CAST IRON GUIDEPOSTS of ESSEX

INTRODUCTION

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POINTING THE WAYS

 

A classic example of a cast iron guidepost manufactured by the Maldon Iron Works.  It has a three feet six inch post, one ten and a half inch and three seven-inch arms with the upper pair staggered.  The whole set is topped with a conical finial.  Located at Great Totham (North) on the Maldon to Tiptree road.

  POINTING THE WAYS

An Introductory Guide to the Cast Iron Direction, Guide and Fingerposts

Along the Highways and Byways of Essex

 by  John V Nicholls 

  Pointing the Ways  

Waymarkers of one description or another have dotted the countryside for many centuries.  The earliest long distance traveller had most likely relied on natural features but later he would erect stones or posts as a means to follow routes, especially across moors or, for example, the ridge routes of Wessex.  When the familiar fingerpost became a common feature alongside the ways and byways is not known but certainly they were in use by the end of the 17th century.

The earliest fingerposts were wooden and it has yet to be ascertained when the first iron posts were erected in Essex.  All the cast iron posts remaining in Essex date from after c.1920 but photographs from the late 19th and the early 20th century frequently show cast iron posts in various locations around Essex.  They were genuine fingerposts with the extremities of the arms cast with familiar pointing finger hands.

Why the Interest?   

   I felt I was alone in my passing interest of waymarkers until joining the Milestone Society in 2001.  I soon found out that there were others who were similarly interested and some had already photographed several old guideposts in Essex. 

Guideposts, or if you prefer, signposts, fingerposts or direction posts, abound with hardly a road junction or crossroads not displaying one.  Unlike milestones, guideposts, in their many types and designs, are still utilised on a day-to-day basis, especially in rural areas, although the old cast iron examples are not as common as they were a few decades ago.  My travels around Essex in pursuit of milestones have given me the opportunity to appreciate the old guideposts and the amazing number of subtle variations of them. Unlike searching for milestones, which are along fairly well defined routes, old guideposts have to be sought out almost in a random fashion.  They are found mostly by local knowledge or sheer luck.

My thanks to the following for their help and assistance in the search for surviving cast iron posts; Geoff Perrior (Brentwood), Brian Barrow (Clavering). David Mansell (Braintree), Colleen Morrison (Harlow), Dr Jim Young (Essex ex-pat) and Janet Gyford (Witham).  My apologies to anyone I have forgotten.

   Disappearing Heritage    

After the 1964 legislation for road signs many counties carried out the wholesale destruction of their old fingerposts.  Fortunately some counties did retain many of the old iron posts (Cheshire, Norfolk, Sussex and Essex are good examples), but their survival in the long term is by no means assured.  Over the years there has been a gradual passing of the old cast iron guideposts within the county of Essex.  Initially their demise was just accepted as another mark in the inexorable march of progress, but it has lately been realised that with their removal we are losing part of the county’s history and heritage. With allies sharing the interest and discovering that Essex County Council Heritage was also looking for old posts, the hunt was on to discover what remained of Essex’s cast iron guidepost survivors.  

This genuine 19th century fingerpost by an unknown maker lasted to the late 1950s in Basildon.

With one exception in Upminster Tithe Barn Museum and another at Downham, no pre-twentieth century posts are known to survive; the cast iron posts that still remain date from soon after the end of the First World War to the end of the 1930s.  Even though iron is long lasting, most rural and even some urban guideposts have given way to wooden examples with either hand-painted (rare these days) lettering, stick-on lettering or in a few cases, individual metal lettering nailed or screwed into place.  Elsewhere modern reflective signs have been erected and are perhaps more functional in today’s high speed rat race, but they lack character and individuality as well as looking out of place in rural settings.

This well-maintained Maldon Iron Works set with its single fourteen-inch arm and semicircular finial is at Frating.  It is Grade II listed.

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The Manufacturers

 The Maldon Iron Works (MIW) of Maldon was responsible for manufacturing by far the majority of surviving Essex’s cast iron guideposts.  Current research including study of the Maldon Iron Works archive in the Essex Record Office seems to indicate that all those surviving can be dated to the 1920s and 1930s with the last MIW items being some replacement arms in 1940.

Stantons Ironworks of Ilkeston in Derbyshire also managed to sell their products in Essex and a number of their guideposts remain, mostly in the west of the county.  The oldest known iron guidepost still existence is a genuine nineteenth century finger post now housed in the Upminster Tithe Barn Museum.  It is known that the manufacturer was Wedlake of Hornchurch.  Further research may disclose if other manufacturers, either within or outside the Essex, were making guideposts for the county’s highways.  The unusual post at Downham is a good example of an unknown maker.

