The name ‘ghost signs’ suggests something spooky or paranormal, but sightings of these historic artefacts are pretty common.
What are ghost signs?
Ghost signs are old hand-painted advertising signs preserved on buildings that have since changed their identity. They are snapshots in time, relics of social history and a nostalgic window into the past.
Once you’re looking for ghost signs, you’ll find they are frequently hidden in plain sight.
They are all around us: tucked away down alleyways, hidden among rooftops, or among the signage of our modern high streets.
Ghost signs stand in stark contrast to 21st century high-tech targeted adverts of today. Instead, ghost signs whisper themselves to anyone who is tempted to look closely.Alex Day, Youth Engagement Officer, Norfolk Museums Service
How were ghost signs made?
Ghost signs were initially made using oil-based house paints.
Some of this paint originally contained lead, which resulted in it firmly adhering to the masonry surface of buildings.
As signs were painted repeatedly, the original layer of paint was often preserved and can still be seen today.
Where can you find ghost signs?
The chances are that if you look up at the buildings you pass by day to day, it won’t take long before you spot a ghost sign yourself.
Here are some examples with photographs from the Historic England Archive.
Sankeys Soap, Manchester
Beehive Mill in the Ancoats area of Manchester was built in the 1820s as a cotton spinning mill and was later used to manufacture soap.
The nightclub Sankeys Soap opened in the building in 1994, taking its name from the former factory. The club closed in 2017, but the sign remains.
Curtiss and Sons, Rochester, Kent
After various commercial uses, the former Lion Brewery in Rochester was leased by the furniture removal business Curtiss and Sons, whose painted signage survives on the wall.
Fort Road Hotel, Margate, Kent
Before its recent renovation into a boutique hotel, the Fort Road Hotel in Margate was identifiable by a faded ghost sign.
Today, the sign has been repainted in a similar style.
Sydney Shaw, Staleybridge, Greater Manchester
On the side of a pharmacy in Stalybridge in Tameside, Greater Manchester, is a sign for Sydney Shaw House Furnisher.
Ghost signs in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
The Time and Tide Museum and Great Yarmouth Borough Council have created a walking trail to introduce residents and visitors to some of the ghost signs in the town centre.
Download the Uncovering Yarmouth: Ghost Signs (PDF) booklet for examples of the many signs across Great Yarmouth and their history.
The trail is part of our Great Yarmouth High Street Heritage Action Zone.
Do you have a favourite ghost sign or know more about the examples above? Let us know in the comments.
It’s really nice to see this article and other samples of fabulous ghost signs. I’ve taken photos of a few ghost signs in East Devon, where I live. My favourite was an old bakery in Exmouth with a sign advertising ‘H. Law Hygienic Baker’ (a name given to bakers using equipment which took the grit out of flour). That was on the front and side of the building but below the side advert was another one advertising a later photography shop called ‘Memory Makers’ in lovely curlicue lettering.
For photos I’ve cheekily added the link to my blog page about the bakery at https://pastremainsblog.blogspot.com/2017/09/hlaw-bakery-and-memory-makers-exmouth.html
Similarly, in Aberdeen the old Esslemont & Mackintosh department store, 1873 to 2007, still has the name discreetly on parts of the old granite building, which survives.
John Lewis closed during Covid and it’s brutalist building may be demolished, see 20th Century Society campaign – https://c20society.org.uk/buildings-at-risk/norco-house-aberdeen
My old bank building FOLLYBANK HOUSE. Has original ghost signage for bank of Liverpool ltd from 1912. Local residents are amazed when I point it out to them. It was removed in 1919. When taken over by martins bank
There is a nice one at ground level in witton st in Northwich Cheshire nr the old library opp side of st.its for a long gone tobacconist selling cigars….
I have a blog about the British Isles (http://mybritishisles.blogspot.com), and where I have been exploring Kent in more depth, I have found several ghost signs. There is one for a fertiliser factory on Standard Quay in Faversham, the London and Paris Hotel at the bottom of Tontine Street in Folkestone, a glorious gilded one in Bank Street, Herne Bay for Smeeds Smart Signs, one for a temperance commercial hotel in Margate, along with the Crown Hotel and another for Stuppell Hair Cutter now the home of the Thanet Times, in Whitstable ‘celebrated ales and stouts’ on the side of the former Guinea pub, Sun Fire Office in St Peter Street Canterbury, and in Derbyshire, in Youlgrave, the Youth Hostel still has its gold leaf lettering on the door and windows, proclaiming it to be the Co-Operative Stores