Do you ever look up at a shop and see, high above today’s plastic fascia, the faint remnants of a handpainted sign or advert? These ‘ghost’ signs can be found all around the world and have even been found in Pompeii. Though fading fast, many of these signs are still visible and can tell us a little about what was being bought and sold in Dulwich in the past, as well as about the people doing the selling.

Look up at the side wall of Dulwich Vintners in the Village and you might just be able to make out an old painted ‘Hovis’ sign. High wheatgerm flour was developed in 1886 with the brand name Hovis coined four years later when a London student won a national competition to name the bread by taking the Latin phrase hominis vis (the strength of man) and making the portmanteau word Hovis. Hovis has always been renowned for its advertising, not least for Ridley Scott’s 1970s ‘boy on the bike’ advert which was voted the nation’s all-time favourite advert in 2006. From Victorian times these adverts were provided for the walls of bakeries: the baker provided the space while Hovis paid for the sign and its upkeep. For 36 years from 1901, William Edward Dean ran a bakery, confectionery and post office from this building, living with his family above the shop. Dean was born in 1867 in Forest Hill, the son of Richard, also a baker, and Mary. When he was 24 he married 23 year-old Mary Ann Matilda Roberts, also from Forest Hill, and they had two children; only their daughter Ivy survived to adulthood. William and Mary ran their business with the help of his brother Edward, who was a cook and confectioner, and Mary’s sister Florence, who helped in the shop. There was also a general servant, Edith Calaby from Norfolk. Their daughter Ivy married in 1936 and moved to Norwood and that seems to have been the signal for the Deans, now in their early 70s, to retire, as just before WW2 they moved to Fetcham in Surrey. Edward died in 1944, aged 76 and Mary died at Ivy’s home in Norwood in 1949. The shop is now a wine merchants, although many older residents will remember it as a wool shop.

The sign for ‘J W Webb Dental Surgery’ at the junction of Lordship Lane and Heber Rd is huge, and nowadays framed with satellite dishes. James William Webb was born in 1877 near St Paul’s cathedral, an area that had been the centre of the book trade for centuries, so it’s no surprise that his father was a bookbinder, his mother a bookfolder and other family members were in the trade. The Webb’s neighbours in the court were all ‘in the print’ too but James must have had a strong vocation as he struck out on his own and became a dentist. His childhood may have been precarious as the family moved around a lot, though always in the same small area, and his mother later became a charwoman. His father died in the City of London infirmary, which was also a workhouse.

James became a dentist’s assistant and in 1902 he married Ada Morgan, the daughter of a hatter, and they moved to Dulwich; they had one son, Donald. At first they lived in Barry Rd but by 1911 they had moved to 261 Lordship Lane on the corner of Heber Rd, one of a pair of handsome three-storey houses built in 1884 called St Thomas’s Villas. Here James set up his dental surgery complete with large painted advert on the side of the house. He did not hold any dental qualifications but the 1921 Dental Act allowed unqualified practitioners to register if they could prove they had been practising dentistry for five years.

In 1911 James recorded that he was a ‘dental mechanic’ and a ‘worker’, i.e. employed by someone rather than working for himself. In 1920 he is described as an ‘artificial teeth manufacturer’ but by 1934 he was describing himself as ‘dentist’. The house was in multiple occupation as many houses in the area were, until well after the Second World War. The Webbs had three rooms, possibly they lived in one room, slept in the second, and used the third as the dental surgery. A widow and her builder son lived in the other four rooms. 

Ada died in March 1929 and by December James had married Margaret Pryce, with whom he went on to have three children. They lived ‘above the shop’ at No. 261 Lordship Lane, apart from two years when they lived at 34 Colyton Road. During WW2 Margaret and the children went to her family in South Wales while James stayed in Lordship Lane. When a V1 bomb landed nearby in 1944 it caused widespread destruction that resulted in much rebuilding and a prefab from that time can still be seen at 238 Lordship Lane. James’s granddaughter inherited a vase that shows damage sustained in the bomb. After the war James’s son Donald and his wife also moved into No. 261, and in 1953 his daughter Rita and her husband John Williams also joined them. By 1954 however, all the Webbs had moved out and James died in Lewisham in 1958. The house is now in private occupation.

The roads around East Dulwich have some tantalising ghost signs and 182 Lordship Lane shows how frustrating it can be to research these relics of a lost, commercial, local history. You will have passed the corner of Lordship Lane and Colwell Rd and perhaps seen this palimpsest of painted signs and boards tucked round the corner from the street art of the queen riding a hoverboard with her corgis (painted by the artist Catman to celebrate her 90th birthday). I can read the following (do let us know if you can read any more): 

Colwards for Car Hire

Motor Repairs

Motor Insurance

EOR 4670

ROD 2173

Along the apex of the roof, it says ‘Haydon's Limousines’, there’s a board for ‘Dunlop Stockists’ and behind that another ghost sign of which I can only read a few letters and numbers. 

It’s clear from the front and side elevations of this building that it was a garage at some stage in its past but the Haydons, who seemingly ran a limousine business from here, have left no trace of their residency apart from their sign. There was a James Haydon living in Lordship Lane around the right time but he was a butcher and lived up near the Grove Tavern. He later moved to Pond Cottages on College Road where he had his abattoir (and was the ancestor of the late Patrick Spencer, Secretary of the Dulwich Society) and he was not at all involved with cars. 

James Speller was variously a fishmonger, greengrocer and fruiterer from this shop but he does not appear to have had anything to do with cars. However, his eldest son William started work as a groom, then a coachman before becoming a chauffeur. Second son George was also a groom then a carman (horse-drawn vehicle driver). Younger son Basil and his family had a garage in Melbourne Grove which retained the name Speller until 2019. So perhaps the Spellers ran a garage from here. If they did, it was not listed in any directories or records I can find. So we have the evidence of the ghost signs and the sons’ occupations to show that someone ran a big enough garage to justify a number of adverts on the building, which just shows how tricky it can be to uncover the stories of ordinary people.

There are many of these evocative ghost signs hiding in plain sight around Dulwich, especially in East Dulwich where there were more shops and commercial buildings. I highly recommend looking up and seeking out these hints of Dulwich past: faded signs which have long outlived the businesses they advertised.