Ghost signs of times past

Signs of the times
Signs of the times
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We often don’t even give them a second glance, but thanks to an online archive, Yorkshire’s ghost signs will now be preserved forever. The man behind it talks to Sarah Freeman.

Most are a little faded. Some are in danger of disappearing altogether, but for now at least the ghostly advertising signs dotted on street corners up and down the country are a reminder of a Britain of yesteryear, a place where smoking was good for you and where the weekly shop often included a trip to an ironmongers.

Signs of the times

Signs of the times

More often than not, the signs have outlasted the products they were designed to sell, but now thanks to Sam Roberts who over the last eight years has set up a photographic archive of the advertisements, there is a permanent record of the lost art of signwriting.

“It all came about because I happened to move house,” says Sam, from London. “For years I’d lived on the same side of the street and always approached home from the same direction. That year I moved to the other side of the street and every time I walked back I came face to face with one of these old signs. It was like seeing something for the first time.”

The sign which greeted Sam every time he came home was for the Walker Bros, specialist fountain pen sellers and repairers.

“It just struck me, how much times had changed. These days, when our phone or computer breaks we throw them away and get a new one.

Signs of the times

Signs of the times

“They’re expensive bits of kit, but we live in a disposable society where it’s cheaper to keep buying replacements than it is to get anything repaired.

“I was just struck by the thought, that what I was looking at was a piece of social history which in a few years time might well have been erased by the elements.”

From that day on wherever Sam went he spotted more signs and it turned out he wasn’t alone in having an emotional attachment to the fading advertisements.

“I posted something on Facebook and couldn’t believe how many friends got in touch to tell me about their own favorites. I plotted them on a map and whenever I had time I would ride out to see them and take photographs.”

Creating his own website dedicated to the art of ghost signs, Sam soon had an army of enthusiasts across the country recording the street art of their own towns and cities and there was no shortage of material in Yorkshire. Some are now slightly obscured by satellite dishes and others are only barely decipherable through the peeling paint, but all say something about the way British society used to be.

“Some of my favourites are the cigarette adverts. There’s one for Craven A in Brixton Road with the slogan, ‘For throat’s sake smoke’ and another for Camel cigarettes which proudly states ‘Nine out of 10 doctors smoke Camel’. Imagine trying to get away with that kind of advertising brief today. They really do capture a Britain which no longer exists.”

For a while Sam ran his own blog dedicated to ghost signs, but there came a point when he realised that the images deserved a more permanent home in a national archive.

He’d already had some contact with the History of Advertising Trust and approached them about taking over the day to day running of the online library.

“I had such a lot of material and I just felt I couldn’t really do it justice.

“We managed to secure some sponsorship from Rank Hovis, which was a nice touch as 100 years ago they were really at the forefront of street advertising. There’s currently around 1,000 images in the archive and it’s great to think that we now have a permanent record of these signs.”

Sam has just started running walking tours around some of the ghost signs near 
his home in London and the question of restoration is one that inevitably crops up.

“I take an agnostic position. When they were first done, the colours would have been touched up every so often because there was still something to sell and the reason they have faded is because those businesses and services are now defunct.

“A group of individuals did get together to raise money to restore the Bile Beans sign in York. I have no doubt that they had the very best intentions, but it is something which divides opinion. Someone once said it’s like giving an old friend a very bad face lift and for me I think we should be more concerned about protection than restoration.

“What I would really like to see is those traditional signwriting skills being valued again and I think we are beginning to see a bit of a renaissance.

“We’ll probably never see handpainted signs popping up as the way they once did, but there are a number of companies who are commissioning one-off designs, often painted to look like they’ve been for decades, because they recognise the value of appearing to be a heritage brand.”

• Visit Sam’s website at For the complete online archive got to