Projects: City of Letters

The next time you venture into Lancaster, as you walk along the streets fronted with Victorian shops and Georgian townhouses, look up. Stop, step back and look up. Sitting unseen and largely unknown on the walls of these buildings are a host of architectural secrets that reveal much of the city’s history. There is a multitude of architectural lettering inscribed or set in relief into the stone faces of the buildings. And if you are wondering why you have never noticed them, it’s probably because they invariably sit above eye level, over doorways, on gable ends – hidden from plain sight and lost amongst the paraphernalia of modern advertisements.

Sometimes they are weathered into the stone, or seen only when the correct lighting allows. But they are there, revealing the names and histories of the city’s past. The diversity of lettering (whether as titling, memorials, or simple date stones) and the quality of the artisanship gives testament to the rich architectural and historical heritage of the city. For example, in the area between Middle Street, Fenton Street and Meeting House Lane, the lettering illustrates the development of Lancaster’s school system, its religious groups, non-conformists and merchants. We can see this in the beautiful façade of the Independent Sunday School, the unusual plaque and figures above the entrance to the Bluecoat School of Redmond House, and the wonderful inscribed stone outside of the Trinity United Reform School. We also find evidence of a forgotten parliamentarian, thief and villain (John Fenton-Cawthorne), in the street names themselves and in the National Girls School that he supported and whose inscription warns of the need to ‘establish order, check vice and uphold virtue’, as well as a memorial to Lancaster’s famous son and poet, Laurence Binyon. All found within this one, small corner of the city.

Visit the Little Eye blog→;where we will be posting images from examples of letterforms from Lancaser and beyond.

City of LettersCity of Letters

City of LettersCity of Letters

Lancaster Alphabet

Amongst Lancaster’s architectural gems is the Co-operative building that sits on the corner of New Street and Church Street. Built in 1901 and designed by architects Austin & Paley, it acted as the Society’s flagship store until its closure in the 1980s. Its beautifully constructed façade is decorated with faux columns, classical motifs, geometric patterns and the Cooperative’s iconic symbol of the beehive. But largely unnoticed alongside these elements is an equally wonderful piece of design – a frieze of lettering in a ribbon of recessed stone that navigates the upper reaches of the building and proclaims the ‘Lancaster and Skerton Equitable Industrial Co-operative Society Ltd’. Almost a metre high, the frieze is cut with exquisite skill, with letters that incorporate unusual circular protrusions across their centres, slanted As and overlapping elements, and which appears to be of a style unique to Lancaster.

These letters affirm the value of beauty for its own sake, and the worth of the artisan in enriching public space with buildings designed to last beyond short-term commercial gain. Compare this outstanding example against many of the buildings that have been constructed in the city in the last fifty years – buildings that are often poor in terms of the quality of their design and construction, and their failure to significantly enhance Lancaster’s urban environment.

Lancaster Alphabet

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Many of the lettering examples provide tangible remnants of once thriving organizations in the city. On Brock Street the gable end of the building that houses Bensons Beds, has a large plaque containing the words ‘Hall A.D. 1844’. The stone letters are beautifully constructed using an unusual slab serif (a common letterform developed in the mid-1800s). What is missing, however, is the word ‘Oddfellows’ – removed at some point in the building’s history and indicating that the hall was once the meeting place of the Oddfellows Society – an organization providing mutual support and insurance before the development of the welfare state.

City of Letters

The city’s lettering then, points us towards an unexplored history where stories are waiting to be uncovered and retold. At well over a hundred examples, Lancaster has one of the best collections of architectural lettering in the country – possibly the best in relation to its population size. They are a forgotten part of Lancaster’s long legacy of producing outstanding examples of commercial and civic design – of buildings devised and constructed by architects and artisans who had a desire to express civic pride and great craftsmanship along with the need to produce functional spaces. These letterforms, so closely associated with the development of the city, are a social and cultural guide to Lancaster’s many facets. Not a guide as you would find in a tourist book, but an invitation to explore, observe and discover. To investigate the heritage – typographic, artistic, architectural, historical and social – to wander its streets, visit the buildings, the archives and museums, or simply to look up and see the potential of this unique place.

Lancaster AlphabetLancaster Alphabet

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This article originally appeared in the first edition of Back&Beyond→, 2011.


Visit the Little Eye blog→ for examples of letterforms from Lancaster and beyond.