19 Apr 2021

Playing Hangman With Aplins’ Ghost Sign

Painted sign on old London industrial buildings.
‘Aplins,’ Gillender Street

After watching films to try dating a modern ‘faux’ ghost sign, this week it’s time for some more novel research methods in the context of this extremely wide-format ghost sign in Bromley-by-Bow. It was proving a tough nut to crack but has now been largely solved thanks to some ingenious approaches.

The sign can be seen on Gillender Street, just South of where the Limehouse Cut splinters off from the River Lea. There are at least two layers of lettering, with the most prominent saying ‘Aplins, Spirits and Liqueur.’ While there are references to the sign online, they don’t really offer anything other than a transcription of the text, and so I wanted to get something more concrete than that.

The Location

Gillender Street doesn’t appear in the older street directories, and I’d guessed that the location corresponded to St Leonard’s Street. This is now a much shorter stretch of road a little further North, but which previously extended South, now forming part of the A12 which passes in front of the sign. There was nothing relating to Aplins up to and including 1941, although a number of wine importers and merchants were close by. However, as we’ll see in a bit, this was barking up the wrong tree.

A Birds-Eye View

I reached out to Ghost Signs from Bygone Times who has previously helped to unlock some challenging pieces of research and this offered up a couple of new leads. The first of these was a pair of aerial photographs showing the location in question, and that the building group was once much larger, including the area that now forms the yard to the left of the sign as you look at it. The tentative hypothesis was therefore that the sign is incomplete, and may once have said Chaplins.

Comparison of aerial photos showing loss of a building between 1924 and 2020
Aerial photos from 1924 and 2020, analysed by Ghost Signs from Bygone Times

The second lead was the following comment.

‘I found an article from 1935 which mentions some benefactors who donated to a nursing charity & amongst these were a number of companies  associated with drink. These included “P B Burgoyne”, “Reid Stuart” and a company called “W H Chaplin”’

This didn’t yet link back to the sign and location (as I thought it was) but there was now some meat on the bone to pick at.

The Blitz & A Reconstruction

Ghost Signs from Bygone Times then sent another message showing that the location was within range of a bomb dropped during the blitz. However, it’s not clear that this is what caused the loss of part of the building group, as maps seem to show that this occurred between 1963 and 1974. (It could be that the building was damaged in the war, with a temporary structure installed afterwards, and then removed.)

Map showing proximity of bomb to building
Bomb damage map
1963 and 1974 maps showing the apparent loss of the building between those dates.

In parallel to this, Roy Reed used images cribbed from Google Streetview to give an approximation of how the lettering would fit with the word Chaplins. This also showed that the word ‘wine’ (or perhaps ‘wines’) was present on the building across from the sign.

Typography set over image of whole building group to check letter spacing with hypothetical text.
Checking letter spacing for fit (Roy Reed)

This all seemed to be making sense, but it was still lacking the concrete evidence required for the tantalising Chaplin connection to be made.

Revisiting the Location

I looked again at one of the few online references to the sign, here on Edith’s Streets. It references the ‘Aplins Distillery’ but then a little further up says that Gillender Street was formerly Brunswick Road, an extension of St Leonard’s Road.

The street directories that I work with are not comprehensive, consisting of those available from the University of Leicester, and those via Ancestry.com (subscription required). The Leicester ones go up to 1915 and 1919 for Central London and Suburbs respectively, and the Ancestry ones go much later, but there is a gap between 1934 and 1940. Both of these (1934 and 1940) list W.H. Chaplin & Co. Ltd, wine and spirit merchants, but not on Brunswick Road.

I then remembered a 1939 directory recently shared with me by Jane Parker at Jane’s London and took a look in that. Sure enough, there it was! In Brunswick House on Brunswick Road were W.H. Chaplin & Co. Ltd. I was then able to use the phone books on Ancestry to go a little further back and place them there in 1936, 1937 and 1938.

(This revisiting of the location also allowed Ghost Signs of Bygone Times to establish that the buildings were originally constructed as part of the Four Mills Distillery, run by John Currie & Co.)

An Outstanding Question

There are traces of older signs on the building, in palimpsest with the one for Chaplin’s. However, it’s not clear who these advertised, and before 1934 the Brunswick House location doesn’t appear where expected in the directories…

Chaplin’s, Wines, Spirits & Liqueurs, Gillender Street (formerly Brunswick Road), London E3

***This article was made possible by Ghostsigns’ patrons on Patreon. I thank each and every one of you for your continued support. For this research, special thanks also Ghost Signs from Bygone Times and Roy Reed.***

Archival image of building group
1976: London Picture Archive (99370)
Detail from archival image of building group
1976: London Picture Archive (99370 Detail)
Archival image of building group
1976: London Picture Archive (99371)
Archival image of building group
1976: London Picture Archive (99368)
Detail from archival image of building group
1976: London Picture Archive (99368 Detail)
Typographic detail of the painted sign on the wall.
Detail of S on the sign