When a ghost sign comes back to life

The above shows how the side of locksmith and safemaker John Tann’s house might have looked in 1890, when a huge piece of typography was originally commissioned to advertise his company. Along with the building, this ‘ghost sign’ – which has been neglected for decades – has now also been restored

Photograph by Katie Hall

The above shows how the side of locksmith and safemaker John Tann’s house might have looked in 1890, when a huge piece of typography was originally commissioned to advertise his company. Along with the building, this ‘ghost sign‘ – which has been neglected for decades – has now also been restored…

Yesterday, Katie Hall, a Hackney resident and marketing manager at Faber, tweeted the above image of the restored gable end of the handsome building on the corner of Treadway Street as it meets Hackney Road in east London. (CR saw the image on a retweet by HarperCollins’ senior cover designer, Stuart Bache.)

Design studio Crispin Finn then followed up with a ‘before’ shot, which showed the building’s lettering in a terrible condition (below). It has, according to numerous postings online, been in a bad state for years.

It may also have garnered something of a fanbase across the pond, too. Last year, design critic Alice Rawthorn wrote an article for the New York Times about the threat to ghost signs from redevelopment. The John Tann example was a personal favourite of hers that, at the time, was in the process of being worked on by builders.

Contemplating that it might not be around for much longer, Rawsthorn summed up her worries concerning the building’s renovation and the threat to its various signage:

“The only reason they are still there is because the building has been neglected for so long, and was not deemed to be worth repairing or rebuilding until recently. Yet if the signs are removed, the neighborhood will be the poorer, having lost part of its character and some poignant symbols of its history.”

Thankfully, it would now appear that the signage found a saviour.

Photograph by Crispin Finn

According to a history of the company at safeman.org.uk, while John Tann took the family business on in 1845 it had originally been founded in 1790 by Edward Tann.

“By 1814, with his first son Edward (b.1783), they occupied a manufactory at 1 Hope Street, Hackney, then called Harvey Street and subsequently renamed Treadway Street in 1881. The family residence was in the adjacent building at number 2 Minerva Terrace, a section of Hackney Road. The advertisement incised in the gable facing Hope Street (below) dates around 1890.” John Tann Ltd was in existence until 1965 when it was acquired first by the Clayton Dewandre company and then the Stratford Safe Company.

That the text on the side of 2 Minerva Terrace has lasted that long is remarkable in itself – perhaps the fact that the letters are cut into the building, rather than painted onto it, has added to its longevity.

Either way it’s encouraging to see such an effort to preserve a unique part of London’s lettering history. And, by the looks of it, whoever has brought the letters back to life has also repaired the clock.

For more information on Ghost Signs, visit Sam Roberts’ excellent blog, ghostsigns.co.uk.

UPDATE: In fact, Sam has just been in touch via the comments below to point out that while the restorations to the side of house are to be celebrated, it seems as though another ghost sign rendered on the front of the property wasn’t so lucky. On Street View, the detail of what was presumably a larger sign – “To all responsible persons”? – can be seen (the pictures were taken by Google in 2012 – screengrabs by me).


Google Street View showing the premises as a building site in June 2012

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