With contributions from Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society, members & friends
‘Ghost signs’ are fascinating, but by their definition can be hard to find, are almost certainly now redundant and survive more or less by chance. The clue is always to look up at shops and other buildings in order to find them. Cirencester has a good collection, never really gathered together before, but now an initiative via Cirencester’s Neighbourhood Plan is helping to mark their identity and significance and make them better known.
They come of course in all shapes and sizes but painted signs are at the heart of this story, which happen never to have been completely removed or obscured by later signage. As an excellent example, on the side wall of what was the Hope Inn in Querns Lane survives half hidden an Arkells Ales ‘unrivalled ales & stout’ sign as a reminder of its former life.
Something very similar but still very much in use adorns the recently restored Bees’ Knees (once the Plume of Feathers) in the heart of Watermoor, Arkells Ales again and a classic example of a promotional painted sign.
In Ashcroft Road are two substantial painted survivals (too good to lose) from the days of local dairies. An end gable shop sign reads The Cirencester (blacked-out) Dairy: High Class Dairy Produce. Further along the street is Gloucestershire Dairy Co Ltd on the former dairy building, now a day nursery.
In Lewis Lane are two more which catch the eye. The key signage on the former cabinet maker’s workshops of C.H. Uzzell at the corner with Carpenter’s Lane was happily preserved during conversion to housing. This was an active business during much of the first half of last century.
Almost opposite is the painted sign at the entrance to what was the Printing and Publishing Works of the Wilts & Glos Standard, since the 1830s the town’s long-standing weekly paper. Restored once already in its ‘retirement’ this sign needs attention again now – can it not be repainted afresh before it deteriorates too far?
Round the corner at 74 Dyer Street, the striking façade of what was the newspaper’s main office dating from 1904 has been sensitively restored for a new housing use, its signage preserved; external nameboards and the hanging sign certainly complement the street-scape at this location.
There are individual studies to be made of all these buildings; so too another which is arguably less well appreciated (or noticed) than it deserves. It is to be found at One Market Place, right on the corner with West Market Place above the modern shop-front and awnings of Knight Frank. Previously of course this was the long-time home of Charles Barnett’s ‘fish, game and poultry’ open-fronted corner shop as described in Ciren Scene June 2023 issue.
In this location it has naturally never been long out of use, and the surviving over-painted lettering on its rounded corner shows intermingled details of at least one of its retail occupants. Scotland House (a property name still in use today) can be made out plus the name of Jones & Co (Jones & Son) and clearly enough ‘The Popular Clothier.’
Census and trade directories add some detail to this. There was a long-standing drapers, clothiers and outfitters on this site from at least the middle of the 19th century. When Edwin Stevenson packed up in business here after 17 years in October 1880, it was acquired by Christopher Frank Jones, then in this 20s. It was still active at the time of his death in 1915. So this signage can be dated within this period.
These are just some of the variety of ghost signs which survive in Cirencester, depending on how wide the definition is drawn. Hanging signs, house signs and inscriptions in stone can also be found as well as other painted signs. Whilst perhaps not yet part of our obvious cultural heritage, together they provide valuable evidence of our town’s history and merit being recorded for posterity.
As part of the town’s Neighbourhood Plan preparation, a nationally-recognised category of historic features classified as Non-Designated Heritage Assets (NDHA) has been compiled, including ghost signs of various types. Some may already be protected as part of a listed building but others are more at risk.
The aim is to stress the importance of protecting and enhancing such assets. Signs can be as valued as our local unlisted buildings, monuments, green spaces, views and vistas in Cirencester. All are on the wish list – quite a challenge in such an historic town.
Many thanks to Meg Blumson and Neighbourhood Planning Group
Support Cirencester’s principal heritage societies and their event programmes: Archaeological & Historical Society (www.cirenhistory.org.uk) and Civic Society (www.ccsoc.org.uk), which runs a programme of Town Walks in the season plus pre-booked for small groups. See the Society’s website or phone William Cooper on 01285 88 55 90.