Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

January 'SALE'

Coincidence corner. The Resident Wise Woman has an Australian friend, M, and since they live half a world apart, the two of them meet only occasionally, when their paths lead to the Czech Republic. I finally met M last year when all our paths coincided at last and, over a cup of tea in Southern Bohemia, M revealed a further coincidence: that some of her ancestors came from Cheltenham, the English town where I grew up. These ancestors were grocers, their family name was Beckingsale, and their shop was in the High Street. They were in business there by the early-19th century, and are mentioned in Rowe's guides to the town from 1845 and 1850, where they are recommended as purveyors of the 'celebrated Royal Cheltenham Sausage'. 'I believe,' said M, 'that the original Victorian sign is still on the shop.' Before long, I was off to Cheltenham to have a look.

To my amazement, part of the sign is indeed still there, although the shop (above) is unoccupied. One can clearly see most of the family name, and another sign, in different lettering, reading 'AND RETAIL', which is separate from the name sign and must be part of another generation of signage. The first thing that struck me, apart from the extraordinary good fortune that these signs have survived at all, is the lettering. The fragment of the name, in the picture at the top of this post, is in a typically curvaceous Victorian decorative letterform. Curved horizontal strokes to the L and E, a looped crossbar to the A, double-lobed serifs at the ends of the strokes on all the letters, more lobes halfway up the verticals, carefully drawn returns with bright highlights – all these are features common in this kind of decorative lettering, or at least once common, though survivors are now increasingly rare. The letters are lovely, and one hopes they will be preserved.

The other fragment, though, is something else. Where there were rounded lobes, now there are sharp points – on the serifs everywhere and also on normally-rounded parts of letters such as the D and R. I've not seen anything quite like this before. There's something rather hard and aggressive about the style with its serifs as sharp as arrows – the E, with its the bizarre crossbar, looks positively dangerous.

Much as I prefer the curly letterforms of Beckingsale's name, I'm glad I've seen their more angular neighbours and I hope these letters are preserved too, if only because they're so unusual. Here's to coincidences.

- - -

Footnote The passage to the left of the shop is also interesting. Until about 1874 it was known as Beckingsale's Passage, after which it was renamed Normal Terrace (after the Church of England Normal College at the other end), although many locals referred to it by its old name for many years after the official change of designation. I was prevented by scaffolding from taking photographs of the passage, but there are images, and more information, here.


The Greenockian said...

Fascinating! Hope it is not covered up by some horrible neon sign!

The Vintage Knitter said...

What a fascinating little sign-writer's gem! It is such a shame that these aren't saved as they're an important part of local social history.

I don't usually venture down that part of town, but I think I should. If memory serves me right, there used to be a very old-fashioned lingerie shop on the Lower High Street too. I used to imagine that their storage space would be full of old cardboard advertising signs, mannequins and the like.

Philip Wilkinson said...

VK: Most of the really old Lower High Street shops have gone, I think, although there was a lingerie one not far from the carpark where the remains of the market is, as far as I remember. But the ones I remember from my childhood (Phil Poole's fish and chips, Excel's sweets, a place that sold leather goods and repaired bags, the Accessory Shop [car bits]) all gone, long gone. Only a bagwash remains.

The Vintage Knitter said...

This is a bit off-topic, but do you have any idea what is meant to be happening to the lovely old Odeon cinema in town? I had heard that it was going to be developed into flats, but its a sorry sight. I dread to think what state the Art Deco wall panels in the screening rooms are in. It would make a great arts centre....bit like the former Axiom.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if more of the beautiful old shop sign remains behind the very ugly modern fascia for the electronics shop to the left.

I wonder what goes either side of "and retail". Trade, perhaps? Or wholesale?

Hmm - see the information here:,-Lord-Kingsale.php

Philip Wilkinson said...

VK: As I understand it, planning permission was granted for the Odeon site to be redeveloped with shops with flats above. This was back in the spring, and goodness knows what has happened in the meantime, but the economic climate could be a delaying factor. I don't know what, if anything, will happen to the art deco decorations; after years being empty, the inside of the cinema must be in a poor state I should think.
There's a very noble group that has been trying to get together proposals to buy the Axiom building and turn it back into an arts centre. I wish them well, but the building work, funding, etc, will be a huge challenge, even if the building could be bought. There are a lot of things that the town needs that could be provided in an arts centre type building (exhibition space, an art house cinema, etc etc), so we'll see.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thanks for your comment. I should think it likely that there is more of the sign under the fascia next door – at the very least the beginning of the proprietor's name. Which WAS Beckingsale, and was nothing, as far as I can see, to do with Lord Kingsale as mentioned on the site you link to.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: PS. 'Wholesale' is probably what went before 'and retail', in which case it must have covered the earlier name sign, and then been removed again. But it's hard to make out exactly what went on with these layers. When I'm not concentrating on a deadline, I'll have to go off and research trade directories and see if I can find out who occupied the premises over the years.

Stephen Barker said...

Lovely lettering, The position of Beckingsale seems odd, I would not expect the proprietor's name to be divided. Is it possible that the fascia boards have been cut up and reused?

The last time I briefly visited Cheltenham I did not think it had been well treated by modern development. As a spa town I was hoping for something better. I enjoyed the museum.

Eileen Wright said...

What lovely lettering! Something I find very interesting is how similar the pointy lettering is to barge / narrow boat signwriting. Some fab examples can be seen in the book 'Signwritten Art' by A. J. Lewery.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Eileen: That's a lovely book, full of interesting signs and letterforms. Thank you for reminding me about it.