Seen from a distance the Maldon Iron Works guideposts, other than their differing heights, all look similar but on closer inspection many variations soon become apparent.  The first noticeable difference relates to the finial at the top of the post.

 Features 1.  Finials (MIW)

The finials on Maldon Iron Works posts are of four distinct types: The semicircular or half-moon; the roundel or disc; pierced roundel or halo (the “Shires” book on signs uses the term annulus); and the cone.  Most commonly seen are the cone and the semicircular.

The half-moon or semicircular parish plate finials seem to be unique to Essex.  Initially the choice of the design remained something of an enigma until it was realised that early wooden posts in the county frequently displayed parish plates of the same shape.  The plates are not true semicircles being eighteen inches wide by nine inches in height.

The half-moon plates have two known variations.  Normally they all follow the same style of lettering with “PARISH OF” following around the top curve and the name of the parish along the bottom.  In the centre, within a semicircular surround, the text usually reads “E.C.C.” (the abbreviation for Essex County Council) and “STICK NO BILLS”.  Three exceptions have been noted at Loughton, High Roding and at Aythorpe Roding where an oval surround enclosing “E.C.C.” replaces the “E.C.C. and “STICK NO BILLS” legend.  The Aythorpe Roding example is recycled and now fitted to a wooden post.  All half-moon examples have the legend cast on both sides and only fitted to tall posts.  A singular exception is a restored set at Broxted where one is fitted to a short post.

A “STICK NO BILLS” type semicircular finial.

“E.C.C.” in oval on semicircular finial.

A conical finial at Stanford Rivers.

The cone or conical finial seems to have been generally used on short post types although not uncommon on medium and tall posts.  By the mid-1930s it was probably common practice to use this type of finial. 

Roundels or discs occur less frequently.  They record the parish in similar form to the semicircular types with “ESSEX COUNTY COUNCIL” in the centre.  The known examples appear on a localized clutch in Ingatestone, Hutton and Stock with an isolated example at Hockley. 

Halo or annulus finials are a rarity on Maldon Iron Works posts.   The only known examples of the type is on the post at Herongate (  the text simply reading “ESSEX COUNTY COUNCIL”) and Woodford Green.   It might well be that the Herongate annulus finial was not supplied as original equipment by Maldon Iron Works.  One of the arms (towards Billericay with a road number box mistakenly cast into it) was a comparatively recent replacement.  The annulus at Woodford Green is definitely a new addition.

The annulus finial at Herongate.

Roundel or disc finial at Ingatestone.

The one-off finial design at Ulting.

One MIW guidepost that seemed to defy some of the hard and fast rules is at Ulting.  It has a rectangular finial with a semicircular top and was thought to be a later replacement.  However, the shape has been seen within the Maldon Iron Works order books so it might be contemporary.  It is the only short post type so far seen with a lettered finial; all other short post types having a cone.  The post is also unusual in that it does not have the usual taper although this also occurs at Liston. Chrishill and Manuden.  While it is that the original cast iron posts were broken and straight steel replacements were made, there were some posts of the straight type ordered c.1926..

Even more exceptional, if not unique, is the MIW post at Heybridge, Maldon.  Instead of a finial, this once apparently had a lamp on top.  A curving remnant of the lamp arm remains although the light fitting has long since disappeared

Posts without finials normally have a cap.  This probably helps to prevent the ingress of water to the shaft fitted inside the top of the hollow post.  These are quite rare and possibly were not original fittings.  Lettered finials are painted white with the legend picked out in black.  Conical types are seen painted black or white.

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Feature 2. The Post (MIW).

Although a few exceptions have been noted above, by and large the posts of Maldon Iron Works examples are normally found to have a gentle taper.  A significant feature is the height of the posts.  They can vary between three feet six inches from ground level to the bottom of the lowest arm (as at Little Totham) to six feet nine inches (Newland Street, Witham) to about eight feet (Hockley).  The first two of these three heights are the most commonly quoted in the MIW order books housed in the Essex Record Office.  Usually they are referred to as “M/T” (Ministry of Transport) posts.

The colour for the posts was original light grey and then from the early 1930s the familiar alternate black and white banding approximately twelve inches in width.  Where this style is still in use it makes a good guide to estimating heights.  Many posts have been painted white only but the original striped scheme can sometimes be made out underneath.  The rather sad Great Warley has one such example where a poor layer of grey paint covers the original banding..

