Signs tell Bendigo's social history

Forget goose bumps. Never fear the heebie-jeebies. The only adverse effect of hunting for ghost signs is a stiff neck, as you’ll need to spend hours at the bottom of buildings, looking up.

It’s a small price to pay for the fun of taking a retrostalgia tour of the city, searching for the typography of the past.

Barely there lettering still haunts Bendigo’s streets and laneways, whispering tales from another time, when inner-city flour mills churned and Chinese herbalists traded around Bridge Street.

Like artefacts in an open-air museum, Bendigo’s historic, hand-painted signs tell a social history of the city.

Sign enthusiast, author, artist and La Trobe University lecturer Geoff Hocking says that’s why we lose so much when they disappear altogether.

“They were everywhere once,” he says of advertisements on red brick buildings and humble corner stores.

“Bendigo has pretty much cleaned itself out. 

“There are a few windows with Bushells still on them but in terms of the sides of buildings, they’re pretty much gone.” This week we went searching for the remnants – take a good look at the photographs here and see if you can pick their whereabouts.

While many walls around the city show the shadow of once-were signs, some feature words that are still quite legible, others only just.

Geoff says there’s a good argument for restoring what is left of them.

“We take cars, furniture and houses and restore them, so I see no reason why we shouldn’t take important signs and repaint them, or else one day they will disappear.

“There is a resurgence in interest in these old signs.”

Geoff’s interest started more than 30 years ago as a student, when he began photographing old typography. 

In 2005 he released Signs of the Times, A Nostalgic Celebration of Australian Advertising Signs, published by The Five Mile Press.

The book features Geoff’s collection of advertising photos, taken across the country, including shots of signage in Bendigo that is now long gone.

The book will be re-printed this year as interest in historic signs grows.

Geoff says while Bendigo presents slim pickings, other central Victorian towns retain and preserve their old signs.

“Rushworth has got some terrific signs. In a lot of these country towns the signs have become part of the decoration, the jewellery of the street,” he says. “And places like Maldon and Kyneton are conscious of what they’ve got.

“Not so long ago a nursery in Kyneton had to do some protection work on a sign in Piper Street on a blue stone wall because watering the plants had caused some damage to the paint.

“We had a couple of crackers in Castlemaine of Cadbury Chocolate.  I was driving past one day and there was a guy up a ladder with a tin of white paint. 

“I stopped and said, will you hang on five minutes, and I rushed back with my camera and took a photo of it, then he painted over it. At least he waited.

“That’s happened a few times, when I’ve driven past building sites, leapt out of the car and rushed over.”

“I’ve found quite a few in Echuca recently that I hadn’t seen before. Sometimes they do reveal themselves.”

A couple of years ago this exact thing happened in Bridge Street, when a former smash repair garage was demolished, revealing a 1950s-era Cohns soft drink sign on a brick wall, well preserved after being protected from the weather.

Cohns was an iconic Bendigo cordial, soft drink and beer manufacturer, which was started by three brothers on the goldfields.

The sign itself (pictured on the cover of WE) is now an iconic landmark in the city. Geoff says it’s the perfect example of how signs keep history alive. 

“People really do like them and I think that’s the interesting thing,” he says.

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