Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Ghost signs (95): George Mence Smith

In Oxford Mews, near Bexley Station, is a large but faded ghost sign headed 'George Mence Smith'. Fading and over-painting have made the rest tricky to read: there are at least two separate signs here. Distinguishable words include 'Italian warehouse ... a large assortment of' Tin Iron ... Bath & Carriage ... &c. &c. &c.' I rather like that final flourish: it nicely conveys a huge assortment of other goods awaiting the customer.

George Mence Smith was an oil and colour merchant who lived at Bexleyheath from 1863. He owned seventy hardware stores selling everything from oil to wallpaper to cutlery, a business which would fit well with the assorted words decipherable here. His shops were found throughout South London, including on Deptford Broadway, as well as on Tottenham Court Road, throughout the South East of England, and around Northampton. Although Mence Smith died in 1896, the shops continued to bear his name until 1944 when they were taken over by Timothy White's.

'Italian warehouse' was painted on the side of his shop in Bexleyheath, too. An eighteenth-century establishment described in this way sold a huge assortment of Italian luxury goods including silks, violin strings and wine, but I'm not sure whether it would have had the same connotations in late-Victorian Bexley. A photograph from Edwardian Hove has the name on a general hardware store which seems to be of a similar type to Mence Smith's.

Mence Smith was also the inventor of the Fearnought Safety Lamp. Lamps were a potential source of danger, since they were liable to catch fire if knocked over. However, advertising for the Fearnought claimed its 'safety element ... is a specially-constructed wick-tube, which possessed the property of preventing the oil from ascending or the heated air descending in the event  of the lamp being upset either hastily or slowly. Moreover, immediately the lamp gets overturned the flame is extinguished'. This must have been a real boon to Victorian homes. 


Ralph Hancock said...

For what it's worth, after putting this picture into an image editing program and playing with brightness, contrast and monochrome, it looks to me like
A Large assortment of Tin Iron
and Woodware Cabriole Legs [and?]
Bath and Carriage Flanges &c. &c.&c.

But the beginning of the second line is a wild guess as there is a lot of other paint in the way. And why people would make cabriole legs out of tinplate, or what kinds of flanges you put on baths and carriages, may be questions that will remain for ever unanswered.

CarolineLD said...

Thank you! You're right about 'woodware' - I'd got as far as 'woodw' but wasn't sure about the next few letters.

'Cabriole'? Tricky, as the middle section is missing, but I think it may actually end in an 's', perhaps 'C...mols' but it's hard to think of a word that would fit!

Could 'flanges' be 'sponges'? Bath sponges makes perfect sense; I hadn't heard of 'carriage sponges' but Google has them!

Ralph Hancock said...

Thanks. I suppose that if you have car sponges now, you had carriage sponges in the 19th century. I googled for them. There is a reference in an alarming erotic scene from James Joyce's Ulysses, which is no proof that anything exists; but also in a remarkable advertisement from a Canadian newspaper of 1899, which offers 'School Sponges, Nursery Sponges ... [and] Carriage Sponges' in qualities 'From Low Grass to Finest Turkey'. 'You are sure to be suited.' This is even stranger than Ulysses.

Ralph Hancock said...

'and Woodware Cabinets Lockers'? Last word is pure speculation but seems to begin Lo or Le. Tin cabinets and lockers would make sense, anyway.

HughB said...

...and what about the Human Sponge???

herbert crack said...

On leaving school in 1954 I started out as an indentured apprentice to G, Mence Smith at one of their Folkstone Stores. Today you can still see the original shop sign
This store is located at the top of the narrow high street and is now I believe an art studio.
Believe you me we sold everything buckets, mops kitchen furniture, carpets, oil, cleaning products and tinned groceries.
The larger stores were called SALMONS OF LONDON and they sold everything from guns to butter.
From 1958 until 1961, I visited most of their stores around the south east, including Bexleyheath
as part of the Companies stocktaking team. To be honest I still have no idea why they displayed Italian.
Best Regards,
Herbert Crack.

Teresa Fowler said...

I notice you wrote "the shops continued to bear his name until 1944 when they were taken over by Timothy White's" but I recall an 'Mence Smith' ironmongery/hardware shop (in Seaford, Sussex) in the 1950s and, possibly early '60s (can't recall when it closed). Did some branches continue under this name, after Timothy White's took over the business or did someone else use the name (minus the 'George'), perhaps?

Anonymous said...

I remember Mence Smith in Queens Road, Hastings in 1953 so the name obviously lived on.

Tim Wayat said...

In the 1962 film "Live now - pay later" there is a Mence Smith store over the road from the fictional Callendar Credit Store at 36:40. It is next to F W Woolworth. I thought it such an unusual name it was worth Googling and landed here.
So even allowing for a year for filming and release, the was at least one Mence Smith shop trading as such in the 60s.

DoctorM said...

There was a branch of Mence Smith in Wandworth High Street (opposite the junction with Putney Bridge Road) that I used to pass on the way to school by trolleybus in the late fifties. These buses were replaced by Routemasters in the early sixties. There are no overhead wires in this picture http://fpn.francisfrith.com/wandsworth/photos/ so it must be mid sixties and Mence Smiths still appears to be open.

DoctorM said...

Moderator - could you correct my spelling of "Wandsworth" (I left out the "s") in the last post please? Thanks in anticipation!

CarolineLD said...

It won't let me edit, I'm afraid, but if you resubmit the comment I can delete the original.

Anonymous said...

George Mence Smith was a relative of my Dad. Have been tracing family tree. My dad told me about this but as my dad was orphaned quite young he couldn't say much else bless him....

Roy Pryer said...

I am watching an old episode of "the invisible man" & if you freeze frame a clear shot of "Mence Smith" can be seen in Shenley Road, Borehamwood. The episode is called "The Rocket. It is in the scene where the lorry is passing along the high street. This series was made in 1958/9.

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