Ghostly reminders can help us trace commercial history

Ghost signs in Berkhamsted
Ghost signs in Berkhamsted

Did you know that the faded painted advertisements that can often be seen on gable ends and other parts of commercial buildings erected in the 19th and 20th century have a name?

They are called ghost signs – that’s the name given to adverts which were painted on to the walls of buildings, rather than using billboards or other materials.

They were mainly used to advertise local shops or products, and it was a common practice around the world.

The earliest known photographs of this type of advertising were taken by William Fox Talbot on the streets of Paris in the 1840s.

His images show simple chalked signs, which were a cheap and flexible option especially favoured by publishers and blacking manufacturers!

In Britain, the medium was at its height from the 1920s through to the postwar 1950s, after which their use declined, because of the introduction of less expensive printed posters which could be produced in large quantities.

Hand-painted signs no longer made economic sense, but those that remain give a glimpse of the past economic and social history of an area.

Many thousands were lost when buildings were demolished and sites redeveloped.

Sometimes the signs have been painted over, or if they are in a prominent position they have been covered with modern billboards.

Examples of these historic signs can still be seen today, though the majority are faded and hard to decipher due to age and weathering over the years.

There are examples in Dacorum if you know where to look.

The words ‘Hunting Stables’ can still be spotted on the wall of a building in Berkhamsted’s Lower Kings Road, Berkhamsted, for example.

But a more prominent example – if you look up – is on the exterior of the former Home and Colonial store on the High Street in Berkhamsted, which still trades under that name but is now an antiques centre rather than the local branch of a nationwide grocery chain which flourished in the first half of the 20th century and at one time had more than 3,000 outlets.

The Dacorum Heritage Trust would like to record other ghost signs in the Dacorum area.

If you know of any, please let the Trust know or, if possible, take a photograph and send the image to DHT so that we can feature them on our Facebook page.