It is surprising that this book hasn’t been written before, but we’re lucky that Alistair Hall noticed this and took corrective action. While the subject of London’s street signs may seems banal, it is actually riddled with fascinating stories, themes, and learning that can be taken from them. And that’s before the visual stimulation they provide when considered en masse, as Hall does in this new book, ‘London Street Signs: A visual history of London’s street nameplates‘.

The book is the result of three years of wandering London (fittingly defined as the extent of the city’s postcodes) to photograph, categorise, and research these innocuous little placemarkers that would be sorely missed if they were to disappear overnight. Having followed the evolution of the project via Hall’s dedicated Instagram, his 2018 talk at St Bride, and participation in the NE Signs Scavenger Hunt, it was wonderful to read the final book cover to cover when it arrived this summer.

The book is structured into themed chapters, each with an introductory text followed by a series of illustrations that are richly annotated with supporting material from Hall’s research. Those familiar with Alan Bartram’s books (e.g. Fascia Lettering in the British Isles) will recognise this style of work, and the format works well to direct the reader’s eyes towards features of the signs that may not be noticed on first sight, or that need explaining—it serves as a guided tour through the subject matter. Examples include bilingual signs, remnants of defunct London boroughs, artist-produced ceramic signs, lost and substituted letters, and even a (perhaps unique?) giant neon street sign in Brixton.

Like other types of signage, the topic of London’s street signs can be approached from a number of perspectives, including city/local history, placemaking, architecture, manufacturing, craft, and of course lettering, typography and graphic design. What Hall does so well in the book is to provide sufficient depth to satisfy each of these audiences, while at the same time introducing them to aspects of these signs that fascinate others. Insights into the evolution of alphabets used for street signs sit comfortably alongside discussions of manufacturing and regulation. In all of this Hall maintains a critical eye and his writing conveys the depth of research that he has undertaken to complete the project. I wonder how much more, equally fascinating, material was left on the cutting floor!

There is no doubt that ‘London Street Signs‘ is, and will remain, the definitive work on this very niche topic. However, it also provides a structure within which to consider street signs in locations elsewhere, and to begin your own, now-better-informed, explorations. Hall has created a seminal work which will sit proudly in any library.

London Street Signs: A visual history of London’s street nameplates‘ (ISBN 9781849946216) by Alistair Hall is published in hardback by Batsford. Find buying links here, and we recommend ordering from a local bookshop where possible (find one in the UK or USA).

The following photos are captioned with Hall’s annotations from the book.

“Holly Hill, NW3. A shortage of ‘E’s here means that two ‘F’s have been used instead on the direction to West Heath Road. The overall setting suggests that the ‘3’ was added to the postal district at a later date.”

Pages 60–61 which open the section on Hampstead’s Tiles Nameplates.

“Benham’s Place 1813. A fine cornerstone on a terrace of nine Grade II listed houses in Hampstead, just off Holly Walk. A rather curious combination of roman and italic. William Benham was a grocer and cheesemonger on Hampstead High Street.”

Contents of London Street Signs by Alistair Hall.

“Martello Street E8, formerly Tower Street N.E. The top sign dates from between 1938 (when the street was renamed) and 1965 (when the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney ceased to exist). The lower sign features the N.E. postal district which was officially merged into the E. district in 1866.”

Pages 124–5 from the chapter discussing the Ministry of Transport alphabets, here showing the Standard and Compressed forms.

“Railway Cottages NW10. This street and its houses were built in 1889 by the London and North Western Railway for its employees. Acton became an Urban District in 1894, a Municipal Borough in 1921, and then became part of the London Borough of Ealing in 1965.”

Pages 30–1 from the chapter on Hand-Painted Street Names.

“Berners Place W1. Multiple layers of history. An unusual italic ‘W’ is visible on the uppermost sign.”

Pages 106–7 from the chapter on Blue Enamel Nameplates.

“Wardour Mews W1. Part of the ‘U’ and the whole of the ‘R’ have been lost but some enterprising soul has attempted to fix things up with a little paint.”