Wine & Willing: A Stoke Newington Mystery


This fragment was one of my early discoveries when I first started noticing ghost signs in 2006. It was located on a very prominent wall on Stoke Newington Church Street, adjacent to William Patten School. At some stage after it was originally painted the patch of wall with this picture was probably covered by a billboard for posting printed advertisements. Subsequently the rest of the wall was painted black. Eventually the billboard was removed, revealing the fragment of the old sign surrounded by the black paint. (It is likely that this billboard was removed after the 1983 conservation zone designation in Stoke Newington which references “Special controls of advertisements” among the advantages of this designation.)

Prior to all this, in 1918, the wall had hosted a painted sign for the Hackney & Stoke Newington Recorder. The “Best North London Paper” had offices in the building in the first quarter of the 20th Century, before moving further down the road between 1925 and 1929.

Google street view allows you to see the wall as it was in 2008 (my photo above was taken in 2006). By 2009 the remains of the ghost sign had been covered over with black paint, part of the same anti-graffiti drive that almost led to the loss of Stoke Newington’s Banksy. Then, in 2016, the wall was re-used for the Stoke Newington Heritage Mural project.

Photo: Bread Collective

The original ghost sign has remained soemthing of a mystery, although there are enough leads that could help to eventually answer the question of who was advertising using this pictorial. I will set out what I have found here in the hope that readers may be able to complete the jigsaw and finally confirm who commissioned the painting of this once-iconic glass of wine.

The first clue comes from the excellent Painted Signs and Mosaics blog where Sebastien has located another sign, in Holloway, with the same illustration. However in this case the wording of the accompanying slogan is visible, “For a glass of good wine”. He speculates that this may be advertising a local wine merchants, although this is by no means certain.

According to History of Stoke Newington‘s detailed analysis of shop occupancy on Church Street, there was no wine merchant in the premises on which the sign appears (number 31). However, there have been many businesses of this type on the street. By distance from the sign, these include: Finn A. E. & Sons (No.51); Arthur¬†Collier (No.61); O’Sullivan F. D, Polley John, G. W. Streeton, Perman Thomas, Little John, Taylors (no.89); J. Brown & Co, M. A. Ball & Son, Howell Ernest, C. Wiffen Herbert, S. Lazarus, Fras. Haynes, F. & E. L. Haynes (no.103); Robert Ridge Mander (No.291); R. Le Gassick, W. M. Stewart, Mrs. Winifred Maud Stewart, M. Farrell (No.291); Gorring, Kerr & Co., Gorings (Wine Merchants) Ltd, Smeeds Ltd, Thresher & Co Ltd (No.168). There was also Cheetham Stores, British wine manufacturer, at number 89 in the late 1940s.

The second clue comes from an email exchange I had last year with Janet, a former pupil at William Patten School,

I watched that being painted in about 1955 every time I went out for playtime. It was fascinating to guess what it would be. My friend and I both think it was for a tonic wine. My first idea was Sanatogen, but Ruth suggested Wincarnis, which I tend to agree with on reflection. It was all painted freehand from scaffolding set up against the wall.

This gives an approximate date for the painting of the sign and a couple of possible brands to search for examples of contemporary archival advertising. My initial searches of these brands’ advertising histories have so far proved futile when scanning for the picture on the sign and the slogan above.

However, the date is interesting when cross-referenced with the wine merchants on Church Street as it substantially reduces the names to cross-reference in the street directories for Holloway Road in case of a match. Those listed as trading in 1954 are: Finn A. E. & Sons (No.51); Fras. Haynes (no.103); Mrs. Winifred Maud Stewart (No.291); Smeeds Ltd (No.168). My hunch is that it wasn’t promoting one of these given that the closest is over 80m from the original sign. It also seems unlikely that the sign was a privilege (paid for by a brand, and painted on the premises of a retailer/distributor) given that it isn’t on the wall of any former business that would have sold wine. If those two assumptions are correct then we are left with the remnants of a brand campaign, which would fit with the final clue below…

Fortunately when I first spotted the sign I noticed that there was a piece of text far down the wall on the right side, circled in red above. This is the typical location for signwriter signatures and, in this case, it detailed the name of the advertising contractor responsible for the sign. There would have been plenty of space between the picture and this signature for the slogan and, potentially, a logo and/or company name.

Given that this text, Willing Advertising, is painted onto the black suggests that the original painted sign may have been framed within a black border, although there may be other explanations. I believe it is contemporary to the wine glass sign itself given that it is painted in the same yellow colour as the main background.

By the 1950s, Willing Advertising had been in business well over 100 years since being founded by James Willing in 1840. They were a major national outdoor advertising contractor, working across poster sites, national and local transport networks, and even providing advertising oppotunities in cattle markets. The firm was headquatered at Willing House, 356-364 Grays Inn Road, and much has been written about the architecture of the building and its monuments (e.g. London Details). Locating and scouring the archives of this firm from the mid-1950s may yield information about the clients they were working with, perhaps including either Sanatogen or Wincarnis. This depends of course on whether any records exist.

So far the only information I’ve been able to find on Willing Advertising comes from a 16-page 1950s promotional booklet held at the History of Advertising Trust, who also have a picture of James Willing in a collection of photographic portraits of Presidents of The Bill Posters Association. The booklet shows that Willing Advertising worked with well-known brands including Nescafe, Carr’s biscuits, Morris cars, Gillette, Mother’s Pride, Brooke Bond tea, Whitbread, Ekco radios, Wall’s ice cream. Polo mints, Mackintosh’s toffee etc. Hand-painted signs have survived from some of these so Willing Advertising may have been involved with many more ghost signs still visible out there. Here are some images from the booklet which are a wonderful insight into the outdoor advertising industry in the 1950s.

The top-hatted Willing, and then Chairman & Managing Director Kenneth R. H. Edwards smoking a pipe.

“The nerve centre at Willings is a series of visual aids in filing cabinets specially designed to our own specifications. These list every town in the 1951 Census, both alphabetically and in population groups. Each card details the county in which the town is situated, gives population figures, recommended sheetages for short and long-term contracts and the names of Local Poster Contractors. Coupled with these records are those which give the various Contractors’ rates throughout the country.” – Data-driven marketing 1950s style!

Electric signs, and a note of caution about the need to consider fluctuations in footfall between night and day.

A miscellaneous page detailing the quality control inherent in the “National Sign Service”, larger-scale pieces, and the offer of advertising in cattle markets.

As an aside, Willing himeself must have had some connection to Brighton. In 1888 he paid £2,000 to construct the clock tower there to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. He is the man in the light-coloured top hat just right of centre in this picture of the unveiling.

Image: Christopher Horlock / Amberley Publishing / mediadrumworld.com

So, there we have it. A mid-1950s sign depicting a wine glass, with the slogan “For a good glass of wine”, painted by Willing Advertising, or one of their contractors. There is a possibility that it once advertised a tonic wine (e.g. Sanatogen or Wincarnis) and that it was therefore a brand campaign. If it was a more local form of advertising then there were four wine merchants trading on Stoke Newington Church Street in 1954 which can be cross-referenced with the names of buisnesses operating on Holloway Road where a sign in the same style also existed.

Thank you to everyone that has contributed their knowledge and resources so far. Answers on a postcard (or comments below, or email)…

PS. For bonus points, any clues related to the signs below would also be of interest. These were once visible on the lower portion of the same wall, just below eye level. Even help deciphering them would be good start. (Here is a high resolution copy of the first image.)

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