Scrabbling for Letters in Hampstead

Hampstead is always full of interest, and this little alleyway is perhaps more interesting than others.

I don’t like public money being wasted and I was impressed by the lengths gone to in order to make use of (presumably) rarely-used characters in one of Hampstead’s well-known tilework-style street name signs. I think it is wonderful, but whoever did this can surely not have been a credible scrabble player.


In case it is not perfectly obvious, the sign, when erected, included a certain amount of black or dark brown paint, enough to make the sign pass muster without drawing attention to anything amiss. This essential addition does not seem to have made it to any maintenance schedules and through the effluxion of time, and perhaps the assistance of those spotting something amiss and using a coin to help things along, the sign is now a bit of an anomaly.


The use of a Q for an O is a good way of getting rid of extra Qs, so well done for that. Why Hampstead had a lot of extra 8s is a mystery. Small parts of Hampstead parish and metropolitan borough were in NW8 but surely they cannot have over-ordered large quantities of this number? Nearly all of Hampstead was in NW3.

This is not, of course, an accident since postal delivery offices were based in sensible centres such as Hampstead and 3 was the number allocated to the Hampstead office. You will probably know that the numerical part of the postal district was created only in 1917 and, prior to that, street signs just showed the lettered postal district, in this case NW. Hampstead had then to add a very large number of tile number 3s to the end of many of its signs, making all the 2-line ones slightly unsymmetrical (if you see a symmetrical one it is probably later than 1917). Anyway, here we have an 8 converted into a 3. Since a real 3 is quite a different shape, it does stand out slightly. For some reason even some quite important signs never seem to have had the 3 added, which given the obscure mews ones that were adjusted seems strange.

Why Hampstead should have been short of blank tiles we can only guess at, but here we have an attempt to use all sorts of rubbish.  The 6 we can explain as part of Hampstead was in NW6 (where I used to live). What about the figure 1 then? Was there a slither in NW1 which meant buying some 1s? What is the dot after the W in ‘MEWS’ all about? My attention was then drawn to the Ss? Are they upside down or am I beginning to imagine things? No, I am advised that they are upside down: every one of them.


Immediately opposite is another tiled name-sign with pretty much the same issues, which is interesting. I think the gap between the two words is a 4 rather than a 1 though (I couldn’t make out what was behind the pipe). Cannot think why Hampstead needed any 4s for postal districts.

Hampstead did use these lettered and numbered tiles for some direction signs too. There are still quite a few in existence and I think some of them might not be very old. I have put another puzzling photo here partly because it shows another use of the figured tiles. These have dots at the end, like the postal district tiles, so we don’t know whether there was a different batch of tiles, without the dots, for more general use. Clearly there is something quite important missing from this sign. I wonder how many types of pointing hands there are?


Finally, what is this picture unearthing?


I can see no possible reason why a frugal borough such as Hampstead would place two street names-signs so close. I can tell you that the London County Council caused the whole section of road to be renamed Hampstead High Street in 1938, prior to which it was just High Street. This would suggest the name on the right has had ‘Hampstead’ added above the existing letters ‘High Street NW3’, which, you will note, is symmetrically laid out so we know this must have been done after 1917. Note the ‘correct’ 3.

The one on the left is clearly in a 2-line frame, suggesting it must have been made during or after 1938. There is another framed one with the same name at the north end of the street, but, otherwise, framed signs like this are uncommon. Perhaps they were made in advance of renaming to be affixed in front of the several ‘High Street’ signs on the day of the renaming; that would do the job in an instant and avoid having to interfere with somebody else’s buildings. Perhaps the framed one here was a spare, or became redundant when the one on the right was actually modified, being put here as rather than discarding it? I don’r suppose we’ll ever know. It might be more useful attached to the Underground station though, as there isn’t one on that side of the road. Note the framed one here uses a modified 8 (the one opposite Hampstead station uses a proper 3).



About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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