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Meet the man bringing ‘ghost signs’ back to life in Hackney

PUBLISHED: 14:15 16 March 2017 | UPDATED: 17:35 23 March 2017

Sam Roberts in Church Street. Picture: Gloria Soria

Sam Roberts in Church Street. Picture: Gloria Soria

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Sam Roberts has spent years hunting down old adverts painted on Hackney’s buildings. He tells the Gazette about his love for “ghost signs”.

A. Ranwell in Mare Street. Picture: Polly Hancock A. Ranwell in Mare Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

“They’re hidden in plain sight. They are there but until you become conscious of them, you’re ignorant to them.”

Sam Roberts is talking about “ghost signs” – faded advertisements painted on the side of buildings. He’s fascinated by them, and has been since he moved to Lordship Road in Stoke Newington in 2005.

The listed Blooms Piano ghost sign near the Geffrye Museum in Kingsland Road. Picture: Polly Hancock The listed Blooms Piano ghost sign near the Geffrye Museum in Kingsland Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

Back then he would walk or cycle up to Church Street and be confronted with the oldest one in Hackney – a now-listed advert for Waterman’s, which reads “fount pens repaired”.

“I just noticed it and thought it was weird they used to paint advertising,” said the 38-year-old, who then worked in advertising.

A multi-layered sign for Cakebread Robey in Stoke Newington Road. Picture: Polly Hancock A multi-layered sign for Cakebread Robey in Stoke Newington Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

“I loved it. It takes you back to when people could be bothered to get their pens repaired. I started whittling on to my wife, saying: ‘Do you think I should take some photos?’ And she said: ‘Why don’t you just stop going on about this idea and do something about it?’”

Sam now runs two ghost sign tours in London, has published a book about signs in Cambodia and has developed one app – with another on the way – all about them.

The remains of a ghost sign for Leigh's Brown Bread in Chuch Street. Picture: Polly Hancock The remains of a ghost sign for Leigh's Brown Bread in Chuch Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

“She regrets saying it now,” he quipped. “But I became tuned into where they are – I’m glancing around constantly looking for them. People on my tours describe the exact same sensation when they see ones they’ve never noticed.”

Sam began to take it seriously after cycling around, taking photos of all the signs he saw and sending them to family and friends.

John Hawkins Cotton Spinners ghost sign in Manley Court, Stoke Newington. Picture: Polly Hancock John Hawkins Cotton Spinners ghost sign in Manley Court, Stoke Newington. Picture: Polly Hancock

“It was the responses to those emails that really fired me up,” he continued. “Most people had some connection or could say ‘there’s one near me’.”

So he started a blog, and after strangers started getting in touch he decided the work needed an institutional home. He contacted the History of Advertising Trust, which had the biggest archive of adverts in the world – but nothing on ghost signs – and crowd-sourced a project to document all the ones in the UK and Ireland.

John Brown Whiskies in Cazenove Road. Picture: Polly Hancock John Brown Whiskies in Cazenove Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

After two years in Cambodia, where he wrote Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie, he came back in 2013 and had an idea to allow people to see them in person.

“People are constantly looking at them on screens,” he said. “And there’s a qualitative difference between looking on a computer and standing in the street looking at signs, and feeling how you connect with them when you meet them face-to-face.”

Walker Bros in Church Street. Picture: Polly Hancock Walker Bros in Church Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

After a couple of weeks camped in the Hackney local history archives, he was ready to go. People came from far and wide for his tours, and he’s keen to point out that he’s now number 63 in the top tours of London on Trip Advisor.

Tours in south London followed, as did an illuminated night project, which lit up the adverts to show how they used to look.

Player's Tobacco in Homerton. Picture: Polly Hancock Player's Tobacco in Homerton. Picture: Polly Hancock

“There’s discussions about whether they should be repainted or restored in some way,” Sam explained. “I take an agnostic approach on that. I can see why people want to do it, but I’d rather see new signs painted for people to look back at in 60 years.”

Sam’s phone app mapping his Hackney tour is set to launch in the summer. Visit ghostsigns.co.uk.

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