13 February 2022

Blooms Pianos, Kingsland Road – two signs and at least four workshops

I was in Shoreditch recently, wandering about admiring things, planning walking routes and generally enjoying the Winter sunshine. I decided, as I was close by, to go and visit an old friend, the hand-painted sign for Bloom’s pianos on the north side of the block that overlooks the front garden of The Museum of The Home

BLOOM’S PIANOS / illustration of upright piano / FOR PERFECTION 

I stood there deciphering what I could see, making notes. When I got home, I tried to find out more info about its content, but what I did find was scant and posed more questions, and so began days of bloomin' research (see what I did there?!) to try and work out if this signage is from the 1910s or 1930s

This large hand-painted sign looks to be from the approximate Edwardian era as regards the letterform with those blobby serifs, undulating cross bars on the E and F, that lovely kick on the R, the curves, arcs and stretches and, of course, there's that upright piano at the centre. Also, there are direct telephone numbers shown here – exchanges of this kind did not become available until 1912, though I cannot, as yet, ascertain who the Bishopsgate 9087 number belonged to. And, despite the directional at bottom right in the form of a manicule pointing to the front of the bulding, I can find no ref of any Blooms listed along this terrace in the 1910s. Though they make an appearance in the 1930s. Read on...

134 Kingsland Rd is the address of the whole block from the museum to Cremer Street and comprises seven premises A-G. If this sign is from the 1910s then it's likely that this excellent advertising space, facing the traffic coming into London from the north, was simply used to advertise products made at nearby workshops, the sign being commissioned by an enterprising family of cabinet makers who made cases for pianofortes and had connections to someone in this block who could accept correspondence on their behalf. This might well have been William Richard Mitchell, shopfitter, who was at D&E in 1914, or Clarke & Greenfield, glass mould makers, at G. Indeed, in 1925 every one of these spaces is occupied by a company making or selling something to do with wooden furniture.

Bloom is a fairly common Jewish name and there have been many cabinet makers by this name living and working in the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch area. For instance, in 1899 there was Joseph Bloom at 54 Ravenscoft Street (1), a road that was mainly cabiinet makers at that time, and Nathan Bloom a short walk away at 29 Redchurch Street (2). Then, by 1910 Marks Bloom is at No.64 Ravenscroft St (1) and Joseph has moved into new premises at 5 Sunbury Works, Hocker St (3). To muddy the waters further, there was also Leckstein & Bloom in Cheshire Street (4) in 1910 with other workshops in Tabernacle Street (5) and Christina Street (6), and then in 1915 there’s Jacob Bloom in Dunbridge St (7) as well as Israel Bloom in Leonard Street (8) and Barnett Bloom in New Inn Yard (9). I have no idea if they were all related, but it's very possible.

Phew! So I’m thinking this sign could be just pre-WW1 which is backed up by the signwriter’s name, written in small ‘one stoke’ at the bottom right corner: Howell Signs, Clerkenwell – 7275. John Thomas Howell, illuminated signs, was at 2 Vineyard Mews, just off Farringdon Road, in 1910, but he’s gone from there by 1914 and I can find no evidence thus far of him having that Clerkenwell phone number at that time. 

It is interesting that Howell was not local to Bethnal Green, E2, and I wonder if JTH might have been a friend or work associate of the Bloom family because I notice that Mozart & Co organ builders were at 32 Vineyard Gdns from at least 1895-1910, so it's possible that the music maker connects them all, such that Mozart's mechanics might have been housed inside cabinets made by Bloom. 

The Clerkenwell 7275 phone number makes an appearance in the 1923-25 directories when Lionel Victor Howell (JT's brother or son?) is listed at 10 Penton Place, Islington (Angel area but classed then as part of Clerkenwell) and the phone number is carried to larger premises in the 1930s, just around the corner at what is now 91-99 Pentonville Road here.

