WHERE is London’s oldest street sign? I am glad you asked, because it has been amusing me recently to track it down.
Of course, short of carbon dating, it is rather hard to be exact about the age of many. I am talking about the ones that actually have a date on them, although that does mean assuming the dates are accurate.
Two of the easiest to find, quite close to each other, are ‘Cowley Street 1722’ and ‘Smith’s Square 1726’, in Westminster. Smith Square SW1 is famous for St John’s church, nicknamed ‘Queen Anne’s Footstool’ because of its four corner towers, and is also where the European Parliament and European Commission have their London offices. Cowley Street hosts the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is why you may find a wandering policeman keeping an eye on you as you search for stray signs.
In Soho, you can find a lovely square plaque marking ‘Meards Street 1732’. It’s a lovely street, too, a quiet haven from the bustle of the rest of the area. Look out for the ‘Soho Nose’ nearby – that is another story.
Even older is the sign from ‘Chigwell Streate 1678’ which you will find on the corner of Chigwell Hill and The Highway E1. The Highway dates back to Roman times, as you might note by its straightness, and a Roman bath has been excavated alongside it.
In Covent Garden, you have to look very hard to spot ‘Yorke Street 1636’. Don’t go looking for York(e) Street, as it is now renamed Tavistock Street WC2. One very famous former resident of 4 York Street was Thomas de Quincey who wrote ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ in 1821. High above his blue plaque you will spot the street sign. Its date, predating the Great Fire of 1666, makes it the oldest I have found so far in London.