 Feature 3. Maker’s Marks (MIW)

 Close examination of the posts and arms reveals variations in the way that the Maldon Irons Works makers mark is displayed.  The company’s logo is not consistent and is presented in several different forms.  Often layers of paint have made the marks almost illegible but experience “in the field” has made the task easier.  Distribution of the different types may be based on date of manufacture.  If the style changed with time this might be verified once the study of the company order books is completed.

The first form is a stepped rectangle, with the word “MALDON” above and “IRON WORKS” below within the border.  This type is seen on posts but more commonly on the arms. On the arms it has a raised border and lettering.  This style is sometimes cast vertically instead of the usual horizontal.  Where used on the post, the stepped rectangle is a recess and the lettering raised.  An exception is at Pentlow where the stepped rectangle is recessed on one side with raised lettering but with all lettering and border in relief on the opposite side.

Maldon Iron Works “stepped rectangle" maker’s mark.

The next form is the semicircular layout of text without a border.  Around the top curve is the text “MALDON IRON WORKS” with “CO. LD” above “MALDON” in the centre and base.  Most frequently seen near the base of the post either on one side or both.  There is a variation where the lower “MALDON” curves downwards giving the overall appearance of an oval logo.  All the lettering is cast in relief.  

Semicircular maker’s mark at post base.

The third form is a raised disc with a bordered outer ring with the wording  “MALDON IRON WORKS MALDON”.  There are three lines of text in the centre that read “CO / MAKERS / LTD” with “MAKERS” having a border top and bottom.  This form has only been seen on arms.  Examples may be found at Orsett, Hutton and Stock.

The raised disc type mark.

Dating any Maldon Iron Works guidepost was something of a hit and miss exercise.  The differing logo presentations may offer a clue with, perhaps, LTD later than LD.  Those posts along major roads (A or B class) can generally be dated after 1920 as they have the road numbers cast into their arms – around the time that road classifications came into being.  Again, researching the Maldon Iron Works order books will hopefully give up their secrets.

 Feature 3.  Arms (MIW)

Three sizes (by height) of arm have been identified from the MIW order books.  The length of the arms is variable and partly governed by the length of the legend.  Road classification numbers are placed within a rectangle.  The heights are: Seven inches with one or two lines on text; ten and a half inches with two or three lines of text and fourteen inches with two, three or four lines of text.

The lettering on the arms is commonly two and half inches high with half-inch stroke width.  Occasionally lettering is larger, for example on some “A“class road posts with only one or two lines of legend on a ten and a half inch arm or where specially ordered. Other sizes include four inches and some specials of six inches.

Seven-inch arm.

Ten and a half inch arm.

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Posts by Other Manufacturers.

 Another manufacturer that managed to get its products alongside the roads of Essex was Stanton Ironworks of Ilkeston, Derbyshire.  Why these should be in Essex and dating from the same period as the Maldon Iron Works posts in unknown.  A good example with two arms stands on the former A12 at Kelvedon.  It dates from post 1920 as the road number appears on the arms.  All the other examples are to be found in west Essex.  Common features of the Stanton posts are the rounded ends to the arms, thin halo or annulus finials and ring decoration on the posts.  One Stanton post at Felsted breaks the rules as it has a unique shaped finial plate that may be a replacement item.  Most examples the word “STANTON” is cast into the lower part of the post.

Mrs. O’Connell of Maplestead drew my attention to some posts in the Great and Little Maplestead area that have cast arms.  All have lettering cast in with the exception of an example at Great Maplestead where the lettering has been crudely painted on by hand.  All have thin, non-tapering posts.  It has not been possible to determine the age of these guideposts but they may be of more recent origin.  Not too far distant are similar types near Gainsford End but with notched ends to the arms.

A few guideposts still keep their origins a secret.  Two in Stisted have many characteristics of the Stanton with rounded ends to the arms and thin halos atop the tapering posts.  Another at Bentfield Green, just outside Stansted with the appearance of a Stanton post might be the product of Whitmore & Binyon of Wickham Market. It had rounded ends to the wooden arms (replaced with new arms on 2004 with squared ends) and an ogee finial.

Different manufacturers have cast replacement arms and a few had their names applied.  The MIW post at Foxearth has had a replacement made by IRS LTD NORFOLK.  Carol Haines of the Milestone Society informs me that this was IRS of Lion Works, Swaffham, Norfolk who stopped making cast iron signs in the 1950s. Arms by Progress Ironworks Ltd have found there way on to MIW posts at Woodham Walter and Purleigh (Cock Clarks).

At least three examples of another type of post with cast arms have been noted although they probably date from the 1950s.  The arms seem to be non-ferrous and one post of this type in Saffron Walden with its arms broken off shows no signs of rust at the break points.  The other two of this type are at East Tilbury and Ashdon.

