London’s Oldest Street Signs

I’ve written about some of the most curious London street names before (here and here) but over the years of walking and exploring London I’ve also spotted some incredibly old street signs, some dating back to the 17th century!

London's Oldest Street  Signs | Look Up London

History of London Street Signs

It seems such an obvious necessity for a city today, but signs showing a street’s name took a while to come into force.

Regulations on signage seem to start with one of our dearest institutions, the pub!

From 1389, alehouses had to hang a sign outside their property to signal that beer was for sale. Shops soon followed suit and erected huge, eye-catching, hanging signs to advertise their businesses. 

This all changed in the wake of the 1666 Great Fire of London and in the aftermath sweeping rebuilding laws gradually ‘modernised’ the City. Overhanging buildings were torn down, streets were widened and from 1762 London and Westminster ordered that cumbersome, hanging shop signs were to be affixed to walls rather than dangle overhead.

Hanging Signs Lombard Street
Lombard Street’s Hanging Signs give you some idea of this history today.

Later in the 18th century stricter laws enforcing street names and house numbers attempted to organise a sprawling city but because there wasn’t ever fixed regulations on what street signs should look like, there’s huge variety in their appearance today. 

I’ve collected 10 examples of the oldest surviving street signs in London and each have their own fascinating story.

Sclater Street, E1 (1798)

London's Oldest Street Signs - Sclater Street | Look Up London

Sclater street sat within a chunk of land known as the Red Cow Estate. The house known as the Red Cow was demolished 1682 and it became known as Slaughter’s Estate.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Sclater Street | Look Up London

The street was completed by 1711 and then paved by 1723 and its ornate street sign seems to convey a desirable new row of residential houses.

It seems that the name gradually morphed into Sclater (pronounced with a soft ‘c’ this makes more sense!)

Curiously on R. Horwood map it’s shown as Slaughter Street in 1799.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org – R. Horwood 1799

But on this earlier map from 1746 its shown as sclater, perhaps they were just different spellings of the same pronunciation.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org – John Rocque 1746

Baynes Street, E1 (1746) 

Set within the wall of the now-derelict Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a fairly illegible old sign which I believe says “This is Baynes Street 1746”

London's Oldest Street Signs - Baynes Street | Look Up London

Today it’s on Fieldgate Street just as it turns into Plumbers Row, but Baynes refers to Edward Baynes the former landowner in the mid 18th century.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Baynes Street | Look Up London

Pear Tree Street, EC1 (1725)

Pear Tree Street can be seen on the John Rocque map of 1746 where there are indeed clusters of fields (and presumably pear trees) surrounding the area.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org – John Rocque 1746

It’s a very different landscape today.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Pear Tree Street | Look Up London

But look up and you can spy the old street sign fitted into the new building.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Pear Tree Street | Look Up London

Across London, behind Westminster Abbey, there is a cluster of far more atmospheric 18th century residential backstreets to wander through (I included them in my Westminster walk in my guide book!)

It’s within this lovely conservation area that you can spy three old street signs nearby.

Smith’s Square, SW1 (1726)

Smith square surrounds the former church of St John’s, built between 1714 to 1728 but now a concert venue.  

London's Oldest Street Signs - Smith's Street | Look Up London

The square is named after its developer, Sir John Smith, and was laid out in 1726. These two houses, 3-5 are grade II* listed along with the sign and the attractive wrought iron lamp bracket.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Smith's Street | Look Up London

 Just around the corner is Cowley Street. 

Cowley Street 1722

London's Oldest Street Signs - Cowley Street | Look Up London

Technically this sign is set into 6 Barton Street, another grade II* listed home built c.1722 but with 19th century amendments. Again there’s a wonderful lamp bracket hanging off the corner.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Cowley Street | Look Up London

A short walk away is Marsham Street but the 18th century enclave is no more. 

Marsham Street, SW1 (1688)

In its place is the 2003 government building which is partly occupied by the Home Office.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Marsham Street | Look Up London

However, look closer and set within its wall is a reminder of a much earlier Marsham Street

London's Oldest Street Signs - Marsham Street | Look Up London

You can appreciate how much has changed when looking at the John Rocque map of 1746. Back then Marsham Street sat alongside a lovely orchard!

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org – John Rocque 1746

Johns Street, W1 (1685)

Just off Soho’s Golden Square on Lower John Street is a roughly carved street sign proclaiming “This is Johns Street Ano Dom 1685”. 

London's Oldest Street Signs - Johns Street | Look Up London

It’s set into the side entrance of 19 Golden Square which was built in the early 20th century and is only listed thanks to this very old sign.

Image credit: Google Street View (with sign circled in yellow)

Next door is a property dating from the original street layout and built 1685 (but much altered). It’s the smaller white building on the right seen above and is also listed.

Chigwell Street, E1 (1678)

The Old Rose pub was built in the early 19th century with the first registered landlord mentioned in 1806.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Chigwell Street | Look Up London

But far older is this street sign embedded in the corner of the facade.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Chigwell Street | Look Up London

The pub stands on the corner of Chigwell Hill and the Highway and the earliest map I can find referencing ‘Chigwell’ is Chigwell Hill on the John Rocque 1746 one (the pub’s location is circled in yellow).

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org – John Rocque 1746

The London Picture Archive has a painting of Chigwell Hill in 1881 looking North towards the Highway and the lamp of the pub can be seen on the far left hand side.

The pub closed in 2011 and I would guess it’s now being converted into flats. It’s not listed so here’s hoping this very old street sign survives. You can read more about the pub’s history here.

James Street, WC2H (1673)

Back in Westminster there’s a very ornate surviving street sign on today’s Orange Street which records that the original name was James Street and it was laid out in 1673.

London's Oldest Street Signs - James Street | Look Up London

I’ve written all about the history on Orange Street in this blog.

And finally we get to the oldest street sign in London…

Yorke Street, WC2E (1636)

At 34-38 Tavistock Street in Covent Garden you can find a Grade II listed terrace built c.1733.

London's Oldest Street Signs - Yorke Street | Look Up London

But set high above no.s 34-36 is a much older remnant, “Yorke Street 1636”. 

London's Oldest Street Signs - Yorke Street | Look Up London

The street was laid out in the mid 1630s and took the name after the young Duke of York (future King James II) who was born in 1633.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org – William Morgan 1682

It was renamed Tavistock street in 1937. A name from one of the titles held by the Dukes of Bedford who owned most of Covent Garden until the early 20th century.

Have you spotted any others?

Personally I found it surprising that none of the oldest street signs are in the oldest part of London, the Square Mile. Perhaps because the City of London Corporation more rigorously enforces visible signage so they are replaced too often to survive?


Related Blog Post

If you’re on the look out for more of London’s oldest things, I have YouTube videos about London’s oldest shops, houses and pubs

But you might also enjoy this blog about London’s oldest terraced houses

Newington Green

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