The following is an excerpt from the excellent Secret Whitechapel, by Louis Berk and Rachel Kolsky.
We take for granted today that wherever we are in London we can identify our location using clearly displayed street names. Increasingly, navigation systems on smart phones indicate location and the routes to any destination.
However, London streets did not always have signs stating their names. The turning point in street signage came after the Great Fire of London in 1666. There was a realisation that any kind of public assistance system would only work if you could identify streets clearly. Even before a series of laws passed in the early 18th century requiring all streets in London to have name boards pinned to a wall, some streets were already identified by plaster tablets bearing the street name and year of the sign.
Whitechapel is lucky to bear three fine examples but you must go hunting for them.
The oldest tablet street sign is right on the southern border of Whitechapel and adorns the entrance to a now closed public house, The Rose at No. 128 The Highway. It bears the legend ‘This is the corner of Chigwell Streate’ and is dated 1678, relatively soon after the fire. It is a mystery as to how the tablet became embedded in the wall of a Victorian public house. This sign may well be one of the oldest, possibly the oldest surviving tablet street sign in London.
The second oldest sign is at the northern end of Whitechapel at the corner of Brick Lane and Sclater Street (top image). It bears the date 1708. It is also of an ornate design, possibly indicating that, at the time, Sclater Street had some importance or standing in the area. It is remembered chiefly for the bird market with the chirping of linnets, nightingales and canaries lasting well into the 20th century. Below it is seen contemporary street signs in English and Bengali, reflecting the new demographic of the area.
The third sign is tucked away on the wall of the former Whitechapel Bell Foundry building on Plumbers Row, and states ‘This is Baynes Street 1746’. It too has obviously been transplanted and relates back to a former name for the street.
The aesthetics of these three signs vary from utilitarian to intricate — a possible indication of the social aspiration of the streets and they also span the period from the end of the Stuarts to the reign of the Hanoverian monarchs, and the growth of modern London through trade and immigration.
For more little-known stories from the area, get hold of Secret Whitechapel by Louis Berk and Rachel Kolsky. Get direct from Louis' website (including signed copies), via Amazon, or any good book shop. You may also be interested in the duo's previous book, Whitechapel in 50 Buildings. All images above are copyright to the authors.