Saturday, 18 October 2014

Ghost Signs of Glasgow, The Fading Works of the Signwriter

Old shop signs of Glasgow

When I'm out jogging I pass many old, fading shop signs or "ghost signs" as they are known, slowly vanishing into obscurity. Despite the wee insights into another era that these give they are rarely afforded any protection, which probably adds to their charm. You still see old signs in several places. You see them above pubs, where old signs are remade, as if they are unchanging. You see them on Italian cafes (eg Jaconelli's at Queens Cross) where the faded art deco signage has almost become their calling card. Also now you see them on some bars and cafes where old battered signs which they have uncovered in the course of renovation works are kept to add a "quaint" ambience to a place. 

However in most cases these signs are uncovered briefly in the course of building work and then covered over again with a bland, disposable plastic sign. The best collection of old signs put to good use in Glasgow is surely inside the Old Fruitmarket, where the stallholders signs from the market days hang from the balcony.

Firhill Stadium. It has been a while since it was £3 to get in to see Partick Thistle,
most home games cost £22 for an adult now, but these old signs lives on

Cafezique on Hyndland Street, Glasgow
Kelvingrove Cafe, a bar on Argyle Street at Kelvinhaugh Street

Sign writers and gilders were important and skilled tradesmen in the days before adverts could be mass produced on posters and signage printed cheaply on plastic hoardings. Gilded street signs and their distinctive fonts seem a million miles away from our uniform modern ones (even the olde names are better).

Old gilded sign for Edelweiss Terrace in 3D "Lounge Bar"
font, now just boring old Partickhill Road

Fading but gilded versions of "Crown Mansions, Partickhill"
in two different fonts, now Partickhill Road
Part of the appeal of these old signs is the fact that they are passing, like the sentimental nostalgia you feel on seeing someone's naff decor revealed high up on the wall of a half-demolished building. They recall shops and trades that no longer exist and seem to have some charm and individuality. Nowadays it is often felt that the rows of shopfronts in one town can look exactly the same as every other streetscape in the land.

Two of my favourite ghost signs in Glasgow are the barely visible "Capstan" sign beside the Brazen Head pub in the Gorbals and the "Red Hackle" advert high up on a building on Otago Street.

Capstan cigarettes

Railway Bridge on Cumberland Street, Glasgow, advertising Capstan cigarettes

Capstan cigarettes were produced by the Wills tobacco company, a company originally founded in 1786 in Bristol, trading tobacco from the colonies (see blog on Glasgow's tobacco merchants). Other brands which they owned included Woodbine, Strand cigarettes and Gold Flake tobacco. In 1953 Wills opened a cigarette factory on Alexandra Parade where my uncle worked for a time, this factory continued churning out cigarettes until it closed in 1990.

Former Wills Tobacco Factory, Alexandra Parade, Glasgow

 In 1971 when tar and nicotine content of cigarettes was first published in the UK, Capstan cigarettes had by far the highest content. For 10 years I drove under this bridge on my way to work and depending on the lighting that day, I could usually see the words "CAPSTAN cigarettes" shining out at me as I sat at the traffic lights. The railway bridge at Cumberland Street in the Gorbals is near to where my gran and grandad lived as children. There is barely a photograph of my grandad without a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip, so I imagine this Capstan advert he must have passed a thousand times as being aimed directly at his teenage self. 

Today when I ran past to take a photo of the bridge it is now almost impossible to discern the old writing, particularly as some latter day artist has scrawled (I think) "TOGS....SOO" across it. (Young Sooside Cumbie? Anyone?)

Red Hackle Whisky

Ghost sign of "Red Hackle" reading across with another
"Red" visible at the top and a whisky bottle on the right

The building now at 37 Otago Street in Glasgow is home to the Rug Rooms flooring company amongst other things, including a Sikh temple. 

