diamond geezer

 Wednesday, February 22, 2017

3 Holborn/Finsbury/Shoreditch
From a modern perspective, this is the weirdest Greater London borough proposed by the Herbert Commission in 1960. It would have combined three small existing boroughs to create a long thin inner city strip, a concentrated mix of commerce and deprivation running from Tottenham Court Road to almost Dalston. Heaven knows what they'd have called it, but proposals never got to that stage and it was merely Borough Number 3 on the commission's list.

Instead Holborn became part of Camden, Finsbury joined up with Islington, and Shoreditch ended up in Hackney, helping to create three larger boroughs with a much better residential balance. But for my post today I thought I'd try tracking down places where these three extinct boroughs linger on in the public realm, specifically on street signs. For sake of argument I followed the route of the number 243 bus, which runs for three miles between Kingsway and Haggerston without ever straying outside this peculiarly-shaped borough. And I kept my eyes peeled for every old street sign I could spot... that's on foot, rather than from the upper deck.

My walk started on Kingsway, at the borough boundary, which is roughly where the underpass ends. And, bingo!

The first sign's on the first street corner, at Sardinia Street, the middle two are from consecutive sideroads on the western side, and the third is alongside the exit from Holborn station. Aren't they beauties? In the first sign I love the big bold sweep of KINGSWAY, and the quirky raised bar on the H in Holborn. But I also love how there are already three subtly different styles of layout and of typeface, not to mention the way the postcodes are sometimes italicised and sometimes not. I'm trying to work out which is the oldest of the three formats, and failing, but I do know each of these survivors must be over 50 years old.

Head up to Theobald's Road and the Borough of Holborn signs come thick and fast. I really wasn't expecting there to be quite so many, but here they are, still pinned up at the ends of several sidestreets. On the northern side of Theobald's Road there are only a handful of places where the pre-1965 signs have been replaced, Lambs Conduit Street being a notable exception, but the other signs display the name of the long-lost borough as if it were still running the show. What's more the design has changed again, this being a more modern take than we saw along Kingsway, considerably more plain and with less of a flourish. Emerald Street is the exception here, possibly my favourite of all the signs I saw along my journey, with a compact elegance that truly appeals.

And then this happens.

I don't know what was going on the Works Department at Holborn Town Hall, but the cluster of signs to the east of Gray's Inn Road has yet another different design. These too are lovely, especially the text across the top in red, with a clarity and sharpness still evident even five decades later. My apologies that I had to photograph Hatton Garden from the side because there's a big tree in front. But these are the kinds of street sign people pay good money for on eBay, even if only reproductions, to make a feature of in their garden or to hang on a pub wall.

Once across Farringdon Road the borough changes from Camden to Islington, as it would have changed from Holborn to Finsbury. It doesn't take long to spot the first evidence for this.

The red's faded a bit, and the postcode isn't in the corner, but this Clerkenwell Road street sign has similarities to the second batch I saw back in Holborn.

For the next few hundred metres approximately half the possible sidestreets have a heritage sign, generally written on two lines, reducing the length of the sign and fattening it up a bit. Old Street's an exception, perhaps because it has a really short name, but there remains a consistency of layout not seen in the previous borough. It seems the Borough of Finsbury stuck very much to one particular house style, and the modern Borough of Islington hasn't diverted much from its inherited template. To show you what I mean, this link leads to a couple of post-1965 Islington street signs (and, for further comparison, this link does the same for Camden).

But suddenly the old signs along Old Street peter out, and all those on view refer only to the modern borough. This switches again at the Old Street roundabout, now from Islington to Hackney, but any evidence of early street signs remains very thin on the ground. I think this is because a lot of the buildings around Silicon Roundabout have been replaced, as you might expect in a more dynamic part of town, and a wall has to be at least 52 years old to retain evidence of a former borough.

It took until the top of Great Eastern Street for me to spot my first Shoreditch street sign, and then only just. The object of my search lay part-hidden behind scaffolding on the corner of Singer Street (with a bog standard Hackney sign on the adjacent wall). The artist Camille Walala left this small rectangle intact when she painted the rest of the building in bright colours back in 2015, so let's hope it survives whatever work is underway at present, because it turns out there's little other evidence of the former borough ahead.

I walked the next mile without seeing another mention of the Borough of Shoreditch. It seems that most of the street signs they erected never included the name of the borough, only the name of the street, so even if any had survived I wouldn't be able to tell. What's more the Borough of Hackney has been much more diligent in erasing mention of its former constituent part. A large proportion of Hackney street signs appear on posts at the end of the road, not on the walls of buildings, making them a heck of a lot easier to replace. Indeed by the time I'd walked up most of the Kingsland Road I feared I wouldn't see another.

But just before Shoreditch's northern border, on the approach to Haggerston station, I spotted a second. It was up a minor sideroad called Arbutus Street, on the wall above what looks like it was once a small shop, and looking considerably worse for wear. There's a proper modern Hackney sign on a lamppost at the end of the street, so the old sign is entirely obsolete, but presumably it never needed to be taken down. It lives on as a reminder of a long-gone borough, one of many such reminders across the capital left behind with incorrect information because they'd be too expensive to replace. They linger on, we make do, and London's a richer city as a result.

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