The need to advertise is nothing new. Inns have carried signs for centuries and shops hung symbols of their wares outside to attract the attention of customers. Once education for all came along shops and businesses used every opportunity to catch the attention of passing trade with advertisements painted onto windows or printed on paper bags in which goods were sold.

The brickwork of shop fronts, side walls and even gables provided an excellent canvas on which to paint adverts. A study of old photographs of any of our towns and cities will reveal numerous examples.

Around Oxfordshire, adverts are still to be found in varying states of preservation. But this aspect of our past is literally fading away.

Banbury has a number of examples of these wall-painted adverts, probably the best-known being on the building in Bridge Street in the centre of town. The painting on the former Lamprey’s shop is kept in good repair, listing many of the goods they offered more than 20 years after they moved out.

Products available at this Agricultural and Horticultural Seedsmen’s store included corn cake, seeds, lime, coal and coke. Painted on a light background the message stands out clearly over a considerable distance and is a fine example of the sign-writer’s art.

The building gives an insight into social activity of the past. How many of the goods they had on offer would be needed today or would we expect to find provided in a town centre location? Lime was often spread on the fields and coal and coke would have been needed to fuel steam-driven machinery, as well as for domestic use. Nearby, another restored sign reads, ‘Baths Hot and Cold’.

In Butcher’s Row a sign can be seen high up on a gable edge, a space created by lower rooflines alongside. The varying heights of buildings often yielded opportunities for this type of advert.

A similar space is exploited in Faringdon on the building of Deacon’s Jewellers. Here the message reads, ‘Abel Bros Watchmakers’ so the business, if not the name, would seem unchanged.

In the past the building line was not strictly adhered to — leaving some buildings standing forward of their neighbour. This afforded a space to paint an advert attracting those approaching along the road. In Iffley Road, Oxford, a sign for Strang & Co Family Grocer is still quite clear, as is a sign on Hollow Way for a Hair Salon and Newsagents.

In Henley-on-Thames, until recently, a sign in Bell Lane read ‘Johnson’s Dyers F(illegible) Cleaners’. The missing word here could well be French as the dry cleaning process is sometimes referred to as ‘French cleaning’ after the French dyer, Jean Baptiste Jolly, who discovered this method of cleaning when his maid tipped kerosene onto a tablecloth which subsequently appeared cleaner. This sign has now been over-painted by an advert for the present occupants.

An end wall or protruding building presented a good surface for a painted advert, but a corner site allowed the advert to spread around and be viewed from several vantage points.

At Gloster House, Witney, the wall above Fisher and Townsend Funeral Services carry some clear references to the building’s former use as Viners Furnishing Stores with bedding and carpets amongst items sold.

In Woodstock, the Blenheim Tea Rooms uses the rounded end of their building to advertise ‘Views and Postcards of Blenheim’ to visitors leaving by the Triumphal Arch, Park Street exit. While this remains clear, the advert on the front of the building for the tea rooms itself has faded almost to oblivion. A similar fate has befallen another example on London House on the main A44.

In Walton Street, Oxford, a former shop building still carries adverts for long-forgotten products (see page 73). Painted onto in-filled windows the top one reads: ‘Try Finest Turkey Coffee ¼ in one pound canisters’ The one on the floor below: ‘Try Geo. Lumleys 2/6 tea’ These could have been specials of the store — maybe Geo. Lumley was a one-time proprietor — or they could be adverts for more widely available products.

Old as these adverts may be they have been painted over even earlier signs, the ‘ghost’ of the letters still visible beneath. Some people actually refer to all fading wall-painted adverts as ghost signs.

The adverts needed to be regularly repainted to maintain their impact. Often if a business changed hands the new owner simply painted a new advert over the top. As this faded, parts of each would appear. If the sign were not repaired the remains could be difficult to decipher.

It was not uncommon for shopkeepers to sell the space for adverts to a third party, usually for something related to his own business. An example of this exists further along Walton Street, where J G Blencowe Pastrycook Grocer and Confectioner had HOVIS down the street side edge of his sign.

As the building stands forward of its neighbour on that side the word can be viewed from a considerable distance and acted as a landmark for the premises.

Fading into obscurity is the most common fate of these wall-painted adverts today. A wall in Howard Street, Oxford, carries a fading arrow with the words LEFT TURN. In front of this was once the name of the company who issued the direction.

Gradual fading is not the only enemy facing the survival of these signs. Many must have fallen foul of demolition. Alterations to properties have resulted in parts of signs disappearing as in the sign for F H Castle in Thame. This sign itself was painted over the one showing this to be the site of the Public Bath House offering Hot Baths at 6d.

Another example in Thame was obscured by new buildings on a site previously occupied by a single-storey structure. The shop next door had a fine sign painted on the side. Building alterations can also uncover examples, as happened in Queen Street, Oxford, where a gable carries the message Frank East’s.

The art of sign painting is far from dead. In addition to refurbishing old and fading signs many businesses today still employ this method of drawing attention. Greens Furnishings in Thame, Loch Fine in Oxford and Pettit’s in Wallingford, the latter including millinery, mattings and mechanics clothing amongst the products still to be found within, are excellent examples of the art.

One final example dates back to the early 19th century. Now a private house, a brick and flint building in Couching Street, Watlington has ‘Kitchen tallow chandler’ above a bow window. It seems that somewhere between 1829 and 1840 a John Kitchen lived in Watlington and was a chandler (seller) of tallow candles.

Before the advent of gas and electric light his wares would have been an important household purchase. He later moved to Reading before emigrating to Australia. His ancestors continued to build the business which became part of the huge Unilever group.

The writing may well be on the wall for this type of advertising. However, included amongst the fading remains are many glimpses of our social history. These walls may not tell their story much longer if we simply allow them to fade away.