The ghosts of businesses past
Peter Blake looks at the stories behind the signs for businesses that are still there in name only
Published in December ’14
Do you sometimes look up, and see a faint sign on a wall, occasionally legible, but more often worn away by time, leaving a ghostly impression of what once was there? Do you ever wonder what it said? Welcome to the world of ghost signs…
Ghost signs are the advertising signage which has lasted beyond the lifetime of the business which it promoted. They range from small hand-painted signs, up to more ornate metal and stone adverts indicating the pains some businesses took in advertising their presence. Some date back a century or more, some are comparatively recent, but all provide a glimpse of businesses and people, and a way of life, in one way or another, no longer with us.
I have been interested in ghost signs for several years now, and have photographed them as a hobby, but also as a record – there is no legal protection for them, and any of them could be covered up or disappear at any time. Here are a few I have found while wandering around Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch, with a bit of their history to help bring them to life. I hope you enjoy looking at them, and that next time you spot a ghost sign, you might give a thought to the person who created it and their story.
The first photograph is of the one-time premises of Edward Offer and Co, Ltd, cigar importers, who had one of the longest runs in business of all the ones I have researched. They are recorded as being in The Arcade, also known as Gervis Arcade, in 1871, Edward and his wife and young son living on the premises, and as The Arcade was only completed in 1866, it is reasonable to assume that they were one of the founding businesses. A shop and premises in the Arcade could be had for £40 per annum in 1868. Edward would have seen the glass roof being installed in 1872. They were still there in 1979, but were gone soon after. I’m sure some readers will recall this tobacconist, and may have even bought their tobacco there. Business was obviously good, as Edward and his wife were living in Grand Avenue, Southbourne, in 1911. Edward died in 1925, aged 81. He also served Bournemouth as Alderman, between 1890 and 1901. They had seen the rapid expansion of the town, which had in 1851 a population of 691 and two large hotels, right through until fairly recent times. It is interesting to speculate on what finally caused this well-established business to close, maybe cheap package holidays and duty free tobacco played a part? Anyway, the brass sign is a wonderful reminder of Bournemouth’s early days, evoking cigar smoking gentlemen relaxing in their clubs.
The second photograph has an intriguing link to the previous one. This is the remnant of the sign on the back of the Theatre Royal in Yelverton Road, with the front and main entrance being in Albert Road. The theatre was built in 1882, and could seat 800. It took a year to build, and cost the then considerable sum of £10,000 to build and fit out, equivalent to £1 million today. It was described as ‘a handsome and well-appointed theatre’. Between 1887 and 1892 it was the Town Hall, but was converted back to a theatre. In the early 1960s it became a cinema and bingo club, and later a casino and night club. Tony Hancock was one of the many stars to appear there. As to the possible link with the first photograph, the acting manager in the 1890s was a Charles Offer – Edward Offer, the cigar importer in the arcade, had a son called Charles, but I have been unable to prove that he is one and the same.
The next photograph, now half covered up, is a sign advertising Augustus J Warren, plumber, who was at 57 Purewell, Christchurch, in 1922. He was listed as a painter and decorator in 1920. The following year, the premises were being used by a saddler, and by 1929, it was a boot repair shop. This wasn’t quite the end of the Warren family business in the area, as in 1927 Clara Warren, Augustus’ second wife, is listed as a painter and decorator in Bransgore, but this seems to have been short lived, as there is no trace of the business after that date. Augustus died in 1963, aged 69. Ironically, the sign has lasted longer than the building, which no longer exists.
This tobacconist sign I had to capture quickly, as the covering sign was being replaced. It is an example of more recent ghost signs. G Howard, tobacconist and Post office, took over from William Miles, who ran a library and Post Office there, between 1965 and 1967. The shop subsequently became a McColl’s convenience store, still retaining the Post Office function. Although comparatively recent, this sign is a reminder that ghost signs are being created all the time as businesses close and change hands.
The decorative scrolls on either side of the surprisingly grand entrance in the next photograph are all that is left to indicate the wine and spirits merchants owned by W W Thomson in Darracott Road. In 1911 William Wilson Thomson, a 33 year old brewery bottling depot manager was living at 15 Darracott Road with his wife Emily, a long way from his native Greenock. By 1923, the first reference I have found, the wine merchants had been established at number 15, under Emily’s name, but by 1931 W W Thomson had set up at number 21. The surname is variously spelled with or without the P at different times in the directories, but Thomson appears to be the correct spelling. As the 1930s progressed, another two shops were added, one in Seabourne Road and one in Wimborne Road, Winton. These shops survived the War years, however William died in Bournemouth in 1950, and the final reference to any of the shops I have found was for 1955, which was the shop in Wimborne Road. The trade directories illustrate the increasing numbers of large chains of off licenses in the area, which no doubt helped to squeeze the smaller operators out of the market.
The TH Seed sign (below right) is possibly my favourite. It just sums up the spirit of an earlier age, before mass media, and certainly doesn’t show any lack of self-belief or confidence. Thomas H Seed was a chemist and druggist, who had shops at a number of locations along Seabourne Road, from at least 1923 until his death in 1945, when the business was taken over by Theo Pumphrey, who was certainly still there until 1959. This sign is on the corner of Harcourt Road and Seabourne Road, where I hope it stays for a long time. On looking more closely at the photograph, I noticed that T H Seed had been painted over an earlier name, which looks like A K H…some more research needed here, I think.
This sign for Branksome Dining Room has proved very troublesome, as I have been unable to find conclusive information regarding it, certainly not from the 1920s up to the 1950s in the trade directories, nor in any of the local telephone directories. It is on the corner of Ashley Road and Bournemouth Road. A possible candidate in the vicinity was a dining room situated at 240 Ashley Road, technically Parkstone I believe, which was operated from the mid 1920s by Mrs Laura Ellis. By 1937, Radio House, wireless dealers, were at this address, and in 1940 it was occupied by a tobacconist. Although in the right area, I am not convinced that this is the correct dining room as advertised on the sign, so I’ll continue the search. If anyone has any information, I would be very pleased to receive it.
If you are fortunate enough to own a property with a ghost sign on it, please preserve it for future generations to enjoy. If, like me, you enjoy spotting them, please take a photograph, for who knows what tomorrow might bring? There is a Facebook page where photographs of ghost signs can be posted, at https://www.facebook.com/GhostSignsUk ◗