London Street Signs

Although we see them daily, we often do not notice them. Indeed, if we fail to notice the street sign (like a sports referee) then that is evidence of their effectiveness. The street signs of London are very diverse, not least because of the size of London and its varied history. If you have not already noticed how diverse London street signs then this is the book for you: Alistair Hall has noticed for you. In London Street Signs, Hall has compiled photographs of hundreds of signs, showing the full range of materials, sizes, styles, conventions and placements that can be found in London signs. Alistair Hall, who teaches at Central Saint Martins and The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, provides informative observations, sometimes with some background research. He has limited his scope to Greater London.

The variety of street signage in London is caused by multiple factors. Firstly, there is no uniform regulation for manufacture of signs. Black lettering on a white background is standard but not mandatory; there are places (such as Hampstead) where white lettering is used on black tiles. Secondly, there has never been a concerted drive to replace old signs, some dating back to the Seventeenth Century. Happily, that preserves for us glimpses of London past. This ensures that a cross-section of signs survives. Some are lost entirely. The lamp-post signs went with the lamp posts; wooden signs of the pre-1850 era have long gone. Likewise, fragile glass signs are prone to damage. Lastly, signs are repaired or replaced by individual borough councils, each with different approaches. Periodically, boroughs rebrand themselves through street signage.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

There is guidance for manufacturing new and replacement signs which imposes a degree of conformity in size, lettering, format and additional information, such as postcode and borough name. This book includes extracts of regulations guiding sign design from the last century, with samples. Luckily, this has kept signage clear and relatively standardised but tolerant care has been exercised to preserve older signage.

The book opens with some old name tablets built into houses in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Some have an elegance that reminds us of the care and pride of owners and builders, with their civic-mindedness. Other signs – such as a handsome cartouche in Fleet Street – are designed into the buildings. In the case of Savile Row W1, the letters are cast metal and applied to the wall of a police station. Painted signs have been repainted over the years and some are maintained still by residents. The designs date from the pre-Victorian era up to the sans-serif designs of the 1960s.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Fonts vary surprisingly. Not even sans-serif is a constant, with serif versions being used in some new signs. Some choices are eccentric and lack legibility as lettering to be viewed quickly and in poor light. Hall highlights quirks and even a few errors. Spacing can a significant factor in legibility and the author has some choice words for those sign writers who make poor decisions. Borough councils have attempted to distinguish themselves by adopting slightly different lettering styles: Albertus (Lambeth), Northwood (Lambeth), Kindersley (Kensington & Chelsea), Transport (Camden, Brent). Colour borders are also deployed sometimes.  

Vitreous enamel signs, with white lettering on dark blue ground, is rarely used now, though it works very well in suburban, low-rise brick-built areas. Heavy cast-metal signs can still be found but they require regular maintenance and – like painted signs – these signs suffer due to a shrinking pool of skilful craftsmen. Clumsy restoration or neglect are the result of this dearth. Uniformity – so beloved of big-thinkers and bureaucrats – has made in-roads into London street names. There was a concerted effort to remove duplication of common names and this can be seen with some old signs remaining next to signs with new names. Lost boroughs of Stepney, St Marylebone and Deptford linger on in unrevised signs.

[Image: Hampstead, (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Hall explains the mysterious vanished postcodes. There are a handful of old signs which include the postcodes S and NE. The NE postcode was introduced in 1856 but dropped in 1866, ostensibly because it received much less post than the other districts. NE was absorbed into E and only a few street signs now remain. Hall reproduces the only two surviving S signs, for Lark Hall Rise and The Pavement, now both SW4. (S was divided between SE and SW in 1868.)  

New signs are covered in the Greenwich Peninsula development and around the Olympic Village in Stratford. Innovations such as the QR code already look as dated as arrows and pointing hands visible on old signs.

With touches of humour and erudition, Hall guides through both typical samples and rare survivors. Hall’s acute eye for detail has espied numerous deviations and variations in lettering, pointing out instances in brief image captions. In an era of iconoclasm, when zealots erase history to impose their values upon the past, London Street Signs makes the case for retaining and celebrating our heritage.

Alistair Hall, London Street Signs, Batsford, 2020, hardback, 192pp, fully col. illus., £14.99/$19.95/C$26.95, ISBN 978 1 84994 6216

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art