Have you ever seen a Ghost Sign? You can spot them all over London, if you look closely enough. “Ghost Signs” or “Brickads” are hand-painted adverts, usually from the 1920s/30s/40s, left behind on ageing walls and buildings. Typically, they’re worn-out and faded and they advertise old-fashioned products that don’t exist anymore. I used to see them all the time when I lived in Clapham and Battersea – and they intrigued me to the point that I wrote an article on the most prominent examples in my neighbourhood.
The article was originally commissioned by Time & Leisure, the freebie magazine that most south-Londoners get through their letterbox every month. I submitted the piece with supporting photographs – and the T&L editor happily accepted it – but for some reason it never saw the light of day. The editor said she never had enough room in her shrinking page count… and after a few months, I got tired of bugging her about it.
So here’s the unpublished article, complete with pictures.
“VINTAGE ADVERTS THAT STILL LEAVE THEIR MARK” By Russell Norris
In an age of floodlit billboards and scrolling posters, it’s easy to forget that advertising was once hand-painted directly onto buildings to capture the public’s attention. Raise your eyes 10ft higher as you walk around Clapham or Battersea and you might just spot one of south-west London’s best-kept secrets. Faded brickwork adverts or “Ghost Signs” can date back to 1900 and were popular right up until the 1950s. Most of these ads were scrubbed out or demolished after 1960 but many can still be seen on older structures across the city. Washed-out and spectral, these forgotten messages from London’s past have survived largely at the whim of developers – and many of the best remaining examples today can be found south of the river. A historic Ghost Sign is probably hiding on a wall in your own neighbourhood, just waiting for you to notice it.
Take, for example, the grimy old advert at the junction of Cedars Road and Lavender Hill. Stencilled onto the bricked-up archways of an old stable are the statements “Horses Bought or Sold” and “Broughams Supplied”. A brougham (pronounced “broom”) was a closed horse-drawn carriage designed in the 19th century, evidently still in demand at a time when motorcars were scarce in Clapham. As local transport evolved, so too did this sign: “Cars for Hire” was later painted on top of the original writing, repurposing it for the changing pace of the early 20th century.
Among the chimneypots of The Pavement in Clapham Old Town sits a remarkably well-preserved sign for “Deane & Co. Chemists”. Its enduring sky-blue backdrop and lemon lettering suggests a later date from the 1940s or 1950s. Halfway up Clapham High Street, above a pet shop, is part of a battered old ad for Gillette and opposite Clapham Common tube station, high on the exposed side of The Alexandra pub, some discoloured wording is all that remains of a vanished insurance society.
Where Lambourn Road meets Wandsworth Road, you’ll find a curious advert for “Redfern’s Rubber” partially obscured by a modern hoarding. South of Clapham Junction, at Hafer Road on Battersea Rise, there’s a pre-1920s sign for two newspapers that are no longer in print: the National News and the Sunday Evening Telegram. In 2007, Wandsworth Council successfully prosecuted an advertiser for covering up this piece of painted history. In this regard, however, the law is murkier than the ageing signs in question. Technically, there’s nothing to stop an interested party from whitewashing a Ghost Sign out of existence, making it all the more worthwhile to discover these urban relics while you still can.
Past Clapham Junction and up St. John’s Hill, at the end of Plough Road, is a cropped design for an indecipherable “Electrical Wholesale Distributor”. A stone’s throw away, facing out from the corner of Sangora Road, is arguably south London’s most impressive Ghost Sign. The words “Peterkin’s Custard, Self-Raising Flour & Corn Flour” have been in situ here since the early 1930s. Above this text, strolling along with his hands in his pockets, is the Peterkin’s cartoon mascot: a smirking boy dressed as a corn-yellow Cossack. This long-gone franchise of cooking flour was a failed business venture of Joseph Arthur Rank, a man later famed for his triumphs in the British film industry. Remember those movies that open with a golden muscleman banging on a giant gong? Funny to think that Rank’s global success began with English custard, the only surviving memory of which sits on a weather-beaten wall just off Wandsworth Common.