth a visit

Sunday, 6 July 2014

On a mission

I must have walked past this building dozens of times, but last week I happened to look up and I spotted the sign for Manchester and Salford Street Children’s Mission, so I felt moved to find out more.

This fine terracotta building was part of the Wood Street Mission, a charity founded by Alfred Alsop in 1869 (and named after the premises it moved into in 1873). The Mission aimed to relieve the misery of the poor - particularly the children of the nearby slums; it also helped convicts and tramps. It ran soup kitchens, handed out clogs and clothing, and provided breakfast, presents and entertainment at Christmas. It later went on to organise days out at the seaside, and ran holiday camps.

The charity still exists. It is still in Wood Street, and it continues to provide practical help to alleviate the effects of poverty on local children and families in Manchester and Salford. See

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Stamp of approval – do you like this post?

I spotted this rather charming old stamp machine in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. The little brass plaque to the left reads “Await delivery of stamp before inserting further coin”.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Wish I was there

We had a fantastic holiday in Ilfracombe a few years ago. Despite torrential rain and landslides, it was one of the best holidays we’ve had. I think this was down to the slightly magical quirkiness of the place.

This sign was on display at the stunning bathing tunnels, which were hand carved in the 1820s. The Victorians let nothing stop them from doing what they wanted, so they cut holes through the rock to get to the sea. The tunnels and beach have been restored; we had just enough warm weather to get a chilly swim.

Apart from beautiful scenery and fantastic food, Ilfracombe also boasts one of the most enjoyable museums I’ve been to. Opened in 1932, it’s stuffed full of bizarre old collections, and invites you to open the drawers and discover its treasures for yourself. A museum with a gentle sense of fun. 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Jaunty sign

This jaunty sign for J Winter, Jeweller, is on Little Underbank, in Stockport, Cheshire. The building dates from the mid-1850s, and it is no longer a jewellery shop but a (somewhat less jaunty) pub. I'm grateful they kept this charming entrance, and also its rather cool clock, which has painted automaton figures striking the hour. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

A tribute to the boiler maker

The excitement of having a new boiler fitted this week (yes, it’s all thrills in our house) reminded me of this sign, a tribute to WH Eacott, boiler maker, by his devoted wife.

The plaque is on the wall of Christ Church vicarage on the Isle of Dogs, Poplar, London. We visited a few years ago on family tree research. The vicar was very welcoming, and took us into his garden to see this loving tribute.

The Isle of Dogs was a quiet area until William Cubitt developed it in the mid-19th century. The Cubitt brothers were responsible for much development in London, including Pimlico and Belgravia. William specialised in public buildings, bridges and roads, and built Cubitt Town to house his extensive workforce. 

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Cinematograph Theatre Continuous Performance

I was thrilled to find this sign in a sad, dark, scruffy alley in Shepherd’s Bush, London, even though it greatly challenged my slight photography skills. It’s a survivor. The Cinematograph Theatre was opened by the wonderfully named Montagu Pyke in 1910. Pyke was a chancer, whose varied career before he opened his chain of cinemas included gold prospector, shop assistant, miner and salesman of advertising space, hair restorer and patent pills. His confidence in his new Cinematograph Theatre Continuous Performance must have been great, as he carved his prices into such lasting signage.

The theatre was beset by problems, including Pyke’s bankruptcy in 1915, too little electrical power to screen the films in the 1920s and fire in 1968. It underwent multiple takeovers and name changes, including the Palladium, New Palladium, Essoldo, Classic and Odeon, and had a second career as a bar: The Bottom Line and – finally - as a Walkabout, which closed in 2013. Long may the sign live on.


Saturday, 26 April 2014

Gold Cup mystery

This wonderful ghost sign for Gold Cup Cream ices (is that what it says?) is in the Canute Road area of Southampton, UK. I can’t seem to find out anything about this wholesale depot – do you know anything?

Monday, 21 April 2014

It's a Shaw thing

I like this stylish road sign in Heaton Moor, Stockport.

Shaw Road is the place to go for food. I recommend the Heatons Tandoori for wonderful curry, Kro Bar for good food and a relaxed atmosphere, and Marmaris for friendly service and great Turkish food. Pokusevskis’ delicatessen is worth a visit for the goats cheese alone.

It’s also the site of the Heaton Moor market (the next one is on 4th May) – crammed full of pretty and tasty things you don’t need but really, really want. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Fall

I don't condone all graffiti, but this arty tribute to Manchester band The Fall did make me smile.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sign of the signs?

Pleasing sign about a sign on the Palace Hotel in Manchester. To older Mancunians, this fantastic Victorian Gothic construction will always be known as the Refuge Building, home of the Refuge Assurance Company. Built in 1895 and extended 10 years later, it is Grade II listed and was designed by Alfred Waterhouse (who also designed Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London). The Refuge Assurance Company took flight in 1989 for more modern premises, and the building became a hotel in 1994.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Dressed to drill

I spotted this sign on a sunny spring day in Cheadle, Stockport. Somehow, dreary drill halls have always loitered unnoticed in the background. This sign, with its rusty streaks and black and white functionalism, prompted me to find out more. And, wonderfully, there is someone who cares. The Drill Halls Project at is recording these fading little bits of our community history before they disappear.

Drill halls have been with us since the 1860s, often built by volunteers and funded by public subscription or benefactors. Although intended for military training, drill halls have been the backdrop of many a community gathering, from fetes and dancing to weight-loss clubs and birthday parties.  

These days, old drill halls are at risk of being demolished to make way for development. Happily, the Cheadle drill hall, built in 1904, is now the Village Hall.