Today sees the publication of the UK’s first ghostsigns book. Liverpool Ghost Signs by Caroline and Phil Bunford is “a sideways look at the city’s advertising history” and features over 150 images of fading, crumbling and disused signage. Caroline and Phil were almost single-handedly responsible for the material from Liverpool in the History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive so know a thing or two about the city’s historical advertising.
It isn’t just the hand-painted stuff that is photographed and researched in the book; they have broadened their work to include mosaics, ceramics, gilded signs and other formats. The book is introduced by a short foreword from me (download here) and so I caught up with Caroline and Phil to ask them a bit more about it and some of the material inside.
Tell me briefly about the book.
The book aims to document and bring to life the histories of some of the old signs and mosaics we see dotted around the city on a daily basis, and provide a potted history of each sign/mosaic where possible.
What first got you noticing these pieces of history on Liverpool’s streets?
As with most local historians, we started with the grander buildings of the city when we first began taking photos and conducting research around six years ago. Due to our shared interest in social history, this soon whittled down to areas we found most interesting, and also the histories of more humble buildings which seemed to have been overlooked somewhat. Demolition of many streets and areas in Liverpool also made us even more determined to capture, at least digitally, as much as we could.
One of the first ghost signs we ever researched and became interested in was for ‘Blackledges’ on Ronald Street. Half of the sign has been lost, and it simply reads ‘Ledges Crust Bread’. We did some research on the building and found that it had previously been inhabited by ‘Blackledges Bakers’, once a prominent chain across the city, until at least the late 1960s. Once we had unlocked that sign’s history, it became a bit of an obsession to find and research as many as we could!
3. What is it that fascinates you about these signs?
The signs hark back to a time when life seemed to move at a slower pace, when people shopped on their local high streets a lot more, and used independent family-run firms to purchase their goods. Most of the signs are so intricately painted or tiled and must have taken very patient craftsmen to undertake the job. They are little pieces of artwork, most unique, and, apart from the bigger brands (e.g. Hovis, Sunlight Soap), are not mass produced. They are indeed ‘ghostly’ and are fantastic survivors of our social and consumer past.
You have clearly been busy collecting information about the signs, the companies they advertise and the people who painted them. How did you go about this research process?
We used many street and trade directories to help us in our research, without which the book would not have been possible. Using the addresses of buildings with signs on them it was a matter of many hours spent in archives trying to date the signs. In some cases, the businesses that commissioned the signs had only lasted for a very short period of time, making the research even more vital.
We also consulted census returns to gain insights in to how these people lived. This revealed information about where they came from and what their life had been beforehand. In addition, we contacted a number of people whose ancestors had owned the businesses the signs were created for. This was fascinating, and helped up build up a rounded picture of some of the more elusive business owners!
Do you have any interesting stories of serendipity or unexpected discoveries from researching the book?
We found most of the unexpected facts through the census research. There is a dairy that was situated near both Liverpool and Everton football grounds that, in 1911, had two footballers lodging with them! We also discovered that the ‘Houldings’ ghost sign on Dorothy Street was a company founded by John Houlding, one of the founding members of Liverpool Football Club.
If you had to pick one sign as your favourite, which would it be and why?
Caroline: I think my favourite sign is still the Blackledges sign. It was this that first sparked my passion for ghost signs, and it’s the only Blackledges sign that we have found in the city.
Phil: My favourite would be the ‘S.Gordon’ sign in Kirkdale. This was one that proved elusive to track down, and became a real research gem when I finally saw Samuel Gordon’s name in the street directory! He had a chain of grocers stores across the city, but was only at this address for five years.
Lots of the signs refer to characters and companies that have played roles in Liverpool’s history. Is there one of these stories that you think is particularly interesting or surprising?
I think when you begin a project like this, you do begin to have favourite characters and personalities. One of our favourite characters is John Irwin who started with a small warehouse in the north of the city and soon grew a small empire of grocers stores throughout Merseyside. Some of the finest mosaics in the book are for Irwin’s stores, and also a remarkable façade with beautiful terracotta lettering that has thankfully been left standing. Irwin’s were eventually bought out by Tesco in the 1960s, but some of the Irwin’s house-style architecture can still be seen around the city streets.
You document signs that have recently been revealed alongside examples that are no longer visible. What do you think these signs can tell us about the development of the city and the evolving visual landscape?
There is nothing more exciting for us than seeing the uncovering of a sign. This usually happens when a building is being renovated or prior to demolition. Some building owners have gladly left the ghost signs on their buildings, but as more and more commercial properties are converted to residential accommodation, we have seen these signs simply either painted over or, in the case of mosaic steps, chiselled away. As the ghost signs project becomes more and more prominent in the public consciousness we hope that people will begin to see how important this strand of social history really is. Hopefully, at least within Liverpool, our book will help a little with this.
Do you have any plans for future books or other publications of your research?
We will always continue to capture ghost signs and research them as much as possible. We may try to publish an updated book in around five years.
How can people get hold of the book and keep updated with future discoveries from your research?
We have set up a Twitter page, @lpoolghostsigns, and regularly post snippets of research on there. If anybody would like to contact us we can be reached via <a href=”mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”>email@example.com</a>.
Thank you Caroline and Phil for taking the time to answer my questions and congratulations on the publication of the book. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the hard copy when I get back to the UK next year.