What is it about Ministry of Works signage that motivates so many people to share images via social media? Partly it is just the fact of their survival, as reminders of a simpler age of heritage tourism before the era of virtual reality and QR codes.
Many of the signs were made by the Royal Label Factory. Founded in 1874, and then based in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire (now in Buxton, Derbyshire), the company boomed in the 1930s, supplying road signs and fingerposts for the UK’s growing road network, and again in the 1950s as road signs melted down in the war were replaced with new versions.
Each sign is a unique production involving the carving by hand of a ‘pattern’ in clay or wood, which is then pressed into a two-part mould (one for the front and one for the back of the sign) filled with a moist mixture of sand and clay. This holds the impression made by the pattern as the sand dries and hardens. Next, the two parts of the mould are brought together and molten metal is poured into the cavity.
Once cooled, the sign is removed from the mould for fettling – something that Rambling Syd Rumpo, the earthy character played by Kenneth Williams in the BBC Radio comedy series Round the Horne, managed to turn into a suggestive double entendre, though it just means removing flaws, excess metal, and sharp edges before the sign is hand-painted ready for use. All of this requires considerably more skill than today’s computer-generated and laser-printed signs, so these ‘good old-fashioned heritage signs’ can be considered examples of traditional craft.
Signage aficionados enjoy the antiquated pedantry of the language and punctuation (and take quiet pleasure in spotting inconsistencies: why does some signage text end with a full stop and some not?). Occasionally signs are almost poetic in their promise of ‘Sculptured stones within’ or the offer of a path ‘To further stones’. There is humorous ambiguity in the hypocaust sign that says ‘Hot air circulated behind these flags’, while ‘French prison’ conjures up all sorts of thoughts. How long will it be, one wonders, before Historic England, the successor body to the Ministry of Works, decides to list one or more of its own signs as a monument in its own right?
Further information: www.facebook.com/groups/310370669128105; David Gill’s and Ian Baxter’s Heritage Futures blog site (https://heritagefutures.wordpress.com/tag/signage) also has signage pictures and informative commentary.
Is there a society that you would like to see profiled? Write to email@example.com