A+ A A-

Sign of the times: The life of WGC signwriter Arthur Brown

Russians attacking Ukraine have fired missiles with apparently little regard for civilian casualties. It puts the clock back to World War Two, when more civilians were killed than military personnel. WGC suffered bombing attacks being near Hatfield, where the de Havilland factory was manufacturing Mosquito aircraft.

Arthur and Dorothy Brown were downstairs in the kitchen of 61 Handside Lane on the evening of 26th September 1940 when a bomb fell in their front garden. Displaced soil came through the roof and crushed their bed. If they had retired early they would have been killed. Happily they only suffered minor injuries but their house was heavily damaged. As we mentioned in an earlier article, it and the adjoining number 63 had to be demolished.

Arthur made an important contribution to the look of Welwyn Garden City. He was born in 1889 and in 1920 was recruited from Rochester Row School of Arts and Crafts to work for the Welwyn Garden City Company doing lettering layouts. He had started his career as a letter cutter in stone, apprenticed to Eric Gill, but broadened his work to include calligraphy.

Arthur’s most obvious work was the first road signs for which he designed an alphabet using the Nuneaton script. He made large wooden letters and screwed them to a wooden backing to spell out a street name. From this a cast was taken and used as a mould at the foundry for molten metal. Some of these signs survive; later ones use a typeface called Kindersley, after its designer David Kindersley, who also was once apprenticed to Eric Gill.

A contemporary recalled: “You would see Arthur dangling his legs high up on a scaffold, lettering a huge board depicting the site of some factory which is probably a household name today. “He also helped to teach the early citizens good manners, with little cream and green boards warning ‘Please keep off the grass’.”

Arthur opened his own sign-writing business around 1933 in a hut at 28 Bridge Road and was a founder member of the WGC Craftworkers Guild.

He died of a heart condition on 20th July 1950. Dorothy outlived him by 31 years. Some of his road signs are with us still.

This article by Geoffrey Hollis for the WGC Heritage Trust was first published in the Welwyn Hatfield Times on 10th Aug 2022.