Signs and Sensibility: The Last, Great Quest To Reform London’s Road Signage

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Signposting is one of the great civilising forces in a city: it gives the regular traveller reassurance and the stranger hope. For today’s motorist London’s road signage can be hit and miss, but it wasn’t always this way. This is the story of the “Through Roads” programme – the last great attempt to bring order to the road signs of the city.

London is a maze. Only the very newest parts of its vast urban sprawl were ever planned in any meaningful sense. Even when the city was small by today’s standards, remaining largely within its Roman walls, the streets were often narrow, winding and looked much like each other. Today, with the traffic often nose-to-tail and any number of one-way systems removing all prospect of taking a direct route it often remains difficult to navigate.

Abercrombie’s new London

London’s devious and patternless form was meant to have been swept away in bold reconstruction at the end of the Second World War. As the war neared its end, the London County Council (LCC) and the Ministry of Works enlisted the eminent planner Patrick Abercrombie to plan for peacetime, a commission that led to the County of London Plan and then the Greater London Plan. These were vast, comprehensive proposals for the transformation of the whole urban area to correct its many deficiencies.

Central to those plans was the reorganisation of the whole road network, with the creation of new major roads to channel traffic and keep it away from residential and shopping areas. London’s roads would be fit for purpose, logical and direct; navigating would be simple. But when the war ended it became clear that the urgent need for homes and schools would command much of what funding was available for rebuilding. Indeed even if the money had been available, it is likely that the planning apparatus of the 1940s would have been almost incapable of implementing something on the vast scale that Abercrombie had originally envisioned.

In 1946, the LCC attempted to make some progress by scaling back its ambitions. Rather than the whole complex road network, it proposed starting with just the “Arterial ‘A’ Ring”, a single motorway-style Inner Ring Road. The proposal was not well received. A Parliamentary Committee refused to give the LCC the power to safeguard the line of its new road and the Minister of Transport, Alfred Barnes, refused to fund it. In private, even its creators had its doubts about the likelihood of it ever being built.

After planning the ‘A’ Ring we came to the conclusion that it was completely impossible as an urban motorway largely on economic grounds

Patrick Abercrombie

The death of the ‘A’ Ring marked the end of immediate post-war ambitions for major road-building in London and new roads remained off the agenda for the next fifteen years. But the traffic problem hadn’t gone away and car ownership was soaring. Having recovered from the wartime slump in traffic levels, by 1950 the number of cars on the roads had actually doubled compared to the years just before the war. More than ever it became clear that an effective way to move traffic around and through the capital was required.

To the South Bank and the Festival

This situation was brought into sharp focus by events unfolding just south of the river. For while a ration-book version of Abercrombie’s vision was being started in earnest, Clement Attlee’s government was preparing for the Festival of Britain. The celebration of culture, achievement and a bright future would be centred on the South Bank and would draw unprecedented numbers of visitors for the whole summer of 1951. Many of those travelling to London would be coming by road, and it was all too obvious to many that there they would find themselves falling prey to its traffic jams and lost in its illogical streets. Something needed to be done.

The Minister is anxious, now that the London ‘A’ Ring has been dropped, to see what can be done to improve the traffic flow.

Internal Memorandum, Ministry of Transport

Alfred Barnes, Minister of Transport, was the man faced with solving these problems. With wide scale new road development off the table he came up with a different policy – one intended to make more effective use of the roads London already had. The flow of traffic was to be improved by designating “Through Routes” for motorists to follow. Main roads and ring roads would be selected for directness and speed, and, most importantly of all, equipped with a city-wide system of consistent signposting. Routes would be found for traffic to avoid travelling through the central area. London would be made logical.

A lack of direction

The idea that Barnes’ proposal for clear, logical signage was radical thinking may be difficult to grasp today. It’s important, however, to put these ideas into the context of the time. To do that we need to look at the state of the signposts that faced motorists as they braved London’s roads in 1950.

