Thursday 27 February 2014

Ghost signs (107): Chocolat Poulain

The logo looks like a cross between a deer and a dog, and the product name is obscured, so it wasn't easy to identify the brand being advertised in this sign from Noyal, Brittany. Nonetheless, commenter Ralph Hancock recognised it as a foal, the symbol of Poulain. 

This chocolate company was founded by Victor-Auguste Poulain. He was a pioneer in mass-producing the confectionery, starting his company in 1848 - a year now immortalised as one of Poulain's product lines - and opening a factory in 1862. He transformed chocolate into a popular product, rather than a luxury - and from a health food to a sweet treat.

Poulain excelled at marketing. For example, in 1865 it launched one of the first national poster campaigns. From 1890, each wrapper contained not only chocolate but also a picture. Children would collect the image cards, on themes ranging from 'Around the World in 80 Days' to insects to tennis. They disappeared from packets in the 1990s, only to reappear in 2011. More drastically, the company began acquiring cinemas in 1907; some bars of chocolate came with vouchers for half-price tickets.

The company passed from father to son Albert in 1880; when his own son made it clear that he didn't plan to take over the business, Albert sold his majority share. That created a slight dilemma for the new proprietors: the chocolate had hitherto carried the owner's signature or name, but Poulain was no longer the owner. The answer: the famous foal logo, which became the brand's symbol from 1911.

Today, Poulain chocolate is owned by Cadbury Schweppes. Its name and logo live on, a familiar brand throughout France. The particular stylised version which inspired our sign seems to have been a short-lived variation, but the dog-like head and antenna-style tail here are, as far as I can discover, the signwriter's own, unique contribution!

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Ghost signs (107): un mystère

Here's a ghost sign spotted by my father in the town of Noyal, Brittany. It's clearly for chocolate, but which brand? The second line of lettering is too obscured to decipher, and appears to have been over-painted with a logo. The logo seemed a better clue, but I'm not even sure what animal that is... 

If anybody has a good knowledge of vintage French chocolate brands, or can otherwise offer a suggestion, please leave a comment!

Sunday 23 February 2014

Tooting beauty!

Tooting Broadway's vintage street features are not limited to fine ghost signs. Immediately outside the station is a magnificent cast-iron lamp, serving not one but three purposes. First, it offers light - indeed, a cluster of five lamps on ornate, swirling branches. 

Second, just below the lamps are signs pointing the way to London, Wimbledon, Wandsworth and Croydon. 

The third feature is less obvious at a glance. Look more carefully at the base, though, and you will see that it is made up of four ventilation panels. These originally provided fresh air to toilets below, although those facilities are now gone. 

I couldn't spot a foundry mark on the lamp (although my search did harvest a few odd looks from passers-by!). However, it is quite similar to a combined lamp and ventilation shaft on Strand, opposite the Royal Courts of Justice. In fact, the resemblance is great enough that it is probable they were made by the same firm, Walter Macfarlane of Glasgow. The addition of the signs, though, makes Peckham's example a little bit more special.

Tooting's lamp/signpost/ventilation cover is so special, in fact, that it is Grade II listed. Not bad for a piece of Victorian street furniture.

Friday 21 February 2014

Ghost signs (106): Tooting Broadway


Turn right out of Tooting Broadway station, and there are two ghost signs in quick succession on Mitcham Road. The first is right next to the lovely Tooting Public Library, but a long way from its public service remit! 

The advertisement is for Player's Navy Cut Tobacco (with 'Navy' and 'Tobacco' now partially covered by thick black paint). A lot of detail at the top of the sign is now faded to illegibility, but as best as I can tell, referred to '--son & Co ... Mitcham Road, agents for Player's Navy Cut Tobacco'. 

A few steps further, and there's another sign, this time for 'J&M Stone, London's Largest Radio & Lighting...'. The lowest part of the advert is now obscured by a shop sign. A photograph from 1951 shows equally impressive shop signage for Stone's; our sign is perhaps of similar vintage, given its lack of any mention of television.