Another idea (ooh, I am full of them!) could be that it was J.T.Howell who painted another similar-looking sign that includes an early C20th illustration, for Daniel Leakin’s valet and car hire service at 19 Wellington Row which is on the corner of Ravenscroft Street, coincidentally a couple of minutes' walk  from a Bloom workshop in that street. It's very likely that, just like the Bloom's sign in Kingsland Road, this was inititially an advertising site used to advertise services that were available close by. This is a small cottage-style terraced corner house so it's very doubtful a fleet of vehicles etc could be kept here. Until 1915 (just after I've lost track of any signwriters by the name of Howell) this corner location is shown as John Bates, coal dealer, who I think lived there and used it as his office. The vehicle depicted looks to be a 1920's Ford Model T light commercial inproduction 1908-27. As far as I am aware Leakin does not make an appearance here until the 1930s. But I've gone off on one of my tangents here, so let's park Daniel Leakin and his interwar motor haulage company for now and get back to the Blooms.

As I have hinted in the subject line, there is actually a second sign here which starts further down, sort of halfway through the big letters. If you scroll back up to the top you'll notice that the lower two thirds are stronger in colour than the upper part.

I have warped and stretched my original photo to better illustrate this. The tinted yellow box rule shows where the edges of this later sign are visible and in white I've added the letters I can ascertain thus far (though I have guessed the word 'please' at the centre).

At the bottom right there is a different telephone number from the earlier Bishopsgate one. This is confusing because, in 1939, this NORTH 1827 number belonged to George William Every & Sons, gear cutters of 49 Thornhill Road, N1. This address in Barnsbury, Islington, and a short walk from the Blooms outlets in Cally Road. The Everys were in Barnsbury for at least 30 years – in 1910 they are listed as ‘clock wheel makers’ and were probably at that time supplying the Clerkenwell clock-making area. But the question here is, why on earth would Blooms be using Every's phone number? Hmm, ponder ponder... perhaps, again, this was merely for correspondence address rather than a place to buy, though that does seem rather odd in this instance considering the size of the shops on Cally Rd.  

I then considered the number 181 at the bottom left corner and which road in the area might this apply to – my hunch being that it must be one of the shopping streets in that area. I quickly found Blooms House Furnishers (Isaac Bloom) at 181 and 187 Caledonian Road in 1939 as well as opposite at No.198. So the missing/hard to decipher part in the centre of the last line here must say Caledonian Road (I have been told that it says 'ISLINGTON' somewhere under there). 

Back to Kingsland Road... In 1930, Bloom Bros cabinet makers is/are at 134 C, D & E, but they've gone from that location by 1940. I suspect this might coincide with the opening of the outlets in Caledonian Road, the Kings Cross area probably being better for transport and distribution, and also closer to the many piano and organ makers in north London, specifically in Islington and Camden, north of the canal.

The 1939 directory also shows that Nathan Bloom was still busy at his workshop at 29 Redchurch Street (1) and by this time had also taken on additional premises at 19-21. There’s also H&L Bloom listed at 3 Fountain Street which backs onto Sunbury Works (3) which surely must be the same family seeing as this was where Joseph was listed two decades previously. By this time there's also J. Bloom at 24A Calvin Street (10), an attractive terrace of workshops which still looks good today

As regards the design of the ads, note that the smaller/later advertisement has no illustration. OK, so there was less space, and the inclusion of an illustration was probably expensive, but perhaps pianos, even the ones in beautifully-made wooden cabinets, were not as much of a selling point by the time this was painted, especially with domestic gramophone players becoming more affordable.

But I do have a good idea why the newer sign is less tall... if you study that end wall today, or look again at my pics above, notice how the bricks at the Kingsland Rd side have been replaced – the uppermost front section of the wall has been rebuilt. It occurs to me that this might possibly have been damaged during WWI Zeppelin raids – the red line on this map clearly shows that two airships passed quite close to 134 Kingsland Road in May 1915. Alternatively, if it's a1930's sign that was later repainted, this could hint at it being repainted during or shortly after damage during WW2. The date of the second hinges on when the Blooms opened those premises in Cally Rd.  I'd love to see how the wall above the thinner sign would have appeared at the time it was created – perhaps the visible elements of the earlier sign at the top were overpainted in black. 

