This month, the challenge is to look up for faded advertisements, across the city.
From the start of the 19th century, businesses used the walls of houses and shops as a space to display publicity. Paint could be used more easily, and more durably, than paper posters. Sign-writers extended their skills from lettering on shop fronts to decorating larger areas. The practice continued until the middle of the last century. Changes of ownership, and the trades concerned led to some of these large advertisements being overpainted. Since then, the signs have faded, and in many cases, have been erased from their walls.
Interest in what remains has led to numerous books about “ghost signs” in the UK and other countries. Spotters of such relics have recorded many ghost signs in urban New York and smaller US cities, and there are books about the ghost signs of Bath and London, plus websites for other localities.
So what about Exeter? There was a painted sign in the village, many decades ago for the dairy – now the fishmonger. But it has been lost, like many others. But some survive beyond the neighbourhood. Perhaps the best in Exeter is on a wall by Cowley Bridge Road. It advertises Redline petrol, a brand which existed in the 1930s and 1940s, including a picture of the top of an old petrol pump. This is the only surviving advert for the company in the UK, though, bizarrely, one of the shops in Princesshay has used a fuel can for the Redline brand in its “retro” styling.
Nearer to us, there is an advert for the Royal Society for the Blind in Palace Gate – like many, it is on a wall that faces away from the main road, so you can see it when walking towards South Street from the cathedral. A partly illegible sign for a business in Gandy Street can be found in Baker Street, just off Magdalen Road as it approached the Gordon Lamp in Heavitree. Further east through Heavitree, a ghost sign advertises “Chemist” in Victor Street.
My (very short) list of Exeter’s ghost signs also records those for the Polsloe Dairy in Jubilee Road, Pearks Baking Powder in Cecil Road, St Thomas, Holwill’s Dairy in St David’s Hill, and the Lamacraft brewery overlooking St Sidwell’s School. A faint advertisement for a Victorian cigar Importer is on a wall in Fore Street.
These relics of old Exeter businesses are rare survivals – look out for them in our city, and keep your eyes skinned for similar survivors if you are travelling this Easter. Do let me know of any others in the city.