Tag Archives: London signs

The typefaces of London

One need not walk far in London to discover typefaces both famous and historic. In fact, as it turns out, one need not even leave the immediate vicinity of London Bridge Station.

[I]T WAS A BLEAK DAY out in the City of London – the one-odd square mile that is home to the corporation which owns half the capital – and the light lent itself to a series of shots depicting the various styles of typography that pervade one of the most visually dynamic cities in the world.

One end of a street may feature skyscrapers tall enough to disappear into the mist and the other has buildings from several centuries back, still standing tall in spite of both time and the city having been bombed to bits during the wars.

Yes, it was Remembrance Day, and we all collectively remembered what little we could of what happened almost a full hundred years ago, whilst going about our business just as if it had been any other day, the minute of silence as loud as the rest.

London of Old
In the tunnels below London Bridge railway station, a plaque from many years ago still hangs on the wall.


Starting the journey from the busiest railway station in London, straight away one comes across a typeface that was made and has seen a good share of its usage right here. Originally from Clerkenwell in Islington, a short walk north of the river, Clarendon was first released in 1845. It was designed by Robert Besley who would become the Lord Mayor of London two decades later.

Aside from its usage both above and below ground in London, Clarendon travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and appeared on the wanted posters iconic of the American Wild West; the effort to bring Four-fingered Jimmy to justice would be aided by the people whose tea was vindictively tossed into the ocean.

A lesser-known but more ironic usage is by the German Empire for declarations during the Great War, when they were essentially telling us Londoners to sod off using our own bloody typeface. Mitigated, luckily, by how Nazi-Germany would some years later send out a document banning the use of the font Fraktur. Apparently, no one in the government noticed that the letterhead of that document was in the very same font they were banning.

In more modern days, Clarendon has likely been seen by almost any given person with a few pieces of electronic kit in their home, as the consumer electronics giant Sony uses it for their logo. Another, if less attractive, example is the logo of banking corporation Wells Fargo.

Germanic in Southwark
Between its station and its bridge, we meet a typeface that looks a lot like the others but hails from a car-giant in the south.


All the typefaces one encounters in London weren’t made here. One such is Futura, designed by the German Paul Renner in 1927, from the same country that would three decades later bring us the one and only Helvetica; either the one true font or an overused piece of history, depending on which side of the aisle you’re sitting.

Ushering in a new era of geometric typefaces that litter the landscape to this day, Futura is used not only on roadsigns in the London borough of Southwark, but all over the globe, from films (American Beauty, V for Vendetta), the furniture giant IKEA (until 2010) and the recent video game hit The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Southwark’s choice to use it is likely related to its close similarity to another font used widely in London. If there is any typeface that every Londoner would know, this would be the one.

A font for going home
Right on the border of the City of London, Temple Station still bears its old enamel sign.


To many English-speaking people of the world, the train that travels underground is known as the subway, but to the inventors and proprietors of the language, it is known as either the underground or the tube. One should note, however, that none of the three includes any mention of rails or trains.

Commissioned in 1913 by the current commercial manager of The Underground Group (now part of London Transport), Frank Pick, the typeface was designed by Edward Johnston and his student Eric Gill, the former also serving as its namesake. Twenty years later, strongly influenced by the work he did with his teacher and mentor, Gill released Gill Sans, which incidentally is the font used in Avidmode’s wordmark.

Johnston was rolled out during the London Transport rebrand of the 1930s and many of the original enamel signs still remain, such as the one of Temple Station above. The others use a redesigned version made by Eiichi Kono in 1979, an at the time very young typographer of Japanese descent, fresh out of university.

New Johnston was made with the intent of retaining the original look with two additional weights, bringing the total up to the modern-day minimum of three, enabling the typeface’s use in print.

Personally, I find the look of Johnston comforting, as it so often indicates that I both am and soon will be home; that I am in London and that I’ll be in my residence. Public transportation is for going home, I like to think.

An English regality
A road sign on the south side of London Bridge, bearing the City of London Corporation’s coat of arms on its side.


On the south side of London Bridge sits a road sign worn by the elements. Having just passed the dragons that watch over the border to the City of London, the typeface is different from the modern, clean sans-serif style of the others — it is Albertus, designed by Berthold Wolpe in the 1930s and named after the German philosopher Albertus Magnus of the 13th century.

Its straight stems and sharp edges are reminiscent of the classical lettering used by the English royalty throughout much of the 19th century and the slight outwards serifs make me think of the old Blackletter script from hundreds of years before. Unsurprising, perhaps, as the font was designed to imitate the style of engraved lettering, often featuring the same slight serifs, dating all the way back to Roman times.

As the typeface of choice of the Corporation of London, it is prevalent throughout much of the City; on plaques, road signs and buildings, not to mention its own coat of arms: two dragons holding a shield, with the Latin phrase Domine dirige nos written below, “Lord, direct us.”