I am still torn as regards the date/era of these advertisements. The available information is intriguingly inconclusive. The style is 1910s but the info within seems to be hinting at the 1930s which, to me, is at odds with the old fashioned letterform used. Perhaps they used a logotype in this fin-de-siecle style, hence why the letterform continued through the decades...?

I think I will stop now as I’m bloomin’ exhausted. 

Watch this space for more updates, as I will amend the info above as and when I find out more. If you can help, please use the comments box below or contact me @janeslondon via social media 

Thanks to Sam Roberts for some additional archive reference from 1920s and 1930s.

10 February 2022

Shaftesbury Hotel ghostsign – a bargain price at a great location with breakfast and billiards

This might be the best hidden-in-plain-sight ghostsign in central London.

I have been busy pulling together some online talks about old defunct and faded signage of all kinds in central London, specifically Soho, Covent Garden and Fitzrovia. This has involved revisiting and updating my 'show and tell' folder and the accompanying notes for the central London walking tour I have been leading for the past three and a half years. 

When I first devised that route from Long Acre to Rupert Street, a friend and I test-walked it one sunny winter's day in Jan 2018. As we used the zebra crossing on Shaftesbury Avenue, heading from Seven Dials to St Giles Church, we turned to look back up Mercers Street just in case we'd missed anything and were amazed to spot a sign that neither of us in all our decades of wandering about armed with cameras had never noticed before. Way up high, facing north, there is a hand-painted sign on the back of what is now The Mercer Street Hotel.

Had it been covered and made a sudden appearance? Doubtful. We think we'd simply missed it due to the tree on the corner of Mercer Street than when in leaf as good as obliterates the sign completely for most of the year. Also, the sign is only visible from a couple of specific spots along that junction. Blink as you walk past Mercers Street and you'll miss it. See Google streetview here.

I returned to the site a few weeks later and did my best to take some photos. And I've tried again a few times since. It's difficult to get a decent view of it, because the weather, the angle of opportunity and the faded blue/white letters obscured by what looks like layers of black soot all play their part. I'm really glad that I have returned to all this because I was convinced that I had added this discovery to this site ages ago, but no, it turns out it was still lurking in my 'To Do' folder as a simple note to self.

This is what I have found out so far... 

The Shaftesbury Hotel was constructed on a site that previously George Russell's rope and twine business at 47 Great St Andrews Street (later to be renamed Monmouth Street – you'll see refs to these old street names on the road signs in the area). Images of Seven Dials, dated 1910, show the hotel covering the site of nos. 43-47, and this is corroborated by the gap in the directory for that year, hinting that the building was nearing completion. I think we can assume that the sign was painted onto the rear of the building during or shortly after construction, intended to be clearly seen by traffic coming down St Giles High Street from the junction of Tottenham Court Rd station when buildings in the vicinity were much lower than they are today. This hotel was probably at that time one of the tallest in this area.

It would have been an unusual and brave move to open a hotel here, albeit a cheap/budget one, in a district that had previously been tainted during the late Georgian era as being inhabited by thieves and prostitutes, a stone's throw from the rookeries of St Giles as depicted by Hogarth in Gin Lane. But by the 1880s the street of the Seven Dials had evolved to become merely an area where the working classes lived and worked, with a thriving street market. A clever entrepreneur must have seen the value of the central location as we do today.

I have done my best to decipher the wording on sign. I've boosted the pics using Photoshop and then on tracing paper hand-rendered the words that that are visible. My pencil marks indicate a few bits that I am unsure of, such as the wording above BREAKFAST which is probably BEDROOM being there are hints of a B and two OOs there. The big 4 looks to have been in a circle and was probably 4/- (four shillings) per night for a room, which equates to about £25 today. Wow! 