The Ministry of Transport had standard designs for direction signs, so across London their appearance was serviceable and consistent. As we recently explored in LR Magazine Issue 1, London’s (and indeed Britain’s) main roads had also been classified for nearly 30 years by this point, with A- and B-road numbers well established. All of this was largely academic though. For on the streets themselves few signs existed and those that did were often unhelpful.

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A surviving Through Routes road sign probably dating from the 1950s on Crystal Palace Parade. It is typical of post-war direction signs across London.

The reason for this was, quite simply, the war. Many direction signs had been taken down when fear of a German invasion had been at its height. Many more had been damaged by the Luftwaffe’s bombs and not replaced. Even the road signs that did exist (whether pre- or post-war) had been erected with little attempt at an overarching policy for selecting destinations, so there was often no consistency from one junction to the next. On some main roads, successive attempts to signpost useful destinations led to sign clutter on an incredible scale, while a few streets beyond there might be nothing.

A broken circle

Most signs pointed the way in or out of central London, and few offered opportunities to travel between the suburbs or bypass the City and West End. The only ring road of any consequence in 1950 was the North Circular, which ran in fits and starts from Gunnersbury to Gants Hill, with the gaps in its 1920s and 30s dual carriageway plugged with existing streets. The South Circular Road was little more than conceptual, its name principally referring to the pre-war proposals for a new road matching the North Circular. In lieu of that being built, the A205 was signposted across South London, but it wasn’t in any meaningful sense a ring road.

The two Circulars didn’t even meet to form the circle that their name implied. The A205 began at Shepherd’s Bush, several miles along the A40 from the North Circular, and finished at Woolwich, leaving a lengthy gap from there to Gants Hill where no attempt had been made to join them up at all. There were no other ring roads, except the North Orbital Road, an incomplete attempt at 1930s road building that ran only from Watford to Hatfield.

Because there was no way round, long distance traffic that wanted to get from one side of London to the other would commonly just pass straight through the middle.

Straight through the centre

In fact, shocking as it may now seem, journeys into and through central London were positively encouraged. Central London was far more navigable than the suburbs: the streets in the centre were generally wider and better equipped for heavy volumes of traffic, and importantly, the routes in and out were more obvious and better signposted.

Nothing highlighted this seemingly counter-intuitive focus on the centre more than some of the signage that could be found in the heart of London at the time. In 1948, the Ministry of Transport had erected long-distance signs on routes between London and the major ports of Dover, Southampton and Harwich. These signs covered not just the long journey cross-country, but doggedly continued right in to the very heart of the city.

[Signs have been] specially erected to tell us that Tottenham Court Road leads to Harwich, which, at the relevant point, is marked as being 77 miles away. It is curious how few people who live or work in this part of Tottenham Court Road have noticed their new association with Harwich. Many refuse to believe it until the gleaming white and green signpost is pointed out to them.

The Times, 22 August 1951

At least the Ministry’s signs had a clear goal. In fact, many ordinary road signs were not erected by the Ministry or the Boroughs at all. Until the 1960s the AA and RAC’s signs were officially recognised and, nationwide, they had designed, installed and paid for a sizeable proportion of all Britain’s direction signs. Unfortunately, while their designs conformed to the Ministry of Transport’s standards, their text often did not, and the two motoring organisations each had their own ideas about which destinations ought to be used. At best their signs were inconsistent; at worst, they were directly in conflict with each other’s and the Ministry’s efforts. In East London, they chose – and signposted – their own completely separate route for the North Circular.

Even the Festival itself was contributing to the chaos. It had already erected special purple signs intended to help motorists from outside London. Inbound, they pointed the way to the two main sites on the South Bank and at Battersea. On the rear face of the sign panel (and therefore usually on the wrong side of the road for traffic trying to leave London) they just read “Exit North” or “Exit West” – not the most helpful of legends.

Enter Alfred Barnes and his quest for a logical system.

From nothing, a system

On 20 June 1950, Alfred Barnes’ former chauffeur, Mr. Beardon, was likely somewhat bemused at finding himself summoned back his old employer’s office at the Ministry of Transport. His confusion likely didn’t end there, as after pleasantries had been exchanged he found himself bombarded with questions.