The lack of an inward tie on the capital G is unusual for its time, the pivotal and fundamental geometric font Futura having been released only a few years prior, forsaking the highly ornamented style that had been pervasive ever since the advent of lettering.

Nonetheless, the stark and proud Albertus is excellently legible in capitals whilst still retaining enough identity to be recognised as an English regality.

In closing

As a designer and avid fan of typography, I find that even the subtle and obscure of London bring with them a great deal of inspiration. All the people that have passed through this city have lefts marks on it, many of these marks surely the process of years; of passion and dedication. The more time I take to examine the pieces that have been retained for many years, the more I see the reason why they were kept around.

Typography is the voice of the written word and it has yet to cease impressing me, in a way that only the oft-unexamined and overlooked can.

Written by Daniel Ran this article is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Secret signs

All over London are signs, some obtrusive, others almost hidden from view. Some symbols you might see every day without understanding the signs purpose. Here are just five of them with what I’ve managed to glean about their meanings. From marks on kerbstones that academics have failed to agree upon their meanings, to those mysterious blue markers that appeared on the M25 a few years ago. Look up while standing waiting for a train, yet more signs.

Victorian kerbstones


These can be found all over London from symbols akin to a Maltese cross to just letters carved on kerbstones. Could they be the stonemason’s marker or, as it’s been speculated, Freemason secret signs. Nobody really knows; Ashley Cowie here proposes some interesting theories, but in the end we shall probably never know.

Yellow hydrants


You’ll pass these everywhere, often screwed to walls or attached to railings. Their purpose is to direct the fire services to the nearest hydrant. The top number indicates the size of the main (presumably it’s an indication of who wet you’ll get should the pope be punctured), while the lower gives the distance from the sign. Early signs were in feet and inches, while for modern versions the information is given in metric – hopefully the firemen on a shout wouldn’t confuse the numbers.

Pavement graffiti


In London we are blessed with over 50 different utility companies each with their own agenda. A common complaint is that as soon as one repair is completed another utility turns up to dig in the same place. At least there is some unity with the dots and dashes: red-electric cables; blue-water; yellow-gas; green-CCTV network and TV cables; and white for instructions.

Station identification numbers

You might be thankful for these little blue numbers that exist on the Underground should you need rescuing. The top number denotes the level below ground, the lower its position within the network.

Driver location signs


In the past 10 years these little blue market posts have popped up alongside the motorways. Placed every 500 metres, the top number is self explanatory, while the letter denotes the carriageway-hence clockwise around the M2 is ‘A’, counter clockwise ‘B’. The bottom value is the distance in kilometres from a designated datum location which for the M25 is an arbitrary point near junction 31.

Pictures:Kerbstone symbols © Ashley Cowie
Utility marks © Clifton Hotwells Improvement Society
Station identification numbers Debbie Ding (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

City Limits

The Corporation of the City of London had exercised the right of metage (i.e. measuring) of coal – amongst other commodities – entering the Port of London since medieval times.

It also defined the limits of the port, and marked those limits with boundary stones, many of which remain along our highways and in the countryside today, which stretched all the way from the Isle of Grain to Staines.

[T]he existence of administrative machinery for recording the import of coal into London and the collection of fees for weighing and measuring meant that the city possessed a convenient method whereby extra revenue could be raised without having to devise an ad hoc administrative apparatus.

This is one of the factors which led to the choice of coal duties as a means of raising revenue after the Great Fire of London, which as featured on previous posts occurred 350 years ago this month. The first rebuilding Act of 1666 was mainly concerned with what we would call nowadays town planning (e.g. laying down the types of building which could be erected and the width of streets etc) but also imposed a duty of 12d. per ton or chaldron on all coal entering the Port of London to be applied to certain specific expenses in connexion with the rebuilding. The duty was to run until 1677, but its inadequacy was soon recognised and by an Act of 1670 it was extended to 1687 and increased to 3s., half of which was to go to help pay for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the parish churches destroyed in The Great Fire of London.

Post-and-pillar-boxThe City’s share of the rebuilding duties lapsed in 1687 though it was found to be a very useful source of revenue while in operation. Even before the fire the City’s finances were in a rather precarious position and of course the fire made things worse. Thus in 1672 the city decided to disregard the spirit, and arguably the letter, of the law by charging to the coal duties any expenses which could conceivably be ascribed to the effects of the fire. This relieved the situation until the City’s portion of the duties expired in 1687, but the financial troubles continued and by 1694 the City owed considerable sums to various creditors.

The City’s share of the duties (i.e. 1s. 6d. per ton) lapsed in 1687 whereas the portion for St Paul’s was continued and eventually became a government duty.

In 1831, following the reports of select committees of both the House of Lords, and the House of Commons which had been set up to examine aspects of the coal trade, London, Westminster and Home Counties Coal Trade Act 1831 was passed making a number of reforms. The changes included the stipulation that coal was thereafter to be sold by weight and not measure and the granting of extra powers to the City in respect of the coal market.

