11 Mar 2017

Scales, Weights & Weighing Machines in London’s Kings Cross

This popular London ghostsign is located at the Kings Cross end of Gray’s Inn Road, with the photo above from Jennifer Pedler and the History of Advertising Trust. A couple of years ago I gave a talk at Middlesex University where one of the students, Mariana Messaggi, was researching the origins of the company as part of her ‘Writing the City’ project/portfolio. She has kindly shared her findings which I’m delighted to summarise below.

Herbert & Sons, Scale, Weight & Weighing Machine Manufacturers, 319-321 Gray’s Inn Road (date unknown). From the Herbert Archives

The location at 319-321 Gray’s Inn Road (formerly 37 Chichester Place) was a prime spot to exploit the trade opportunities offered by the construction of the Euston Road and Regent’s Canal in the early 19th Century. The first known scale makers to take up residence at the address was George Birch in around 1821, a year after the Regent’s Canal was completed. Originally apprenticed to well-known London scale maker Robert Wenborn, George Birch sold the business to Thomas Herbert in 1857 before emigrating to New Zealand.

Herbert & Sons, Scale, Weight & Weighing Machine Manufacturers, 319-321 Gray’s Inn Road (date unknown). From the Herbert Archives

With branches to manage elsewhere it was Herbert’s son, Thomas Benjamin, who ran the Kings Cross business, living in the flats above. Their relationship was acrimonious and, two weeks after marrying, Thomas Benjamin left to fight the American Civil War, where he contracted tuberculosis and died. His brothers, George and William, then took over affairs, with George also living above the shop. With founder Thomas Herbert’s death imminent in 1876, the brothers dissolved the family partnership, with William taking over the Kings Cross premise. The company was unified again until 1948, but since then stores have gradually closed, with the last surviving premises being their headquarters in Haverhill.

(A more detailed history of the company and the people within it can be found on the Herbert History site, which includes a host of photographs and printed documents, and past shop/office locations.)

Given the generic wording on the painted wall sign, it isn’t apparent whether it was originally commissioned by Thomas Herbert, or his predecessor George Birch. (If anyone think these are relevant then there are dates inscribed on the statues in the above two pictures, 1760 on the sepia image and 1840 on the black and white one.)

Herbert & Sons, Scales, Weights & Weighing Machines, 319-321 Gray’s Inn Road (c.1912). From the collection of warsaw1948 on Flickr

This photo (c.1912) only shows the sign partially, and by this point it has been updated to include the Herbert & Sons’s name. This is the form that the sign currently takes, dropping the word ‘Manufacturers’, and the addition of the building numbers, as can be seen in the contemporary photograph below. The current ghostsign exhibits evidence of at least two layers in the form of a palimpsest. These represent slight realignments of the size and location of the lettering and numbers, but with the Herbert & Sons name now gone from across the top. One possible explanation for the complete loss of the top line would be that the current visible texts were at some point covered, but if anyone has any alternative theories and/or evidence then I’d be keen to hear them.

Thank you Mariana for sharing your work and shedding some light on this iconic London ghost sign for Herbert & Sons, Scales, Weights & Weighing Machines, 319-321 Gray’s Inn Road.

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