Thursday, 29 October 2009

Velosolex, Montrichard

October 29. Eighty years ago Wall Street crashed, marking the beginning of the Great Depression... Since the UK hasn't come out of recession yet, maybe I should try to find something a bit more cheerful...
1390: first trial for withcraft in Paris. Among the accused, Jeanne de Brigue was sentenced to be burnt at the stake... Maybe a bit too gruesome and I don't think I've got any painted sign for barbecues. Let's try something else...
1618: Sir Walter Raleigh is beheaded. Not really cheerful either but at least, Raleigh had a castle in Sherborne, and I've got a couple of pictures of nice mosaics from there. Still, let's check if I can't find anything else...
Ah! Here we go: 1959, Asterix first appeared in the comic magazine Pilote! To be honest, I always preferred Tintin to Asterix but I still enjoyed some of the adventures of the little cunning Gaul, who for better or for worse, has become a symbol of France.
Of course I don't have any painted sign with Asterix, but I've got one of a highly symbolic French product of the second half of the twentieth century, and like Asterix its name ends with an X: the VéloSoleX ! I know, the link is tenuous at best but I don't have much time today, so that will have to do.
The VéloSoleX, or SoleX as it was commonly called, was a moped with a two-stroke motor placed above the front wheel and a maximum speed of around 30-35 km/h. Originally a roller drove the front wheel, but it was replaced later by a cardan joint. Produced in France between 1946 and 1988, it sold more than seven millions. For decades those little black (different colour schemes were introduced later) mopeds became a common sight around high schools, university campuses, and factories. Sometimes one would also turn up in the middle of the countryside, to Mr Bean's delight. Thanks to the simplicity of its design, production costs and consequently retail prices were kept relatively low. In the 1960s a SoleX only cost twice as much as a simple bicycle. Additionally their consumption was limited. They ran on petrol and oil for two-stroke motors, a mixture that ended clogging up the motor. However to avoid cleaning the motor every 4,000 km or so, users could buy the ready-made mixture Solexine sold by BP. To start the engine, one had either to pedal or to push. Since there was no electrical switch, one had to use the decompressor to stop the motor.
I once rode on a friend of mine's SoleX but after 20 metres decided I preferred the good old bicycle I had inherited from one of my mum's uncles.

Sadly most of this sign has disappeared, but one can still clearly read VéloSoleX on it. Actually there is more than just the moped brand to it, but since I've got to check a few things for a day-long course for this coming Saturday, I'll come back to it at a later date.

Location: Rue du Pont, Montrichard, Loir-et-Cher / Picture taken on: 29/05/2009

Monday, 26 October 2009

Auctioneers, Forest Hill

Almost everytime I step into a bus I wonder whether to get my book out or to look out through the window? In most cases the book wins, especially if I know the route well. However from time to time I'll go for a whole day to some part of London I don't know yet, or am not familiar with, and then my head will be moving in all directions not to miss anything I could find interesting, from attractive buildings to unusual sculptures, street art pieces to decaying houses, mosaics to painted signs, and more...
After taking some pictures earlier this year in the New Cross, Greenwich, Lewisham, Catford and Forest Hill areas, my feet were getting a bit tired and I decided it was time for a bus ride to rest a bit. Of course I waited for ages. Then a bus finally arrived. However soon after we passed the first bus stop along the way, I spotted the ghost sign below and made a dash for the bell. I got off, took my pictures, and was making my way back to the bus stop when the next two whizzed passed me! Faced with another lengthy wait I opted to walk. Before I realized, I was in Nunhead then in Peckham. With all the detours I must have walked almost 30 km that day but it had been well worth it!
So, what was this particular sign for? According to many polls, for one of the most distrusted professions in the kingdom...

House, Land &
Estate Agents.
Valuers &
Survey House

Unfortunately the part immediately below the dark horizontal line isn't very legible: only a few letters emerge here and there but nothing I can really decipher. It looks as if one line of text with a larger typeface could have heen painted over two lines. Maybe I should go back when the sun is at a different angle.

