Buildings often tell stories and hint at their history. For example, the barn conversion that still looks very much like a barn, the single-storey kitchen that was once an outside toilet. Some buildings have evidence that their use wasn’t hinted at – it was shouted about, to entice customers.
Hand-painted adverts were commonplace on buildings between around 1900 and 1930. Some can still be clearly seen, but still others have almost faded into obscurity, leaving a trace of products and businesses that no longer exist. That’s why they’re known as ‘ghost signs’. They appear in most UK towns and cities.
They are often unintentionally preserved, often through neglect or through over familiarity, and sometimes they are intentionally preserved. What they don’t do is tell you the full story. We don’t know who painted them, or why, or how successful they were. But what they can do is offer a hint of what the building may have functioned as, or looked like, at the turn of the 20th century.
Cambridge has several such signs – and there are certainly more to be found. It is also interesting that around 2014 there was a City Council-run project to protect these signs for posterity. I suspect it was never repeated, but certainly shows a Council seeing value in these historical signs.
Here are a few from around Cambridge:
Centaur Cycles, just off King Street. This is one of the most impressive ghost signs, and for some reason was never part of the Council’s project. It reads Centaur Cycles, the Best the World Produces. Centaur was a Coventry-based bike manufacturer, bought out by Humber around the time of World World I.
30 Sidney Street. Between 1902 and 2010, this building was the site of Galloway and Porter booksellers. It was well-known for selling books at hugely discounted prices and carrying a Galloway and Porter carrier bag was rather fashionable amongst students in the 1990s.
30 Green Street. From 1913, this was the site of Stoakley & Son Bookbinders. The sign has been repainted as part of the council initiative to protect ghost signs. However, this has caused some dissatisfaction on the internet, as the person who did the repainting has apparently taken some historical liberties – changing the shape of the original letters, for example.
Wall in the courtyard of the Eagle Pub showing it was once a Coach House.
Bulls Dairies, 44 Hills Road. This one has been restored very effectively, and is a familiar sight on Hills Road. The building was Bull’s Dairy from 1939. The milking yard was just behind it, with 30 cattle. A German bombing raid in 1941 blew the windows out, but Mr Bull survived to become the Mayor of Cambridge.
Hot Numbers record store at 2a Kingston Street. This building operated as a record shop from the 1970s until sometimes in the early 1990s. My partner can remember buying records from here around 1992, and said the place was always a bit of a mess. There is now a coffee shop called ‘Hot Numbers Coffee’ on a neighbouring street.
105–107 Norfolk Street. This is now a residential home, but it was the Prince of Wales pub from 1901 to 1962.
67 Norfolk Street. This building was the Tailor’s Arms from 1881 to 1962, when it became a greengrocer.
9 Norfolk Street. Not sure what the sign says, but in 1913 it was a tobacconist. I can make out the words ‘drapers’ and ‘hosier’ too.
The Free Press pub, built 1851. The original signs can still be seen on the walls, and it still operates as a pub (where Covid restrictions allow).
105 Cherry Hinton Road. This building used to be a bakery and its ghost sign is probably one of my favourites. The records from 1911 show that the baker was called Wallis Francis Simpson.
So next time you’re in a town or city, look up ou might capture a glimpse of the city’s past.