An occasional series highlighting novel ways to explore London.
There are ghosts in Stoke Newington. The ghosts of advertising past, which we pass daily without noticing. Sam Roberts has noticed them. His walking tour of Stoke Newington’s ghost signs takes in many of the areas best examples and brings their history and stories to life.
Sam stands across the road from what, at a quick first glance, is the brick facade of a typical building on Stoke Newington Church Street. However, with a closer look, weathered paint and faded lettering advertising the repair of “Fount Pens” is visible. This is a ghost sign, an old hand-painted advertisement. This, according to Sam, was where it “all started” and where he became intrigued with these faded signs as important indicators of the past. His fascination led him to document ghost signs across London and beyond, eventually founding Ghostsigns and the Ghost Signs Archive (in conjunction with the History of Advertising Trust), researching their history, and, in the process, uncovering hidden stories of people and places.
Ghost signs are an often overlooked part of the urban fabric, but are very telling, as anyone who takes his walking tour will discover. As we continue the tour, Sam enthusiastically and expertly explains the histories and stories behind the ghostly traces of painted lettering, some of which are over 125 years old. This is a fascinating and intriguing tour which makes us look again at the urban landscape and notice the layers of history accumulated on the walls of buildings.
Along with his technical and historical expertise, Sam is a natural storyteller and brings the history of places and characters to life. During the tour, we hear about Ellis the tragedy-struck ironmonger; the scandalous episode of Charles Fox, the Duchess of Devonshire and her “Jolly Butchers”; the funeral of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army; Hurstleigh’s Bakery, and George James Dee, an ostrich feather-dyer and dealer in oils and paints who rose to become a Stoke Newington Councillor.
One of the signs advertising a Lancashire cotton spinner, John Hawkins & Sons, is a significant reminder of the textile industries and the workers’ strike of the 1840s, in which four people died. Then, there is the intriguing “Alf the Purse King”, whose sign, advertising his manufactory of handbags and wallets, adorns an English Heritage-listed Georgian building. Sam’s knowledge and enthusiasm extend to architectural points of interest that most passersby would miss, such as the missing spire on the Stoke Newington Fire Station.
The tour winds up with what might, with time, eventually become a ghost sign, a work by an infamous street artist which only just survived being painted over by the local council.
Haunting history indeed.
See also: Sam’s Top 10 London Ghost Signs
Ghostsigns walking tour will take place on select dates: Sunday 5 January, 2 February, 16 March and 13 April. Tickets are £15 or £12.50 if booked seven or more days in advance. Tours may be booked here. Comfortable footwear is recommended. Londonist took this tour with compliments of Sam Roberts.
See other Alternative London Tours (some may no longer be running).