Location: Brockley Rise / Picture taken on: 23/07/2009

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Midland Bank, New Cross

Mervyn King's very good speech in Edinburgh calling for a reform of the banking sector was the perfect opportunity I was waiting for to post a painted sign signalling to the passing public the local branch of one of Britain's Big Four. And this sign isn't for any bank but the one where I opened my first account in the UK (although that was up north and not in New Cross), when I came as an Erasmus student in 1993: the Midland Bank. Even though HSBC Holdings had acquired full ownership of the Midland in 1992, the golden griffin surrounded by a circle of golden dots on a dark blue background still adorned my first chequebooks, statements, cards, etc. A few years later Midland adopted the HSBC logo and colours in place of its griffin. Then in 1999 the name itself was dropped and replaced by HSBC.

The origins of the Midland Bank date back to 1836. It was the brainchild of Charles Geach, a former clerck at the Bank of England's Birmingham branch, who obtained the support of prominent merchants and manufacturers from the city. Through acquisitions and mergers, and the opening of new branches across the UK, the Midland rapidly became one of the country's leading banks. In their book A Guide to Banking in Britain, Robert Pringle and Robin Pringle give a short history of the Midland Bank, pages 53-56.


This sign was painted on the side of the New Cross branch of the bank and would have been visible by anyone going westward along the area's main thoroughfare. The neoclassical building, dated 1903, was certainly designed by the firm of Gotch and Saunders. The Midland closed this branch in the early 1980s and the building, which is grade II listed, stood empty for more than 25 years. It is currently being restored and converted into a bar / music venue.

Location: New Cross Road / Picture taken on: 23/07/2009

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Wood and coal merchant, and guesthouse, Stralsund

Autumn has definitely arrived: everywhere trees are turning from green to glorious yellows and reds, and temperatures are dropping. To stay warm (and cook), most people in the western world rely these days on gas and electricity, but there was a time when wood or coal were the only sources of heat, and for many around the world still are.
In the former German Democratic Republic, shortages and the presence of a large coal industry meant the switch to gas was limited to new blocks of flats and a few new houses. Until very recently large ceramic stoves were a common sight in the main rooms of older houses (and a pain for their inhabitants). Thus coal merchants continued to trade well after their counterparts in other parts of western Europe had gone out of business, and it is still possible to find here and there traces of their activity. Earlier this year my in-laws took us for a week on the island of Rügen on the Baltic Sea. From there we went one day to the beautiful Hanseatic city of Stralsund, where in one of the few streets of the centre still to be renovated, I discovered this little gem of a coal merchant.

Several houses in this street still had signs painted above their doors or windows but none of them could compare with this one at Frankenstraße 29.

The main sign above the door would have read:
Holz- und Kolhlenhandlung Paul Schröder
[Paul Schröder Wood and Coal Merchant]
How do I know this? Well, you'll discover how further below, but first let's look at the other painted signs...

Indeed a closer look at the entrance shows another sign, painted on wood this time, for a guesthouse or boarding house.

Actually the name of the guesthouse, "Zum Frankenwall", was painted on both sides of the entrance, on the lower part of the facade. Not necessarily the most noticeable place, but maybe they only accepted long-term lodgers and didn't really need to be spotted by more casual visitors to the city.

The name of the guesthouse refers to the street that runs behind the house, where the city wall once stood. "Frankenwall" comes from Vranko or Franken, a family of wealthy city merchants who gave its name to several streets of Stralsund, and "Wall" or "ramparts". Until the mid-19th century Frankenwall street was called Frankenmauer, although following the demolition of the city walls the names of Wallstraße and Am Wall were also used. Then in 1869 it was changed to Frankenwallstraße, before being shortened at some point between 1956 and 1971 to Frankenwall. Thus even if there may already have been a guesthouse, the two signs date from the GDR period.

Finally here is how I could tell what was written above the door.

On both sides of the door were these unusual signs with a hand rising out of the ground and holding a coal brick. On the coal brick itself are the logo (an anchor with a rope wrapped around it) and name ("Anker", which means, you'll have guessed it... "Anchor") of the company that manufactured it.
The name of the guesthouse, "Zum Frankenwall", is painted below this sign but is now barely visible.

