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High Street History: Street signs

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007
Names reveal much about the shape of towns in the past.

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Penny Lane

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

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

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


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).


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