In the autumn of 1890 the London press had received a number of letters concerning a new method of advertising. Companies (especially those that did not have a high street presence) had begun to put up ‘sky signs’ that loomed over the metropolis atop tall buildings.
These signs ‘used the sky of heaven as a background for their advertisements’ and were particularly useful for businesses that were located ‘in back streets and out of reach of the public eye’. One such sign that had recently been erected advertised the merits of Bovril, ‘a thick and salty meat extract paste similar to a yeast extract, developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston’ (wikipedia, 4/10/17).
The Clerkenwell vestry opposed the the installation of such sky signs because they felt they presented a risk to health and safety, and summoned the representatives of Bovril Ltd to Clerkenwell Police Court and prosecuted them under the Metropolis Management Act, 18 and 19 Victoria, cap 120 (1855) section 119. The section of legislation made it unlawful for anyone to block a passage or erect a sign that endangered road users and the vestry’s concern was that the Bovril sign (in particular the letter ‘B’) might fall and crush passers by below.
The case for the vestry was presented by Mr Bodkin and he argued that since the letters were made of wood, and weighed ‘on average one hundredweight’ they constituted a real risk to those below. As noted above the letter B projected over Lever Street and so the vestry had ordered the firm to take them down. This request had been refused or ignored and so it ended up before Mr Bros at Clerkenwell. Bodkin argued that there was a very real risk the sign could fall and added that its elevated position made it entirely possible that it could be struck by lightning, fall or ignite the rest of the building in fire.
Defending Bovril, Mr Forrest Fulton suggested the concerns were overblown. He called Mr George Sage (of messrs. Sage), whose company had made the letters. Sage attempted to convince the magistrate (and the vestry) that there was no danger to anyone:
‘The letters were erected with the greatest care and every precaution was taken to avoid accidents’.
They had even attached a lightning conductor to the building as extra protection for the signage. Challenged by the vestry’s spokesman he said that he accepted that ‘London’s atmosphere might, in the course of years, weaken the structure’, but he called forward another member of Sage’s team who reassured the court that ‘no pressure of wind could bring the letter B down’. Mr Fulton also insisted that any fire risk was applicable to the building anyway, and not exacerbated by wooden letters above its roof.
An architect was produced who also testified that the structure was safe and Fulton confirmed that Bovril had agreed to have the sign inspected annually to ensure it was well maintained and presented no risk to the public. So, was this really about public safety or about the increasing presence of advertising? London was awash with commercial signage in the late nineteenth century; indeed it is one of things that first strikes you when you look at pictures of the capital like this Kilburn omnibus below (from c.1890).
In the end I suspect Mr Bros the magistrate compromised because while he fined Bovril 40s for not complying with the vestry’s order this was a nominal amount and not a real disincentive to the advertisers. The paper noted that an appeal was likely and one imagines it would have considerable commercial support. Late Victorian and Edwardian England thrived on commerce and entrepreneurship and companies such as Bovril had deep pockets.
The days of the vestry as an influential body were also numbered, they would soon lose what little power they had to councils. One only has to take a ride through central London and along the river today to recognise that business has triumphed over the aesthetic desires of those that would prefer a less cluttered skyline or a more low-key use of advertising. This process started in the 1800s and has been relentless ever since.
[from The Standard, Saturday, October 04, 1890]