I can only hope that whoever restores the house will keep those signs, as some have done in other parts of the city.

Location: Frankenstraße, Stralsund, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany / All pictures taken on: 05/05/2009

Monday, 19 October 2009

Money advance, Hounslow; Old gold bought, Dulwich; and Perry & Sons, Tooting

I've been neglecting this blog a bit lately so to compensate, today's posting features several painted signs.

Last week the expenses scandal came to haunt MPs again. With the leaders of the main parties insisting that those seeking reelection would have to pay some money back, I thought I should give those who struggle to raise the funds they may have to repay a couple of addresses where they may get some help. I don't guarantee they're still open.

The first address isn't too far from the constituency of the right honourable gentleman whose name sounds a bit like an English county. Being accused of using around £100,000 of public money to fund his own research company, he may find repaying the total sum tricky. However since he has now annouced he would stand down at the next election, he may not need to repay it at all...

Jewellery / To Any Amount

Even if he decides or is obliged to repay part of that large sum, he may drive past this sign without noticing it as it is largely obscured by an evergreen tree growing a couple of meters from the wall. A close view reveals that the upper and lower parts were used twice ("/" indicates ovelapping text written at the same level)

Location: Staines Road / Picture taken on: 19/07/2008

If Hounslow if a bit far for some MPs, here are another couple of places closer to Westminster where they could trade in their goods for some cash.


Old Gold

The right-hand part of this sign covers an earlier one. Part of it can still be seen:
Special Low Rate
Over £2.00

Since the price of gold has been going up lately, those who enter the premises will undoubtedly be given a better deal than the then chancellor, who decided to sell part of the country's gold reserves back in 1999-2002 at a time when the precious metal was at a 20-year low.

Location: Lordship Lane / Picure taken on: 24/08/2009

Finally for those MPs in need of cash but who don't have much gold or jewels, there is Perry & Sons. This may not be obvious from the picture below but they do accept a much wider range of goods and valuables. Indeed for a while I wondered what the words hidden from the street level could be, but then one day traffic was horribly slow so I hopped on a double-decker bus, and had enough time to read this sign before getting off one stop further. Actually not many people may have ever been able to see it in full. On a 1904 picture of the High Street (and the sign can't be much older) it is already partly hidden by the pediment of the building next door. The latter was demolished at some point but the Art Deco building that replaced it wasn't low enough either...

Money Lent
To Any Amount
Diamonds, Precious Stones
Miniatures. Works of Art
Furniture &

Perry & Sons
Gold & Silver
Second-hand Furniture

Location: Tooting High Street / Picture taken on: 11/04/2008

Monday, 12 October 2009

John Brown's Whiskies, Stoke Newington

When I met some friends in a pub after one of my lectures and told them I had just been discussing with my students, among many other issues, the territorial loss of Bolivia following its defeat in the 1932-35 Chaco War, the conversation drifted immediately towards the adventures of Tintin... Indeed there are several references to that terrible war in The Broken Ear. From there we went through the international events which influenced Hergé, from the Mukden Incident in The Blue Lotus to the Cold War in The Calculus Affair, and so on... (after all my three companions that evening were all history teachers at the Lycée français) Then as one of us mentioned Land of the Black Gold, we discussed the different versions that exist of several Tintin books. That finally led us to The Shooting Star, a comic book that was partly redrawn after the war, and ends dramatically, when Captain Haddock collapses. As serving president of the Society for Sober Sailors, he had been invited to give a radio talk on the dangers of alcoholism but collapsed after drinking water instead of... whisky! In several other books we learn that his favourite brand was Loch Lomond, but who knows, maybe the Captain would have appreciated a sip of John Brown's as well? What a twisted way to introduce today's painted sign!!!

Unfortunately a quick look on the web doesn't reveal much about John Brown's whiskies apart from the fact that they ran an advert campaign in the late Victorian era. It is mentioned somewhere that the company's name could be connected with Queen Victoria's servant, something I find hard to believe. After all there is certainly no lack of John Brown in Scotland...