The unpopularity of the coal duties combined with their association with the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had become unpopular on account of its indirect method of election, which resulted in the London County Council (LCC) declining to renew the coal duties after that body was set up in 1889.

There are five types of boundary stones: granite obelisks a bit over a metre high, found on canals and navigable rivers; cast-iron posts about a metre high, found beside roads and tracks; cast-iron boxes or plates about 230 mm square, found in parapets of road bridges; stone or cast-iron obelisks about 4.5 metres high, found on railways opened before 1865; cast-iron obelisks about 1.75 metres high, found on railways opened from 1865 onwards.

There are today about 210 boundary marks in position, including some which been moved to new locations or are in museums. The original total was probably about 275-280 so about three quarters have survived.

This is just a short summary of the history and purpose of boundary markers. Much of which was taken from Martin Nail’s Coal Duty Posts Copyright © 2010 Martin Nail (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 UK)

Picture: This Coal Tax Post is No. 191 on the list linked to below. Alongside it is a George V postbox. By Ian Capper (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Featured Coal Tax Post: (Nail Number 199). West side of Chelsfield Lane beside the entrance to Goddington Park. The majority of these posts such as the one beside Colnbrook Bridge give the reference of the exact act of parliament: “24 & 25 Vict. Cap. 42”, i.e.. the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act, 1861. This post was cast before the act had been passed and just bears the legend “24 VICT” which was as meaningless in 1861 as it is today.By Roger W Haworth. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

You, Me and Apostrophe

I rather miss the London greengrocer’s apostrophe, all those apple’s and pear’s, but resolutely omitting the apostrophe from King Edward’s potatoes.

The supermarkets have now become our modern day costermongers and, conscious not to offend their customers’ linguistic sensibilities, give us an aisle for 10 items or fewer, rather than less.

[T]his may assuage the pedants among you but Transport for London is having none of this grammatical malarkey. King’s Cross Station gained its apostrophe as late as 1951 (apparently around 1835 a 71ft monument to King George IV stood near the station), Transport for London however retained Earl’s Court; Queen’s Park; Regent’s Park; Shepherd’s Bush; St James’s Park; St John’s Wood; and St Paul’s. Could it be that if the station’s name is synonymous with the great and the good it retains its little squiggle?

Some stations have been renamed: Bayswater & Queen’s Road now plain Bayswater; Bishop’s Road (Paddington); Dover Street & St James’s (Green Park); Great Portland Street & Regent’s Park (Great Portland Street); and Queen’s Road (Queensway).

Parson’s Green lost its around 1909, 10 years later Golder’s Green went the same way, while Rayner’s Lane lasted until 1921.

Barons Court, being a contrived name (to fit with Earl’s Court) has always been without, Collier’s Wood saw theirs go in 1987.

St James’s Park has had the most variety, with three main forms: St James (used rarely), St James’ (used from around 1908 until the elimination of the apostrophe in 1933), and St James’s (used prior to 1908 and after 1951). Transport for London have decided, in their wisdom, that the latter is preferable.

Should we soon be seeing notices from Transport for London advertising the virtues of taxi’s?

The Oxo Tower

The chances of finding an Oxo cube at Harvey Nichols’ Oxo Restaurant are practically nil, and finding a manufacturer of a meat cube, or any other product for that matter, fronting the Thames is equally zero. But once in this part of London was a veritable manufacturing base.

The site was saved from demolition by the Coin Street Community Builders who wanted to retain their community’s integrity was once where the royal barges were stored.

[O]xo was invented by the wonderfully named chemist Professor Justus Freiherr Von Liebig, who in addition to improving our Sunday roasts; discovered nitrogen was an essential plant nutrient.

His scientific skills did not transfer to marketing when he founded a gravy company with the catchy title ‘The Liebig Extract of Meat Company’ or LEMCO which produced a thick liquid of – well – meat extract containing 4 per cent salt.

The clever professor died in 1899 and with him went the meat concoction many couldn’t afford along with the LEMCO branding, which sounded more like a cold remedy.

Rebranded Oxo for reasons lost in the mists of time, but in all probability derived from ox, a ten-year research programme gave us the much cheaper beef cube we know today.

A power station had been built at Gabriel’s Wharf but by 1920 it was defunct and the Liebig Company bought it to convert to a cold store.

The savvy Oxo Company wanted to advertise their product to Londoners; they had proved its popularity by supplying the armed services with 100 million cubes during World War One.


The local authorities were adverse to outside advertising, the electronic billboards set up in Piccadilly’s London Pavilion in 1923 were considered too crass. So when Oxo applied to display their fine product it was refused.

Fortuitously the company was no more the Liebig Extract of Meat Company so Albert Moore, the company’s architect when adding a tower atop their cold store produced a 10ft tall artwork by created by piercing holes through the wall, one an X shape and two on either side forming circles. The local authority accepted this as building decoration rather than advertising, giving us the Oxo tower we know today.

Photo: Vintage Oxo cube tin by H is for Home (CC BY-NC 2.0)