The only other survivors of cast iron types are the Wedlake of Hornchurch fingerpost in the museum at Upminster and the twisted post design one at Downham.  A post, the product of The Royal Label Factory of Stratford on Avon, with a single remaining arm stood on the corner of Upminster (Tylers) Common until at least 1970.

 The State of Essex Guideposts

 My travels around the county have shown up great differences in the way our guideposts have been maintained or neglected.  Geoff Perrior, in Issue 3 of the Essex Group of The Milestone Society newsletter, reported the refurbishment of the Orsett posts but sadly the Orsett exercise seems to be an exception.  Maldon District Council look after their guideposts and those at Woodham Walter and Great Totham are exceptionally well maintained although one of two at Little Totham is in need of maintenance.  There is a similar case in Witham where a post with conical finial but no arms in Newland Street has had a beautiful paint job (black and white bands) but the other post in Witham at Powershall End, with a single remaining arm, has been left to the elements.  However, Janet Gyford of Witham has been in touch with Essex Highways (North East) who will be putting the Powershall End post on their “to do” job list.

Uttlesford District, with the greatest number of surviving iron posts, has been very active painting  but leaving the post unbanded..

Tendring district had a couple of very poor posts at Mistley and Thorrington but these were painted in 2003 and although only cosmetic, it has given them a new lease of life. 

Braintree district is second only to Uttlesford regarding numbers of remaining cast iron posts.  Unfortunately most are in a fairly poor condition. 

Peldon’s post in the Colchester district was a casualty in 2004 when one of its arms was broken off.  Within a week it had been welded back in place.  Alas, the posts in the Colchester are generally in poor condition.

Many posts have lost their finials.  Whether by accident or design is unknown but those with parish names on them may have been stolen as souvenirs, not dissimilar to the fate that can befall cast iron milestones.  Replacement, at a cost, might be possible but only if there is a record of the original finial.  Missing arms could also be recast but again, unless there is evidence (memories or photographs) of the original, an exact replica would be impossible.  However, clues as to original legends will eventually materialise in the Maldon Iron Works order books.

The Future

 The future for Essex’s guideposts varies from bright to very bleak.  Some are no longer maintained and are just rusting remnants of their former glory.  Others show signs of crude or temporary repair that seems to indicate cost cutting; just trying to eke out a few more years of use with the minimum of layout.  It is sad to see them slowly decaying and to know that they will inevitably be swept away and replaced by new wooden or modern reflective signs.  A very neglected MIW example stands at Thorrington Cross on the B1027.  Two arms have broken off and the remaining two arms show many old, but crude, repairs.  It was painted in 2003 but only to cover up the red rust.  One is inclined to wonder if this is a case of planned neglect with the inevitable consequence of the posts being destroyed on safety grounds. 

Cast iron posts are removed even when they seem to be in reasonable condition.  Geoff Perrior spent time trying to determine the loss of the post at Tolleshunt D’Arcy.  It was removed because it was “unsafe”.  The arms have allegedly gone into to store at the County Highways at Rayleigh.  If this is so, for what purpose are they being stored?  Even listing seems to be no guarantee of a future either.  A Grade II listed post at Elmstead on the B1027 has long disappeared and replaced with modern signs.  This will now have to be delisted – yet another heritage item lost to future generations.  There are some in original condition that must surely deserve consideration for listing.  One of exceptional quality and maintained to an extremely high standard may be found at the junction of Oak Farm Road and Church Hill, Woodham Walter.  It is certainly a favourite of mine.

Some new legislation that came into force on 1 January 2005 may also be to the detriment of the cast iron posts still in situ along main roads.  All obsolete road signs (pre-1964) had to be taken down and replaced with modern signage but the old fingerposts can be retained in addition to new signs.  However, there will be county or district authorities who will decide that that removal of the old is the easier option.  A further move towards “quiet roads” in rural areas might also see the removal of prominent fingerposts to deter the motorist.

My personal opinion, for what is worth, is that all the remaining cast iron posts should be maintained in a clean, well-painted condition even when arms are broken.  Funds for making replacement parts should be sought wherever feasible.  Complete examples retaining all original parts should be considered for listing.  This does not guarantee protection but does acknowledge recognition.  Many have been in position for over eighty years and have become local features in the landscape.

The above is an expanded version of the original article that first appeared in March 2003 issue of “Essex Waymarker Digest”, the newsletter of the Essex Group of The Milestone Society.

© John V Nicholls. 2005

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