Skip to content

High Street History: Street signs

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

Names reveal much about the shape of towns in the past.

Penny Lane Creative commons image Icon _Jeffrey_ under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

Street Signs

Street signs can give clues about a town’s development. To begin with, roads sometimes change their names, so old signs might inform us about how street layouts have altered. Look out for street names carved into or painted onto the side of a building or appearing as a tile panel – often quite high up. The earliest examples you might find will almost certainly be from the eighteenth century, but most will date from the nineteenth onwards. You may be able to check in a local library or archive - they often keep old copies of street maps - to see how streets have been modified.

Road signs, too, can indicate how towns (and traffic!) have changed. Many contemporary road signs trace their origins to the 1950s, when a national system of design was established. Older mileposts/stones and finger signs are also dotted around the UK. Milestones were frequently erected by mid-eighteenth century Turnpike Trusts. They are testaments to the national road network’s development.

Bedford Road street sign Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Bedford Road

Older street signs may be able to tell us, for instance, if there have been changes to district boundaries. They also enlighten us as to older design standards: unlike present-day plastic signs, look is not sacrificed entirely to functionality. Cast iron signs with embossed lettering and decorative borders, like this one, are often over 100 years old.

Parish boundary sign Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Parish Boundary Sign

Parish boundary signs come in several forms. Although they are increasingly rare, with a keen eye you may be lucky. You may see something similar to a milestone, a wooden post or, like this, a small wall plaque. They remind us of a time when the parish was a far more important unit of government than it is today (generally speaking, any time before the Victorian era). A person’s parish of birth could determine where he or she could work, whether they could get poor relief if they fell on hard times, and what kind of legal justice they were able to get.

 

Alfred Terrace street sign Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

 

Alfred Terrace

Plaques like this one are quite common. They can be useful for finding out previous road names where there have been a lot of changes to streets in a particular area. Those that date before the 1900s are also interesting because they come in great variety – from stone tablets like this one through to tile panels and painted boards – unlike the standard cast-iron or plastic types of recent years.

In the comments on this page, someone asked how did people in Early Modern London know the names of the streets. It was a good question - so we've answered it: How did Tudor Londoners get around?

Taking it further

If you’re interested in this, you may also be attracted to the OU’s Heritage, whose heritage? (A180) or to Start writing family history (A173).

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

How did Tudor Londoners get around? Creative commons image Icon Keith Seabridge under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

How did Tudor Londoners get around?

How did the people in Early Modern London know the names of the streets?

Article
Reading cities, towns and villages Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Reading cities, towns and villages

If you keep your eyes open, you can spot lots of clues to the history of a city, town or village. Jonathan Foyle tells you how,

Article
The Secret History Of Our Streets - Deptford High Street Creative commons image Icon Mike Quinn under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Secret History Of Our Streets - Deptford High Street

How did the "Oxford Street of South London" come to be one of the poorest shopping streets in modern London? 

Article
The Secret History Of Our Streets - Caledonian Road Creative commons image Icon Stephen McKay under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Secret History Of Our Streets - Caledonian Road

Booth may have found the road depressing - but a staunch sense of community has kept the road alive.

Article
The Secret History Of Our Streets - Portland Road Creative commons image Icon Derek Harper under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Secret History Of Our Streets - Portland Road

A street which sees the archetypes of the 1% living alongside those in the lowest income brackets of British society.

Article
The Secret History of Our Streets: Share your diaries Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: R P C Franklyn Limited article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Secret History of Our Streets: Share your diaries

Help us to build a picture of the secret history of streets around the UK by contributing to our diaries.

Article
OU on TV and radio this week - 30-06-12 to 06-07-12 Creative commons image Icon nic0 under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on TV and radio this week - 30-06-12 to 06-07-12

When is it alright to kill; do the right businesses get investments; are cyclists morally superior beings - and much, much more.

Article
Thinking Allowed - The politics of the street Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: jntolva under CC-BY-NC-SA licence article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Thinking Allowed - The politics of the street

The layout of St Petersburg was crucial in turning the discontents of Russians into revolution. Laurie Taylor and guests explore how geography shapes politics

Article
Exploring the streets Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: madcowk under CC-BY licence article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Exploring the streets

How do the towns we live and the streets we live on shape the way our society functions?

Article