29 Mar 2022

Tooting Ghost Signs for Gowns and Grooves

Recently revealed is this pair of Tooting ghost signs for gowns and grooves, or more correctly clothing and music shops. The signs were protected by a small billboard (visible here on Streetview) and are painted on a render that has been applied to the top half of the wall. (We discuss this conserving aspect of modern billboards in our book, and I feel that this wall may have made the final edit if it had been visible sooner.)

“20th Century Gowns, Coats, Costumes, Gowns, Call Within” and “Dallas Star Tested Band Instruments” at 86 Mitcham Road. Photo: Roy Reed.

The reveal of these ghost signs led to two parallel twitter discussions (here and here) and so for the benefit of others I’ve brought the findings together in one place.

Dallas & Hughes: A Privilege

The lower panel features the wording “Dallas Star Tested Band Instruments” and this has helped to pinpoint the two businesses connected with this sign; it is a ‘privilege’, advertising a manufacturer on the premises of a retailer where their wares can be bought. In this case, the manufacturer was musical instrument maker John E. Dallas & Sons Ltd, and the retailer was the Hughes & Co. music shop.

Hughes & Co. were here at 86 Mitcham Road from c.1920 until at least 1941, whereas the Dallas business had its origins in the 1870s.

“Dallas Star Tested Instruments”. Photo: Roy Reed.
Letterhead for musical instrument manufacturer.
John E. Dallas & Sons Ltd letterhead, 1938, featuring the “Star Tested” line found on the ghost sign.
Advertising "The Portable Jazz Outfit".
1923 advertisement for Hughes & Co. at 86 Mitcham Road.

This c.1925 photo from Wandsworth Archives (see below) shows the lower portion of the wall being used for the shop’s advertising. This is also a privilege, but this time for “His Master’s Voice” (HMV), including the well-known pictorial of the dog listening to a gramophone.

The positioning of this sign left the space immediately above free, with its top edge appearing to align with the render now visible on the wall. This suggests that the currently visible ghost signs came after 1925, and that the one for Hughes & Co. may have originally extended down further into the space used by this older piece.

Painted wall sign on a music shop.
“Hughes & Co. for ‘His Master’s Voice” privilege at 86 Mitcham Road, c.1925. Photo: Wandsworth Archives.

A Modern Clothier

[The following text has been amended from the original post in light of new information that came to light after writing this article.]

The upper portion of the wall with the larger of the two surviving pieces advertised 20th Century Gowns. This clothier traded here from 1950 until the 1980s, although its not clear if another business was sandwiched between them and Hughes & Co. Their sign, on yellow background, partially covers the Dallas star and there are fragments of lettering in blue above their cursive logotype. So far these remain a mystery.

Heather Rolfe shared a memory of the shop itself:

“When I first moved to Tooting in the late-1980s, 20th Century Gowns was still trading — some choice outfits were behind windows shrouded in blue cellophane.”

Heather Rolfe

It’s possible that there was some continuity of use after the business closed. In 2008 the A & I Fashions shop at number 84 was displaying some of their wares on the first floor of number 86. (See Streetview.)

Gowns detail. Photo: Roy Reed.
Reconstruction of the 20th Century Gowns sign by Roy Reed.

Thank you to Tooting History and Tooting Newsie for capturing the original photos, and to all those that contributed knowledge and research on twitter: Alex; Heather Rolfe; Karen Fletcher; Paivi; Roy Reed; Tim Barnsley.

Archival photo of a London street.
The full c.1925 photo of Mitcham Road from Wandsworth Archives.
2021 Google streetview showing the billboard covering the patch of wall that has now become visible, revealing the two ghost signs.
The current view with the ghost signs visible. Photo: Tooting Newsie.
The ghost signs from below. Photo: Tooting Newsie.
The ghost signs in sunlight. Photo: Tooting History.