Calmly and systematically Barnes asked him how he would go about getting to different points in London from various directions, and had a civil servant take detailed notes. Beardon’s suggestions – dozens of them, recorded street by street as he sat in the Minister’s office and recited them – became the utterly unscientific first step in selecting the main roads that the Ministry signposted. They still form the basis for the signed network that London’s traffic still uses today.

Beardon’s list was circulated to the Divisional Road Engineer for London and the Ministry’s Chief Engineer, and the business of turning London’s streets into a navigable network began.

The language of communication

Those involved quickly realised that it wasn’t just the routes that were important – it was very much the visual language of signage as well.

They investigated ways of colour coding roads, with each radial route equipped with signs of a specific colour like Tube lines. Very quickly this became messy and unmanageable. They also considered assigning them new numbers. In one scenario, routes leading out of London were to be given logical numbers branching off each other, where branches off route 1 would be 1.1, 1.2, and branches off those 1.1.1, 1.1.2. Central London itself would be identified on signs with a zero. This too proved impractical, as ideas like this rarely translate well to the unstructured layout of London’s roads.

Through Routes emerges

It was quickly realised that any radical idea would require a huge extra effort in driver education, and that the Ministry’s aims could be achieved much more easily through something more conventional. London didn’t need an entirely new method to identify its roads; it just needed that missing layer of logic and consistency applied to existing signage. In fact, it needed something that had not been devised before: a navigation policy, known as “Through Routes,” which could be applied to the whole city.

through_routes_network

Ministry of Transport diagram showing destinations selected for the Through Routes signs. Many of these choices are still in use today, and others have only been modified where a motorway has replaced an older road. (Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.)

Until this time, signposting had happened per-junction or per-road. For the first time, the Ministry of Transport chose a list of destinations and a method of indicating the places that might be reached by turning this way or that on ring roads. It then set about applying these decisions to the entire metropolis. All signposts would be replaced, and every last one would be erected with reference to the same plan. It may seem obvious today, but in 1950 this was a revolution.

All change

It soon became clear that the wholesale replacement of all London’s road signs presented opportunities to make other major changes as well, and the creation of the Through Routes scheme grew to include rerouting, reclassifying and designating new main roads on a remarkable scale.

Perhaps the most significant change was the reshaping of the North and South Circular Roads. The A205 was sent west from Clapham through Wandsworth, Putney and Kew to meet the North Circular at Gunnersbury, while the North Circular was given an official routing south from Waterworks Corner to the Woolwich Ferry, completing the circle.

The Inner Ring Road was also a creation of this scheme. It had its genesis in a particularly successful element of the transport plan from the Festival of Britain: a special route for coach traffic to avoid Central London had been devised, circling Westminster and the City on Euston Road, Tower Bridge, Vauxhall Bridge and Park Lane. With a few adjustments to its route, it was made permanent. In fact this makeshift orbital is still with us today – it now forms the Congestion Charge boundary.

Until 1951, road numbers didn’t always follow the most-used routes. The A1 still ran through the middle of Finchley and Barnet, while its bypass was called A555. The Through Routes scheme attempted to put an end to this. Egregious numbering decisions of the 1920s were swept away, putting the A1 on the Barnet Bypass, the A40 on the Western Avenue and the A10 on the Great Cambridge Road, among others.

With the main roads chosen and the ring roads established, drawings were produced for new direction signs at all key junctions. The new signs would have bright yellow backing boards, to make them obvious and easily recognisable, and would all follow the same simple layout.

Finding the middle

As new signs were to be installed all over London, and distances would have to be calculated for them all, the opportunity was taken to correct a quirk of history. Until 1951, London did not have a central point to which distances were measured.

Traditionally, there were actually seven such places, all related to the itineraries of mail coaches in centuries gone by. They were incredibly inconsistent, and only one was within a mile of Charing Cross. Depending on the direction of approach, distances might be measured from Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner, Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Whitechapel Church, Shoreditch Church or (perhaps the most obscure of all) the site of Hick’s Hall on St John Street, a building that had been demolished in 1778.