Good Judges

Location: Cazenove Road / Picture taken on: 10/04/2008

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Farwell, Weymouth

Earlier this year, inspired maybe by my recent reading of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and convinced by the special weekend offers of South West Trains, we decided to go for a walk along the South West Coast Path, from Weymouth to Abbotsbury. As the train approached its final destination I noticed a lovely Victorian or Edwardian frontage of what was certainly a butcher's shop, and almost next to it, this doorstep mosaic. The current state of the building doesn't do justice to the elegant lettering but at least it has survived. Let's hope it will still be with us for a long time.

Location: Ranelagh Road, Weymouth / Picture taken on: 08/08/2009

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Floor coverings, Borough

Painted signs not only appear from behind billboards, but, more sadly, they also vanish, sometimes for good when buildings are demolished or façades are given a new coat of paint.
True, the façade below looked a bit scruffy when I passed there in spring 2008 and the sign wasn't in a very good state. Since then the whole building has been thoroughly "restored" (I think it is now a restaurant or cafe of some sort) and several layers of paint have been applied onto the façade. As a result the sign has been lost forever and part of the commercial history of this area erased.

Given the state of the sign it took me a while to decipher it. It even looks as if there are two signs, possibly for the same business.

Floor Coverings
[Retailer & ?] Wholesaler

Location: Tabard Street / Picture taken on: 10/04/2008

Monday, 5 October 2009

Therm House, Wandsworth

Not much of a story behind today's painted sign, what suits me well as I have many things to do... The logo is quite interesting: a flower, with one petal ending with a flame.

Correction: I clearly got it wrong! This is not a flower but Mr Therm. See Wellwynder's comment for the proper description.

Therm House
Up To Date
With Gas

Location: Ram Street / Picture taken on: 04/04/2008

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Temperance Permanent Building Society, Richmond and Lewisham

With the holidays in China and the extra work that goes with the beginning of a new academic year now behind, it's time to bring this blog back to life.

China was full of painted signs, especially in rural areas. My guess is that most of them, and virtually all the older ones given the nature of the regime and its past policies, were of a political nature but in the south I came across plenty of large ads for China Mobile, one of the country's mobile phone providers (easy to recognize: the company's name was written in English), and several for a couple of building companies. Unfortunately I saw most of them while travelling by bus and couldn't take all the pictures I would have liked. Still, I came back with some but before posting them I'll ask my Chinese colleagues from the languages department if they don't mind translating a few for me.

Unfortunately on the day I flew back home clouds were low and the only thing we could see before landing at Heathrow were streets after streets of 1920s-30s houses. That reminded me of the painted ads for the Temperance Building Society, which feature such a typical suburban house.
I came across the sign in Richmond in February. It had certainly been hidden by a billboard for some time, and that would explain why one part is so well preserved while the rest has disappeared. It would also explain why I hadn't noticed it ealier as I pass there quite often. Even though only part of the name is visible, a quick search on the net pointed to it being for the Temperance Permanent Building Society, one of many building societies that appeared in the 1830s-40s. As the name suggests it adhered to the principles of the temperance movement, and its directors were required to sign The Pledge on a yearly basis. This was confirmed a few months later when I spotted another, this time complete, sign in Lewisham. Its incredibly good state is due to the fact that since 1933 it had been almost completely hidden by the building of the former Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society! On the picture, I have slightly brightened the sign while leaving the rest unchanged (you can click to enlarge it).

Choose Your House
And The

A suburban dream...

Location: Sheen Road / Both pictures taken on: 17/02/2009

Choose Your House
And The
Building Society
4 Ludgate Hill EC4
Will Help You
To Buy It

Location: Lewisham High Street / Picture taken on: 23/07/2009

In 1974 the Temperance Permanent Building Society merged with the Bedforshire Building Society to form the Gateway Building Society. In 1988 the latter was bought by the Woolwich. The requirement to sign The Pledge was dropped at the time of the merger with the BBS.