11 September 2023

The writing is on the wall: Ghost signs of Goulburn are fading in changing streetscapes

| John Thistleton
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sign on old building

The Goulburn Labour Exchange sign in Ross Place. Photo: John Thistleton.

The ghost signs of Goulburn are few and fast fading. The most evocative ones are hand-written or painted stencils on brick walls.

Goulburn sketch artist and observer of all things architectural Steve Ayling says old signs show the depth of history and social fabric in a town, and one in Ross Place, a lane off Montague Street, would be among the pick of them.

It says the ”Department of Labor and Industry”, has an indistinguishable middle line and the bottom line of ”Goulburn Labour Exchange”. This was an office that, according to Trove Library, issued telling statistics during the 1930s Depression. In the early ’30s, the city’s jobless rate was doubling each year. As the years of unemployment dragged on, the Labour Exchange released details of relief work for large numbers of men.

Grouped into single men and married ones, they were employed on a road deviation to eliminate bends six miles north of Goulburn for the Department of Main Roads; helping on the railway line between Bungendore and Captains Flat; and in 1931, when most of the 1430 unemployed were engaged in the Ifield sewer construction.

sign on old building

The Bushells sign on the corner of Grafton and Cove streets photographed several years ago. It has now faded considerably. Photo: David Stevenson.

Another prominent but fast-fading sign is the Bushell Tea advertisement in Grafton Street. As we have recorded here previously, the building was a 1950s corner shop run by Gladys Shepherd, who opened from 8 am to 8 pm to support her three children following the death of her husband, Harry.

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Steve places old signs into three categories. The first is for the rarest signs, such as Goulburn’s Labour Exchange, which relate to something long gone.

The second category relates to signs remembered by a group of people: for example, the wine bar sign and restaurant sign at the rear of the old fire station. Perhaps cigarette advertising signs, once a prominent feature of commercial and sporting skylines, should be lumped into this category.

The third category comprises old signs we recognise and remember when the shop, service or product was in use. A multitude of them proliferates in Goulburn’s central business district. Cafes, chemists, real estate agents, doctors, dentists and banks are forever moving, leaving behind some of their signage.

sign on old building

This artists’ studio in Goulburn was a bakery from 1935. Photo: John Thistleton.

One of the most prominent examples is the Furniture Warehouse sign in the Conolly Mill precinct in Sloane Street. It has since relocated to Clinton Street, where it occupies another redeveloped building on top of which has been painted a recent sign harking back to the days when it was an old woolstore.

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Another interesting sign is the Old Bakery Studio at the rear of an Auburn Street shop where baker George Morton opened in 1935. He was joined by his son George and the business closed in 1967. It later became a potter’s studio, and the sign remains today.

Over the years, the dynamic march of commerce has outpaced all attempts by the council of the day, main street committees, Goulburn Chamber of Commerce and Goulburn Heritage Group to establish a coherent sign policy.

According to the Walking Tours of Melbourne website, hunting ghost signs is part of a growing ”retrostalgia” movement by young people and urban archaeologists seeking to mine the richness of our past to gain a greater understanding of our present. In fact, hunting ghost signs has become a worldwide pursuit, with thousands sharing photos on social media.

sign on old building

The Goulburn Furniture Warehouse sign in Sloane Street. The business is now in Clinton Street. Photo: John Thistleton.

Time gives signs character, but their fame can be fleeting in the inevitable march of progress. For example, on the corner of Sloane Street and Finlay Road in Goulburn, signs lingered after the saleyards closed in 2017, including one for livestock carriers and the ramps from where they would unload. The signs have been removed in preparation for the latest occupant, a storage enterprise.

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