It might be expected that a rational decision to choose just one point would be welcomed, but in fact press coverage was decidedly mixed and there appeared to be some considerable affection for the old system. Nonetheless a new datum point was chosen – the statue of Charles I on the south side of Trafalgar Square, the original site of the Charing Cross. Indeed Westminster Council put a plaque on the site, still there today, which marks the significance of King Charles’ feet.

All mileages on the new signs – and indeed on all road signs erected in the capital since that time – have measured their distance to London from this point.

charing_cross_plaque

A plaque marking the new datum point.

The Ministry didn’t elaborate on its reasons for selecting the statue on Trafalgar Square, but until that time it appears to have only been significant for one reason. In 1831, the London Hackney Carriage Act selected the statue as the centre point of the six-mile radius that defines The Knowledge. Motorists nationwide now count their distance from London with reference to Charing Cross, seemingly because that’s where London’s cab drivers consider the centre of the metropolis to be. Perhaps it was thought that there was no higher authority on the subject.

charing_cross_statue

The statue of Charles I on the south side of Trafalgar Square

Spreading the load

In all, the Through Routes scheme was an attempt to redistribute traffic flows across Greater London to make journeys simpler and easier. Many of the Through Routes were created by commandeering existing streets, like Mortlake Road in Kew, which was elevated from a B-Road to the South Circular. Almost all of the roads used in this way were residential or fronted with shops and other premises.

In hindsight, it may seem odd that a peaceful street might be singled out to take heavy traffic, with signs erected to concentrate the flow of vehicles on one unlucky row of shops, pubs and houses. To do so would be unthinkable today. But in the early 1950s, it followed the established and accepted principle of “spreading the load” – easing the burden on existing main roads by drafting in other nearby routes to add to the available road space.

Time would prove that it was not a particularly effective or inclusive way of planning routes and roads. There was no right of reply for those who lived and worked on the streets that were affected. It was also an approach that would be discredited in “Traffic in Towns”, Colin Buchanan’s 1963 report about the uncomfortable reality of attempting to remodel cities for the benefit of motor cars. Until Buchanan’s warnings were heard though, London would continue to see hapless side streets used to create one-way streets and gyratories for its main roads – many of which remain in force today.

Late for the Festival

Despite initially being envisioned as a solution fit for the Festival of Britain, it was perhaps inevitable that as the scope of the work required grew so would its delivery slip. In the end, Alfred Barnes’ Through Routes scheme missed the Festival completely. Not that this missed deadline drew much notice – the Ministry was already firmly focused on not just providing yellow signs on main roads and ring roads, but was also erecting a dense network of blue-backed local direction signs across the rest of London’s roads. The cost of the project was estimated at £140,000 in 1954, but at that point it still had another four years to run. The equivalent economic cost today would be one hundred times that sum.

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An original Through Routes local sign on the A212 Sydenham Road, refurbished and fitted with new destination panels. Its survival may be due to a Preservation Order.

Stepney holds out

By 1957, erection of yellow signs on main roads was almost complete and about three quarters of blue signs were also up. Two hurdles remained. One was the provision of blue signs in central London, an area that now had a definite boundary thanks to the Inner Ring Road. The signs there would follow the new and sensible idea that they should indicate road junctions and not localities so as to be more specific. This policy is still used today; it’s why signs within the Inner Ring Road point to places like Parliament Square, Ludgate Circus and Bank.

The other hurdle was that there were no new signs at all in the Borough of Stepney.

Stepney’s Borough Engineer did not think much of Albert Barnes’ plan to make London navigable, and its belligerent Council Chamber made a great show of refusing to cooperate, insisting that there were more pressing demands on its finances in such a deprived inner-city location.

It would seem that the good citizens of Stepney subscribe very closely to the lesson of Matthew, Chapter VIII, Verse 39: ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign and there shall be no sign given to it.’

Civil Service memorandum, undated, 1957

Without Stepney Borough’s assistance – and more importantly their share of the funding commitment – there would be no signs in their part of East London, and the new Inner Ring Road was rendered meaningless by the gap in its eastern side.

