A Tale of Two Shop Signs

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There’s something bewitching – and deeply melancholic – about old shop signs disinterred during refitting and renovation. After decades hidden away, they are often in the light just for a few hours or days before being again entombed under plastic fascia. A fleeting memento of a past era.

I spotted the sign above – ‘Tobacconist – S.E. DEVENISH – Confectioner’ – on Junction Road in north London. From the top deck of a bus. By the time I returned a couple of hours later, the  sign – earlier pristine and freshly uncovered – had been drilled into in preparation for the new nameboard.

And now, just a couple of days on (as the photo on the right illustrates), the old sign has again been laid to rest.

Small businesses such as this have left next-to-no digital footprint. Search as you may, they simply aren’t there. For S.E. Devenish, I have untraced just one internet reference – suggesting that in the 1960s or  ’70s this business printed postcards, historical maps of London localities. I seem to think I remember these. Yet it’s through the internet, and a blog, that I heard from Ken – brought up nearby but long since moved away – who has memories of popping into this shop to buy sweets half-a-century and more ago.

Photo: Steve Bowbrick, Creative Commons

Less than a mile away, a still older shop sign has enjoyed a very different fate. Last year, Cafe Brassino on Kentish Town Road – a greasy spoon type of place as far as I can make out – closed down.

As the building was being refitted as a kebab shop, an elegant handpainted shop sign, probably from the 1920s, came to light. I photographed it, and others did too, and lamented that this evocative sign would soon again be obliterated.

‘E. Mono / For Value’ – painted with a flourish. A business without any digital record whatsoever, not even in the 1911 census. Kentish Town Library just across the road, has a local history section so denuded that if offers no clue about the store’s line of business.

There will no doubt be information to be retrieved from street directories. The 1915 Post Office Directory, which is online, declares this shop to have been a branch of Boots the Chemists. The Mono business seems to have moved in later – certainly the Mono family are listed from this address in a phone directory from the late 1920s.

This story, though, has a happy ending. Although the owners of the new business knew nothing of E. Mono, and certainly didn’t share the surname, they decided to make a virtue of the signboard. They incorporated it into the new shop front, and chose it as the name of their kebab shop.

So unlikely as it may seem, E. Mono is back in business. Not the same business, you can be fairly sure. But once again attracting custom on Kentish Town’s high street.

It was a smart marketing move – not only gaining the  approval of local bloggers but also the attention of food critic Giles Coren. In the Christmas Eve edition of The Times, he gave Mono’s kebabs 8 out of 10 – ‘the best kebab I’d had in years’, he declared, describing the kebab shop as  (and this is a bit of a stretch)  ‘the hippest place to be seen at the moment’.

The Times article is hidden behind a pay wall, but a local paper reported how the review catapulted E. Mono and its kebabs to ‘superstar’ status. (I’ve been there myself – the kebabs are not at all bad).

And all this from the serendipitous decision to save an old shop sign.

ANDREW WHITEHEAD

 

  • Lorna

    A very poignant article – I wonder if you have seen this web project: http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/

    and the archive at the History of Advertising Trust: http://www.hatads.org.uk/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=33 ?

  • Felix

    Lovely article – it’s amazing what you can see from the top of a London bus!

    Reading this piece reminded me of Doreen Massey’s paper on ‘Places and their pasts’, published in HWJ 39 (1995), still one of HWJ’s most popular papers.

    Doreen was specifically interested in how history makes the identity of places, and how we might think of the multiple identities of places – as revealed above all by the urban landscape, a palimpsest of names and stories.

    One of the reasons that paper was important was its attention to the dangers of a nostalgic and inward-looking version of the past of places. In responding to Andrew’s haunting photos, one wonders what lies behind S. E. Devenish and E. Mono…..

    p.s. The cartoon comes from Punch in 1890 (‘Sky signs of the times’)….

  • Saly Alexander

    Across the road from New Gate Cross rail station, painted on the wall of a shop on New Cross Road, looking over the ralway line can still be read an ad for ‘flickering pictures’.  Brendan Prendeville pointed this out to me in the mid-nineties, and its still there.  London’s many old dairy signs always attract my notice, and I never follow them through, so thanks Andrew.

    Sally

    • Papamulligrubs

      Sally,

      A lovely comment; – now – where is you camera Sally? These overlooked works of unsung beauty need capturing for posterity before they peel away and are lost forever.

  • Papamulligrubs

    Just a few relics of what was a sadly overlooked art; that of the commercial artist / sign writer. It wasn’t only shop -signs – lovely as they were. I clearly recall walking to school in the fifties and marvelling at the amazing hand painted gable end wall of a house – it had a cowboy ( a la Tom Mix) mounted on a  a rearing horse with the beautifully ornate lettered caption, “Parkinson’s – for pills that buck you up!”  

  • http://www.scotlandindetail.com/ Dave Cowan

    I’ve been gathering pics of these wonderful old signs up in Scotland for the last few years – hope you don’t mind the shameless plug, but you can see them on a website http://www.scotlandindetail.com under Vintage Signs.

  • http://bdsignsnottingham.co.uk/ Stevesmith887

    Theres an old blacksmith sign in my home town that has been around since 1889. Theres pictures in the museum of it when it was first made and its still there now, not so shiny but it looks lovely.

  • http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/ Sam Roberts

    I refer to these appearances of historic signage as ‘reveals’ in the context of my research into ghostsigns. Just this weekend a lovely one was unveiled following the removal of a modern shop sign by the ‘Valentine’s Day Storm’, see picture attached. Other examples can be found on the Ghostsigns blog under the tag ‘reveal’: http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/tag/reveal