Friday 14 February 2014

Royal chocolate

Hampton Court Palace has over a thousand rooms, so it's perhaps understandable that sometimes people lose track of them a little. Thus it was only recently that staff realised the handy store room for flower vases was in fact a very special survival: an eighteenth-century chocolate kitchen. Now restored, it is open to the public from today.

Chocolate came to Britain in the seventeenth century, and remained an expensive luxury for some time. The wealthiest chocolate-lovers - including Kings William III, George I and George II - had dedicated facilities to prepare the exotic beverage: chocolate was roasted, ground, then blended with milk or water, loaf sugar and spices to make a rich drink served from a special pot. All those kitchens are now gone, except for the royal example which has survived with its fittings intact. There are advantages to being a little neglected!

Spit rack

The kitchen was for some years the domain of Thomas Tosier, chocolate-maker to George I; a few rooms away is the former chocolate storeroom, which was probably his bedroom as well. Its window shutters were a security measure to safeguard the precious bean and the silverware and porcelain in which it was served. 

However, while Thomas lived in these dignified circumstances, his wife Grace had a racier public profile: she ran a chocolate house in Blackheath which attracted wealthy, if sometimes rakish, customers for its chocolate and dancing. Grace was a celebrity in her own right, and prints of her portrait were sold; one hangs now in Thomas's room. 

A third room has been adapted for demonstrations of chocolate-making. When the demonstrations are not running, a rather good film demonstrating the process is projected onto its walls. 

After all that chocolate-themed history, it was no surprise that the cafe was doing a brisk trade in its special hot chocolate selection. The four cups contained drinks from four centuries: a seventeenth-century recipe, rich and spiked with chili; a Georgian recipe contemporary with the kitchen, aromatically spiced; a sweet Victorian version; and a contemporary white chocolate drink. 

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Deptford, electricity and railways

I've added a new page to this site: a small project inspired by a chance eBay purchase. Deptford Power Station, 1912 explores the early history of Deptford Power Station and its association with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway through a promotional package produced in July 1912. The story starts in a Bond Street art gallery and ends with World War One. 

There are still some mysteries remaining: if you're good at deciphering signatures, there are a couple of challenges for you!

Sunday 9 February 2014

Somerset Levels floods

The Somerset Levels were originally covered in water and wetlands, with villages built on higher areas of dry land (the 'zoy' in names like Chedzoy, Middlezoy and Westonzoyland means 'island'). Much of the land was usable only in summer, and people relied upon innovations such as the neolithic Sweet Track, a raised wooden pathway which allowed people to walk across the bogs and water to higher, drier land. 

Parts have been drained since the middle ages, but it was the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which saw significant land reclamation with the current system of drains and rhynes built. Pumping stations were later added, draining yet more land, and still dot the landscape. Given that much of the land is below sea level, flooding has always remained a real risk despite this drainage system. 

In recent weeks, flooding has seen much of the Levels under water again. This is disastrous for local residents and farmers, and the debate over flood management is likely to continue for some time after the waters recede. However, even the floodwater can have real beauty, as these photographs by Shaun Derry show. 

Images: all photographs © Shaun Derry. 

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Snack on the track


After the surprising elegance of the National Railway Museum's Victorian urinal, here's a bit of rather less elegant 1980s nostalgia. Who could resist the lure of Maxpax tea and casserole-in-a-box in an Intercity train carriage?

Sunday 2 February 2014

Railway relief

This elegant piece of railway cast-iron comes from Curthwaite Station on the Maryport & Carlisle Railway. Its purpose may not be obvious at first, but it is in fact a single-stall urinal. (One suspects, or hopes, that Curthwaite was not a terribly busy station - contrast this with the five-stall 'Temple of Relief' outside Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter station.) Although there is no founder's name cast into the urinal, it is believed to come from the famous Sun Foundry, Glasgow. 

While a urinal might sound like a very unglamorous piece of street (or platform) furniture, the details on this one are lovely. The elegant spiralling shape, the botanic decoration, the dog-head spout all ensure it transcends its rather prosaic purpose. 

Curthwaite Station was closed in 1950; its station building and water tower remain. The urinal meanwhile, is now in the Station Hall of the National Railway Museum, York. It looks splendid if intriguing in its new museum home.