Islington ghost signs: The huge reminders of borough’s manufacturing heritage
PUBLISHED: 11:01 14 February 2018 | UPDATED: 13:08 14 February 2018
There are dozens of ghost signs – huge faded adverts from yesteryear painted on the side of buildings – across Islington. But have you actually noticed any of them?
They range from the Industrial Electrical Co sign in Offord Street, Barnsbury, to the Salvation Army symbol in Old Street.
As Islington continues to develop and old buildings are replaced or renovated, the borough is losing ghost signs at a rate of about one a year.
Not that many people would notice. Most don’t pay attention to ghost signs when walking in the street. It’s like they are hidden in plain sight.
But, as ghost sign historian Sam Roberts points out, they are a quirky and important relic of our past.
Quirky, because it’s a reminder of how huge companies used to think painting on buildings was a viable form of advertising.
Important, because it highlights Islington’s manufacturing heritage – which has largely disappeared.
Sam lives in Stoke Newington, which is littered with ghost signs. But his favourite is the Black Cats Cigarettes ad in Dingley Road in the south of Islington.
“This sign is huge, with one image of a black cat and another of a cigarette packet. It’s a nice connection to Clerkenwell’s history as a manufacturing area and links to the tobacco industry.
“I love how it advertises the price as 10 for a sixpence. They were so confident in the stability of the price that they would paint it on a wall. Can you imagine that in today’s age of inflation?
“Unfortunately, it’s one of the signs we have lost – even though it’s still there. A huge housing development has been built next to it, which has obscured it. There’s a gap of about five inches between the two buildings, so while the ghost sign is still there, you can’t see it.”
Sam also points out the Warings Wilton Factories sign in Shepperton Road, off New North Road.
“It’s huge. It’s a really lovely piece of signage for a textile factory.
“There is a true industrial heritage which may not be evident to people in Islington today. It’s largely residential, with offices. There’s very little manufacturing going on.”
Another sign of old times is the Hovis sign in Camden Passage.
“This was before the days Hovis used to make its own bread,” explains Sam. “It used to make flour, which it would then supply to local bakeries to make their own fresh bread.
“Hovis wanted people to know this bread had been baked using its flour. So it would approach bakeries and pay for an advert with their name – only the Hovis logo would be much bigger.
“In this case in Camden Passage, the bakery is Witting, described as an ‘electric machine bakery’, which I love, and ‘makers of Hovis’.”
There are other surviving Hovis signs in Hanley Road, Crouch Hill (where the baker’s name is Turner) and Fairbridge Road, Archway (where the baker’s name is Fryer).
In the past year, Sam has conducted follow-up research to a ghost sign study by A. D. Harvey in 1999, which identified 54 in Islington. Since then, 21 of those ghost signs have disappeared.
“He did this brilliant study and I thought it would be interesting to go back and find out what has happened to each one. They are being lost at a rate of one per year, but I think it will be a long time before all them have gone.
“There exactly aren’t any campaigns to protect them. If anything, they are surviving through people’s indifference.”
Sam will publish his study on Islington’s remaining ghost signs in three parts over the next three Fridays. To see his work, visit ghostsigns.co.uk/blog