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Building of the Month - September 2013

Georgian and Regency Street Name Signage in Cork

The story of street name signage in Cork can be traced back to the early years of the eighteenth century, when signs were erected by developers on their own property.  However, whilst individual signs are likely to have been set up even prior to that, a systematic response to the problem of way-finding for visitors to the city only really developed in the last third of the century.  The reasons for this are varied: the expansion of the old city east and west fuelled by a boom in the provisions trade; a desire to apply some sort of order to what had been a city characterised by a muddle of grubby medieval allies; and the adoption of new legal structures to improve the city.  New signage should be regarded in the light of improvements to other aspects of our streets, namely, drainage, house numbering, lighting, paving, and so on.

Street Signage in Cork 01 - Francis Street

Figure 1: The oldest street name sign in Cork records the name of the property developer, S. [Samuel] Pike

In the then-United Kingdom, it seems that one of the great drivers of this desire to modernise was the catastrophe of the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Following this event, measures were taken to better regulate and control the urban environment there and some of these ideas spread to Dublin, Cork and other Irish cities.  It must be admitted that this was an international movement and that similar street improvement movements could be found from Scandinavia to Italy.  Cork received a Wide Streets Commission in 1765 with the aim of improving the city, and signage, lighting and planning eventually fell under their remit.  Some signage in the city pre-dates this: the sign in Francis Street is dated 1730 and was erected at the behest of a young property developer, Samuel Pike (fig. 1).  The sign has been re-set since the NIAH survey, but is secure.  In Tuckey Street a sign dated 1761 was probably set up after old Tuckey's Lane was widened to its current dimensions (fig. 2).  Its lettering is more sophisticated, based on a Classical form, but nonetheless shows a lack of finesse.  By 1787, it seems that about half the streets in Cork had some sort of nameplate, and the city Corporation attempted to roll-out a city-wide scheme in that year.  The project is said to have taken twenty years.  It is highly likely that these signs were timber, and none are known to exist today although they can be glimpsed in contemporary topographical prints.

Street Signage in Cork 02 - Tuckeys Street

Figure 2: A street name sign in Tuckey Street shows elegant Georgian lettering

A different tack was taken in the estate developed by the Morrison family in the area between South Terrace and Douglas Street.  Here, paired corner signs in the form of inscribed quoins at right angles to each other were adopted and some remain on the junctions of Dunbar Street/Cove Lane [Douglas Street] (fig. 3) and Morrison's Place/Rutland Street. The evidence from mapping the various street name changes allows us to date these signs to about 1805.  The signs provide other evidence about the development of the city.  For instance, another example can be found on the corner of George's Quay and Mary Street, currently set into the wall of an early twentieth-century gable-fronted public house.  However, if one looks carefully, one can discern that the west wall of the building – the one incorporating the sign – is thicker than the others and probably dates to the 1770s.  Although the sign itself may be from the 1780s, this indicates that the old wall was retained in the new building.  In other locations, signage is set into the main façade of a building, often with scant regard to way-finding; for example in the middle of a terrace, rather than on a street corner as one would expect.  The street sign at 8 Dean Street, dating from c.1755, is a good example of this, but there are also many specimens from the late nineteenth century throughout Cork.

In another location, a stone sign provides evidence of the former course of an old street, since modified.  Roman's Walk – so-called as it provided access for Roman Catholic citizens of Cork from the city centre to the North Chapel – was truncated in the mid nineteenth century, but a 1740's sign in Bob & Joan's Walk, near Saint Anne's Shandon, allows one to reconstruct the old route.


Street Signage in Cork 03 - Dunbar Street and Cove Lane

Figure 3: A two-sided street name sign displays the names of Dunbar Street and Cove Lane, since renamed Douglas Street

Street Signage in Cork 04 - Montenotte Road

Figure 4: A high quality street name sign in Montenotte Road records the name of the builder, Wm. [William] Connor

In addition to these rare survivors, Georgian and Regency signage can be found in:

  • Farren Street, off Gerald Griffin Street (1732);
  • Ireland's Row [Tobin Street] (1762);
  • Millerd (Millard) Street (1766);
  • James Street (1767);
  • The Bowling Green [White Street] (1773);
  • Liberty Street (1782);
  • Grenville Place (1783);
  • Nelson's Quay (c.1795);
  • Jameson's Row (pre-1803);
  • Couch's Lane, off Stephen Street (1811);
  • Rockspring Terrace [Middle Glanmire Road] (1830);
  • Montenotte Road, off Middle Glanmire Road (1832) (fig. 4);
  • Woburn Place [Lower Glanmire Road] (1831);
  • Langford Place [Langford Row] (1833);
  • York Terrace [Summerhill North] (1833);
  • Rotunda Buildings [Oliver Plunkett Street] (1833).

For more information on how street signage old and new can enhance our understanding of a city's development, please see Tom Spalding's book, Layers: the Design, History and Meaning of Public Street Signage in Cork and Other Irish Cites, available from selected bookshops and from the publisher's website: www.associatededitions.ie

Tom Spalding is a Cork-based author and conservation activist.  His books include Cork City: A Field Guide to its Street Furniture (2009) and A Guide to Cork's 20th Century Architecture (2010).  He gives occasional walking tours of the city and is enthusiastic about his adopted home

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