This page represents some of the examples of old
lettering found by striking eastwards from Liverpool Street Station,
London. This area is adjacent to that covered in our Shoreditch page.
Spitalfields takes its name from the hospital and priory, St. Mary's
Spittel that was founded in 1197. Lying in the heart of the East End,
it is an area known for its spirit and strong sense of community. It
was in a field next to the priory where the now famous market first
started in the thirteenth century. Historically it has played host to a
transient community, primarily for new immigrants. Spitalfields had
been relatively rural, until the Great Fire of London. By 1666, traders
had begun operating beyond the city gates - on the site where today's
market stands. The landmark Truman's Brewery opened in 1669. In 1682
after the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city King Charles
II granted John Balch a Royal Charter that gave him the right to hold a
market on Thursdays and Saturdays in or near Spital Square. From 1880
to 1970s Spitalfields was overwhelmingly Jewish; it was probably the
largest Jewish area in Europe receiving refugees from all over Europe,
the Balkans and Russia, with over forty synagogues. As the area grew in popularity, Spitalfields became a
parish in its own right in 1729 when Hawkesmoor's Christ Church was
consecrated. Spitalfields fell into decline after the 1820s and gained
a reputation as cheap area in which to live, proving a magnet to
numerous waves of immigrants. During the 1840s the potato famine led
to an influx of men from Ireland, bringing in workers to build the
nearby docks. By the middle of the 20th century
the Jewish community had mostly moved on. Since the 1970s a thriving
Bangladeshi community has flourished. Today, the area boasts evidence
of a Huguenot church, a Methodist chapel, a Jewish synagogue, and
Muslim mosque. Its cultural traditions are steeped in silk weaving,
leather ware, clock making, cigar making, barrow boys and a thriving
fruit and vegetable market. Poor housing conditions, sweat shops, East
End music hall and the legacy of Jack the Ripper, plus the immense
variety of colours from the ever-vibrant Bangla Town all contribute to
the rich tapestry that is Spitalfields today. It's ironic that
historically one of the poorest, most overcrowded, disease-ridden parts
of London now provides upmarket housing for the wealthier in society,
many in refurbished 'period' lofts and houses.
The above painted wall advertisement for Gillette
products is on a wall high above No. 75 Commercial Street, E1; it shows
the vestiges of an
earlier version ('The... the...'). We can do no better than to quote
Sebastien Ardouin's blog (see Links), where he goes into some detail on
this and similar ads:
RAZOR & BLADES
"I suspect the sign above on Commercial [Street] would originally have
looked like the previous one but Gillette had it repainted at a later
date using its more modern design. A couple of words (twice "The") and
traces of letters from the earlier version can still be spotted in the
lower left-hand corner. A few more letters belonging possibly to a
third, intermediate, Gillette sign can also be seen here and there
("...ety" and "...or", making "Safety Razor")...
[The vestigial picture is probably the likeness of] King Camp Gillette,
the head of the namesake company, whose portrait appeared on the packs
of disposable razor blades."
Donovan Brothers, 46 Crispin Street, E1: a plethora of
cartouches of out-of-date text!
'46... DONOVAN BROS ...46
The noted house for PAPER BAGS
of every description
STRONG CARRIER BAGS'
The above left image was achieved by surreptitiously pulling back one
of the window shutters. The signwriter has justifiably credited himself
in brush script on the top cartouche:
'ALFRED KEIL SIGNS BIS
[UPDATE 25.2.2017: 'I
stumbled across your site today whilst looking for background for some
of my own photos of Spitalfields. I was particularly struck by the
notes regarding the Donovan Brothers signage at 46 Crispin street and
the additional comments from Connie Chesterman regarding her father -
the original sign-writer. Lovely stuff.
'BIS' is the old London
exchange triplet of letters for Bishopsgate in the City of London.
All-numeral dialling codes were introduced around 1968.
[UPDATE March 2012: "A. Keil was my father
Alfred Keil Signs (based at 5 Whites Row) though his name was Angel
Keil - he did most of the sign writing in the East End and the City
during the the 1930's to the 1950's. I think he did the Percy Dalton
Sign too; he was quite friendly with him and I remember he did a sign
with a peanut for him. I wandered up there today and was really
pleased to see them still there. Regards, Connie Chesterman". Many
thanks to Connie for getting in touch; it must be a good feeling that
so-called epehemeral advertising signs are still in place long after
the companies have ceased. We think that the area would be a poorer
place without them. See also her note on the next sign...]
We noted in 2013 that this shop had been occupied by former 'Young
British Artist', Tracey Emin; the signs remained intact.
The explanation regarding the BIS telephone number rather implied that
the sign-writer must have done his work before 1968 after which the
telephone numbers became all numeric. However my own photo of this
shopfront, taken in 1985, shows the shop with it's previous red and
yellow design, so the green and yellow design painted by Connie's
father must be post 1985.
My own earliest photo showing the green frontage was taken in 1999 and
shows it signage looking rather 'tired' and ready for a repaint.
However the PERCY DALTON metal sign a couple of doors along, at that
point looks fairly good with just a few places where the paint is
beginning to peel.
By chance some of my early photos of Spitalfields were republished
today by the gentle author of Spitalfields Life, see:
and an earlier selection (one of which shows the Donovan Brs shopfront
in 1985) can be found at
Feel free to make use of this photo on your site if you think it will
help. Meanwhile, may I say - as an old typographer - how much I enjoyed
looking through your pages.
My best wishes, Phillip Marriage' We
are delighted to include the 1985 view of the Donovan Bros frontage and
admiring of Phillip's documenting of these streets over fifty years or
St, 1985, courtesy Phillip Marriage
High above the present 'English Restaurant /
Bar' on the corner
of Crispin Street and Brushfield Street, E1 we find a battered
DALTON (LONDON) LTD.
NUT IMPORTERS & ROASTERS'
Simple red and black caps agaist a cream background, now all
hostage to the vagaries of the rain, wind and frosts. But what a great
[UPDATE 26.10.14: "Hi you might
remember I wrote to you about the Donovans facia that my father
painted. I have now spoken to my brother who lives in Canada and
he assures me that he and my father also painted the Percy Dalton sign
and that it is not painted on brickwork but on a metal sheet that is
fixed up with hooks he remembers helping put it up. Kind regards,
4 Wilkes Street, E1
SUSKIN (TEXTILES) LTD.
The middle line of lettering is fugitive (orange-gold
against the red background). Someone has tried to overpaint the lower
part with white paint.
GENERAL TEXTILE & TRIMMING MERCHANTS
4 WILKES STREET E1 TEL. 247
Walking down Fashion Street, E1 from Brick Lane, we
A double image of white lettering across this black-painted cartouche.
In the centre of the panel is:
and a pointing, cuffed hand indicates the left
entrance. This pointer overlays italic lettering ('Est.' standing for
'Established and an indecipherable date?). Above this and running over
the white surround of the cartouche (so cannot originally have been
part of it?) are the somewhat mystifying words:
Beneath and partially obscured by the yellow hydrant
sign are the faint words which we think are:
For further examples see our London Galleries page including some from nearby Shoreditch.