Billiards was very popular in the late Victorian era, especially within Temperance Halls, and I wonder if this was constructed as a Temperance Hotel being as the design of the building is similar to some others that were constructed in that era, such as The Kenilworth in Gt Russell Street near the British Museum, where activities and good food would have been an attraction rather than alcohol. Note that a bar/drinks lounge is 'missing' from the list of facilities offered on this painted sign. The 1915 directory sheds no light on this idea and simply shows it as Shaftesbury Hotel, Thos. Gordon (London) Ltd., at 44, Great St Andrew Street.

I also found this ad for the hotel in a 1953 guide book to London. As you can see, it is advertising the hotel's prime location as close to Theatreland and the West End – the heart of London. The price still equates to about £25 a night. You'll be hard-pushed to find a warm cupboard for rent at that price today!

An online search throws up no additional info or photos, indicating that no one else has spotted this corker of a ghost sign either. Ooh I feel like a treasure hunter who found gold! 

I am still intrigued about the two lines under BILLARDS which are not visible from the street... Can anyone give me access to the roof of the Odeon, Shaftesbury Ave?!

UPDATE 20th May 2022 – Sam and Roy @ghostsigns have finally caught up with me about this – they posted this 1917 ad on Twitter which backs up the wording on the painted sign and also shows T. Gordon (London) Ltd. as proprietors, suggesting the company also managed other hotels/properties across the country. Something to look into another day.


8 February 2022

On the tiles at George's Fish & Chips shop, 45 Tottenham Lane, N8

At the northern end of Tottenham Lane, on the right and just before the fork where the road meets Church Lane and leads down to the right and Hornsey railway station, there is a fish and chips shop, opposite the old police station buildng

The shop doesn't look like much at first glance, being as the exterior is modern plate glass, having lost almost all of its Victorian metalwork and embellishment over the past few decades. You need only to look around at some of the nearby shops to be able to get an idea of how attractive this junction would have been 120 years ago. 

if you venture into George's because you'll find some fabulous examples of fin-de-siecle tiles along the lower sections of the walls on both sides, specifically in the small seating area at the left and behind the counter too, albeit mostly obscured by cabinets. But hey, they are there and that's great.

These tiles really show of the colourful patterns of the Art Nouveau 1890s area. The grassy greens, deep golden yellows and peacock blues are absolutely gorgeous. There is also a stained glass panel at the rear which I assume is of the same era, but I doubt it would have been situated exactly in that position when the shop interior was first created. As regards the 'since 1890' claim, I am not sure what is intimated here. The 1901 directory shows this shop as No.9 Rathcoole Parade and the premises of James Brunton, fishmonger. Perhaps George is a descendant of James? Or they simply mean a chippy has been on this site since 1890.

I popped in to check up on the place earlier this month but, though the door was wide open and the place clearly open for business, there was no one about to talk to – I called out 'hello' but got no response and, in a rush to be elsewhere, I simply snapped these pics and sped off. Last time I popped in, ooh about 3 years ago, I'd had a nice chat a man who worked there. He was really proud of the tiles and loved that the history of the place is appreciated by many people who come into admire the original features (and eat the lovely chips!). I didn't ask if his name was George.

Nearby, there are other places that still hang on to their mad patchworks of Victorian glazed tiles. I mean 'mad' in a good way. Personally, I'd never consider putting some of these patterns together except in a catalogue. But the effect is dazzlingly good, such as a few doors along, at 59 Tottenham Lane, on the corner of Harvey Road where there are some lovely vertical panels of mixed tiles that are strangely at odds, yet enhanced and contrasted by, the faded ultramarine paint of Garden Transformations. The 1901 directory tells me this was Lucas & Co, house furnishers. You can also find lovely mixed tile collections surrounding the front doors of many residential properties in the area, as well as some excellent examples of old shop fronts in Hornsey High Street, but I will save those for a separate bulletin.