Red Hackle whisky
However if you look up at the gable end of the building from Otago Street you can discern two versions of the words "Red Hackle" painted over each other and perhaps a whisky bottle on the right hand side. What you won't be able to see are the words "Scotch By Tradition" at the bottom (which is visible in the old photo below). This building is sometimes referred to as "Kelvin House" or the "Red Hackle" building. It was built between 1887 and 1897 as a warehouse for P Hepburn, "wholesale cabinetmaker and upholsterer" but in 1920 Charles Hepburn and Herbert Ross founded Herbert and Ross Whisky Blenders Company and the building came to be their premises for Red Hackle whisky blending and broking. The two men had both served in World War 1 and had a policy of employing ex-servicemen. The "Red Hackle" that gave their whisky its name is the red feather on the headdress of the Black Watch Regiment. 
1965, Red Hackle building, Otago Street
If you look at this old photograph above you can see two tunnels on the right hand side underneath a small building - this is clearer in the picture below. This was a train station on the Glasgow Central Line, if you follow it from here onto the other bank of the River Kelvin, you'll soon come to the old train tunnels at the entrance to Kelvingrove Park, where they used to hold raves in the 1990s. Going the other way underneath Great Western Road the next old train station is in the Botanic Gardens, then at Kirklee. The station is clearer in the photo below, although obviously in a state of neglect. The Kelvinbridge Station was close to Kelvinbridge Subway Station and opened in 1896. It closed to passengers 56 years later and to freight in 1964. As is often the way in Glasgow with inconvenient old buildings, it was destroyed by fire in 1968.

It's difficult to see the old station now with the trees but the platforms are still there
Staircase up to the station from the platform 
When I went past to try to copy the old photograph above of Kelvinbridge Train Station today it was almost impossible to see it through the leaves on the trees. It sits down beside the River Kelvin beside the beer garden of the Inn Deep Bar. However the gate over the entrance to the old tunnel was unlocked today, so I went inside to have a nosey. It was pretty dark, but the short station platforms are still there and a flight of stairs leading upwards to the old station. There are loads of these old train stations in Glasgow, hidden away.
Old platform of Kelvinbridge train station,
looking towards the tunnel under Gt Western Road

Charles Hepburn, who owned the whisky company, donated the premises across the road on Otago Street to the new Piping School and financed the "Red Hackle Pipe Band". He lived at 7 University Gardens and bequeathed this house and a large part of his valuable book collection to Glasgow University upon his death. He had a major art collection too, and it is known that he got his signwriter to create copies of some other famous artworks, such as The Laughing Cavalier, for his house. 

Entrance hallway inside the old Red Hackle
building, Otago Street. Now a rug showroom.
Unusually we are able to put a name to the man doing the signage here at Red Hackle. Alex McGregor was born in Glasgow in 1910 and in 1927 was awarded "Apprentice Of The Year" after completing his apprenticeship as a painter and signwriter. He later studied at Glasgow School of Art on a part-time basis. 20 years later he was employed by Charles Hepburn as the whisky company's signwriter. He was installed in the top floor at the Red Hackle building on Otago Street, the skylight windows here giving him a great studio space overlooking the River Kelvin. When the building was refurbished in 1952, a rather odd baronial-style entrance hall was created. If you go into the Rug Rooms showroom you can still see it, and on the roof of the hall Alex McGregor was commissioned to paint shields depicting the clans of Scotland. He also painted a frieze of famous Scots around the wall of Charles Hepburn's office, which suggests he was very familiar with the one in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Shortly after completing this work, Mr McGregor sadly had a massive heart attack and died, aged 42. I guess it stands now as an opportunity for us to view the skills and abilities the men who created these now fading adverts and signs really had.

Part of the frieze of famous Scots in the office at the Otago Street building

So for Alex McGregor all the other sign painters of Glasgow here is a random selection of their works that I have spotted on jogging through the streets of Glasgow this past week or two.

"Home Bakery" on Hyndland Street, now vacant
Fruit and Vegetable sellers advert on St Georges Road. Only recently
 there was a modern billboard hiding this (see Google StreetView)

Now Mother India Cafe on Argyle Street

A mess of old and new signs at The Hidden Lane, Finnieston

Goods Entrance, Woolworths at Charing Cross, Glasgow

Also at old Woolworth's, Charing Cross

Okay, not that old, but I pass it on my way to Firhill and
always suspected that Frank had painted it himself

Great Western Road. What once stood on this wall
(Update from @allan_tall "I mind the ad for Ecko Radios here")

Bank Street, Glasgow

Hyndland Road, beside another disused station,
which no longer stands, now "Station Park"
Kelvingrove Cafe, Argyle Street

Bilsland's Bakery, Anderston
(one time owner, Alexander Steven Bilsland became Baron Bilsland and director of Bank of Scotland)

Old Warehouses on James Watt Street Glasgow
(see here for info on warehouse fire on James Watt Street)

Warehouses on James Watt Street

Old tobacco warehouses on James Watt Street, Glasgow
A lane in the Trongate "Taurus Manufacturing"
A lane in the Trongate, Glasgow, beneath the
Britannia Panopticon where Stan Laurel performed


  1. Loved this, thanks for posting!

  2. I've just come across your blog. Great stuff. I'll be working my through it now from the start.


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