Stepney’s elected members and recalcitrant Engineer finally changed their mind in early March 1957 and announced that they would began work preparing their Borough’s new signposts. It is almost certainly the case that this did not represent a change of heart on Stepney’s part. Just a few days before, the Ministry of Transport had finally been granted the power by Parliament to force local authorities to erect road signs. The Borough had simply decided they would rather jump than suffer the indignity of being pushed.

A state of gradual decay

The Through Routes of the 1950s were the first and last attempt to comprehensively review signposting across London and make its roads truly coherent.

Since then, newer signs have continued to use the guidance of the 1950s, or more commonly simply copied the old text onto a new sign. Huge numbers have been taken down at the end of their useful life and never replaced.

The only comparable project was a review of Primary Route signs in 1995, which systematically reviewed and replaced green signs on main roads across Greater London. Millions of pounds were spent, and the job was commendably thorough, but its designers would have to admit that they were still, to an extent, relying on the groundwork laid in the fifties – going right back to the musings of a retired government chauffeur. On the TfL Red Route network they are kept up to date.

dulwich

This sign on Lordship Lane in Dulwich is a modern attempt to copy the design of a Through Routes sign, complete with semi-circular top panel.

On minor roads though there has never been another review. The legacy of the blue Through Route signs is visible not just in the choice of destinations on modern black-and-white signs across London, but also in their layout, with some of London’s boroughs appearing to rely entirely on copying old signs. If you see a newer panel with a layout that seems unusual now then this is almost certainly the cause – it’s a well-intentioned (but misguided) attempt to copy a Through Routes sign’s layout on the sign that has replaced it.

Sometimes, though, those signs simply aren’t replaced at all. Today, many boroughs actually take down far more signs than they replace.

Into the future

It would be easy to decry this decay. To lament this lack of central policy and prescription. But we no longer live in an era where heavy traffic can be redirected down previously quiet streets without protest. While on streets that are already in use as main roads it is tolerated, it would be undesirable to inflict the nuisance of its traffic load onto another thoroughfare, and it would be even less acceptable to clear a path for a new purpose-built road to relieve it. Altering the status quo is thus rarely an option. If a review were to be conducted today it would, therefore, be forced to conclude that we should continue using broadly the same set of roads for the same purposes as we do already. Traffic engineers do not have the freedom (or indeed the lack of regard) needed to recast the flow of traffic as they did half a century ago.

Nor, in the world of satellite navigation, do signs perhaps hold the vital role – at least for many younger drivers – that they used to. With instructions on everything from route to lane ordered by the device on the dashboard, it is marking temporary, rather than permanent routes that many drivers subconsciously see as the road sign’s primary role.

Nonetheless, navigation and wayfinding continues to be in everyone’s interests: not only is it a convenience for those who have to find their way through the streets, it’s also beneficial to everyone who lives and works in London. The view of the sat-nav is a simplistic one, and London is a complex city. One where channelling specific types of traffic onto the roads that match their purpose and limit their impact is going to become increasingly crucial if London is to continue to grow.

Indeed, even in the era of satellite navigation, CityMapper and Journey Planner, good direction signage continues to prosper in certain quarters. TfL and the boroughs continue to invest in street signs and kerbside maps for pedestrians in a project called Legible London; Cycle Superhighways are provided with clear and thorough direction signs – signs that are now sometimes the only direction signs at a road junction at all; heavy goods traffic continues to be channelized by the London-wide system of HGV restrictions. It can seem highly incongruous that clear directions for the benefit of all road users are not considered an equal priority and can even be treated with apathy by some of London’s boroughs.

But then, as this article has hopefully shown, signposting has never really been fashionable nor a priority. So perhaps it is best simply to be happy that, in the form of the Through Roads scheme, an enlightened and concerted effort to define navigation in London once existed.

The mood may not have lasted and the evidence of that work is now mostly gone, but look closely enough and its influence still remains.

As well as writing for LR, Chris Marshall runs and writes for CBRD, one of the foremost websites about the British road network. He has been researching and documenting plans, ideas and developments in and on London’s roads for longer than he cares to remember.

Written by Chris Marshall