This sign in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire was recently revealed by the demolition of the Zanzibar nightclub in front of it. It intrigued me so I decided to investigate. Below I present my findings so far, which raise as many questions as they answer, but which hopefully help to understand the sign and its heritage, and provide a platform for future research.
First to explain is the different elements of the sign. F. & E. Butterworth are the wholesale grocers that were based here, and this was their warehouse. They were also ‘cheese factors’ where, in this context, factor means ‘agent’ or commission salesmen. The top of the wall then features a ‘privilege’ for Beehive Preserves, including their beehive illustration at the apex. This would have been one of many products available from Butterworth, but manufactured elsewhere and ‘famous for over 75 years.’
The Butterworth Family
With the above in mind, the first question to answer is who the F and the E are. For this we need to go back to 1824 and the birth of John Butterworth in Audley, about five miles Northwest of this sign. In the 1840s he became a grocer, and later commission agent, moving through a number of locations nearby, including Longton, Dresden and then, finally, Stoke-on-Trent.
John had five children. Two daughters didn’t follow him into the trade, but his three sons did. The eldest, Frederick John Butterworth, was working as a grocer and provision merchant on Park View Terrace, Basford, likely with his father, in 1880-1. By 1891 he had moved to Newcastle-upon-Lyme where he was operating as a fruit preserver on North Street. (More on this later.)
John’s two other sons, Frank and Ernest, were much younger, and they also spent some time working for their dad. However, by 1900 they were running Frank & Ernest Butterworth, a wholesale grocers in the Brunswick Buildings, Newcastle-under-Lyme i.e. the F. & E. Butterworth company was founded in the 1890s. Their father died in 1900 and it’s not clear if the younger brothers continued his business there, or expanded their own, but in 1912 they were also trading from 23 Etruria Road in Stoke-on-Trent.
Meanwhile, Frederick continued in the fruit preserving business, although he also had a side-line as a coal merchant with a firm called Bakewell & Butterworth. Both the grocery wholesale and fruit preserve businesses were still in the same places until 1932, but by 1936 Frederick’s firm was no longer on North Street. Frederick’s son Howard Burnett Butterworth had spent some time with the company, but died in 1933, ten years before his father.
The F. & E. Butterworth business was still trading in 1955, at which point it was being run by the 55-year-old Reginald Ernest Butterworth, son of Ernest, and grandson of John. Before this he had been working alongside his cousin, Eric Jack Butterworth, Frank’s son. Eric died in 1948, age 47, just one year after his father.
One of Eric or Reginald is shown in a photo of a street party taken after the second world war in 1945, with the caption “the gentleman standing behind was a Mr Butterworth, a wholesale grocer, whose warehouse was in Brunswick Street, and who may have provided some of the goodies for the party, including jelly or blancmange, which was a treat.”
So, we have at least three generations of Butterworths running businesses for over 100 years in Staffordshire. While the grocery wholesaling operation technically goes back the furthest within the family, Frederick’s fruit preserves was also a major undertaking, and we don’t know yet what happened to it after 1932.
(NB. There is another Frank Butterworth, born 1880 and listed as Grocer & Confectionery Dealer in Stoke-on-Trent in 1939. but I’ve been unable to connect him to John Butterworth’s legacy…)
As mentioned in the introductory remarks, the F. & E. Butterworth sign features a privilege for Beehive Preserves. As you may have guessed, there is a direct family connection here. We’ve seen that John’s eldest son Frederick set up in the fruit preserve game at some point 1881–1891, and the legal name of his company was F. J. Butterworth Ltd. However, in 1928 the listing has its telegram code as “Beehive,” suggesting that this was, at least by then, the trading name of the business. The same appears in 1932.
The claim that Beehive Preserves have been “famous for over 75 years” therefore offers a possible clue as to the date of the sign. It seems that the earliest Frederick could have founded the business would have been as a 32-year-old in 1882. Adding 75 to that gives 1957, which is two years after the last verified trading date of the Butterworth grocery wholesales. This is entirely possible, and Reginald (d.1972) could easily have still been working at the age of 57, and beyond.
The other possibility is that Frederick took over an existing fruit preserve business, which would then have allowed the 75 years claim to be made at an earlier date. Ultimately it’s not clear, but my hunch is that the sign is late-1950s.
As a line of further enquiry there was until recently a company in Anglesey, Wales, branding their jams and chutneys as Beehive Preserves. Although they are now closed down, they also offered visitors an opportunity to see a vast collection of original enamel advertising signs. A serendipitous connection to our ghost sign, or something more substantial? This question is yet to be resolved.
Ewart Brown, Signwriter
In the course of discussing the sign on Twitter, the granddaughter of signwriter Ewart Brown got in touch to say that he was plying his trade in the area until his death in 1963. The work on this sign is done to the high standard that would be espected of someone who knows their craft, and so there is every chance that he painted it. So far we haven’t seen a picture of the bottom right corner which is where a signature would likely be found if there is one.
Looking through the trade directories there was a peak of 30 signwriters listed in Staffordshire in 1932, having steadily increased from 13 in 1900. By 1936 they were down to 26, and then 22 in 1940, although the war may have had an impact on this last figure. Of those 22, five were in Stoke. It seems that there probably was some local competition, although I would expect those numbers to have dropped again by the late 1950s, if that’s accurate in terms of dating the work.
Ewart served as a gunner in the Royal Artillery and is only going to show up in later directories to which I don’t have access. He was a sole trader registered as a signwriter and coachpainter at 5 Wesley Place in Newcastle-under-Lyme in case that helps anyone follow up this line of enquiry.
[PS. Following the full reveal of the sign, the signwriter’s signature has been found and the firm responsible was Cooper Signs of Queens Road (now Northwood Park Road), Hanley]
In terms of the preservation of the sign, it’s future visibility is not certain. The demolition of the nightclub building is part of a development to build social housing on the site, and so the full view of the sign may be fully, or partially, obscured. I have suggested that regardless of what happens, the developers should be approached for permission to access the site to take detailed photos to lodge at the local archives. Alongside the historical research above, and future discoveries, this can form a rich account of a significant family business from the area.
In terms of the research presented here, there is no doubt lots more to be discovered about the Butterworth family, their businesses, and what connection, if any, there is between Frederick’s Beehive Preserves and those later found in Wales. If anyone wants to pick up the threads, or to make corrections to any of the above, I have saved various documents in this Dropbox folder, and there is a collection of very detailed material just waiting to be accessed at Warwickshire Heritage & Culture.
No doubt, to be continued…
***This article was made possible by Ghostsigns’ patrons on Patreon. I thank each and every one of you for your continued support. Thanks also to everyone that has engaged in the discussion on Twitter, provoked by the original post from Newcastle-under-Lyme Markets, and that have sent emails in follow-up to this.***