UPDATE 2023:

I discovered last year that although the premises is still trading in fish and chips, the lovely colourful Art Nouveau tiles along the left side wall have been obliterated or removed. The guy I spoke to in there said it was for Health and Safety reasons, but that really cannot be the case being as some original tiles remain visible behind the counter in the food preparation area. Sigh.  

3 February 2022

An update on the renovation of Hornsey Town Hall and the surrounding site

Yesterday I went up to Hornsey Town Hall to see what's happening at the Town Hall site adjacent to Crouch End Broadway. As you can see, there's still a fair bit to do but the future looks good.

I met up with the lovely ladies at the marketing suite, which is housed within the old electricity showrooms building on the left as you face the town hall, and they talked me through what's happening with the 1930s buildings and, after studying a marvellous 3D map of the area (ooh don't you just love a scale model?!), we went for a nose about at the new builds at the rear, accessible via Weston Park.

A collection of residential blocks is being constructed, each named after the architects and sculptors who designed the Town Hall and the gas and electricy showrooms. This space had orginally beein designed for car parking and tradesmen but over the past few decades had become a wasteland littlered with broken deckchairs and the like. 

I was shown a 2-bed flat and a one-bed flat and they are lovely. In fact, if I didn't have so much stuff, such as books, furniture and other guff, I would be rather tempted to move there myself. I only took one pic from the lounge of the 2-bed flat, which faces the town hall, see below

As regards the town hall building itself, I am told it's being renovated to a high standard; cleaning up and restoring the existing parts as much as possible, and replacing with like-for-like where necessary. For instance, the metal window frames throughout have been stripped back and repainted and the glass within them replaced. It's looking great and I can't wait to see the end result. I will be going back for another visit once the construction company says it's safe to do so.

Find out more about Uren's municipal buildings and Arthur Ayres' sculptural pieced here.  

Some of my cards and prints feature Crouch End – a guided walk visiting many of the places in the photographed, plus lots of other interesting items of inderest, will be available soon – pleaese keep an eye on my walking tours here.

1 February 2022

Reveal of old Wills's tobacconist sign in Hornsey Road, N19

Earlier this year, as I was exiting the Post Office at Hornsey Road, I spotted a lovely old shop fascia across the road at No.526, advertising Wills's Gold Flake.

I crossed the street to take a closer look. It's in fantastic condition, so I wondered if it was an old sign that has simply been protected by subsequent layers or a modern pastiche. I took some snaps with the idea to do a bit of sleuthing.

Passing again a few weeks later, the door was open and I saw a fella working inside. He came out to chat to me and told me that he/they had found the sign under the modern one here whilst pulling apart the layers of adaptions during renovations and they fully intend to keep the sign. How lovely. We talked about the tobacco brand and how lovely the sign was but I completely forgot to ask his mname or enquire what kind of shop this will be. I will update this when I do know.

So who/what was A&R?  This could be the name of the people at this location, or a chain/franchise. The old street directories show that this was a greengrocer's shop in the early part of the C20th, run by Daniel Arthur Colby until 1914. The shop was ten empty for some time during WWI because nothing is listed for the period 1915-19 and I have no refernece beyond that. But I suspect the shop became a tobacconist in the mid-1920s. I can confirm, however, that by 1939 it is the business Mr. Herbert John Ranson who could quite possibly be the 'R' of A&R.

It's great to see this area of N19 finally evolving. As someone who has lived near here for over 30 years I have seen the shops become neglected in this island twixt Archway, Crouch End, Finsbury Park and Holloway. Hence there are quite a few interesting old bits of signage to be found herea and it's great to see so many new finds being preserved. For instance, across the road from this Wills's sign there is the old Hancock/Plumb butcher's shop that I have written about here. Further down the hill, south of Hanley Road, there is this old grocer's sign advertising tea at the rear as well as many more hints of the past here.