A sign of the times: Ron’s skill vanishes into history

Ron stands in front of his work executed in 1947
Ron stands in front of his work executed in 1947

NOSTALGIA WITH BOB HIND: A Dickensian tale of harsh life growing up on a Portsmouth street

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Can you imagine anyone these days getting their parents to pay the wages for a three-year apprenticeship?

That was the position when Ron Brewer, of Copnor, Portsmouth, began his illustrious career as a signwriter back in 1934.

One of Ron Brewer's works of art. This is on a wall in Copnor Road alongside Copnor Road school.

One of Ron Brewer's works of art. This is on a wall in Copnor Road alongside Copnor Road school.

He was born in the old Royal Hospital in 1920 and his mother was told to get him Christened quickly as he was not expected to live long.

Here we are 93 years later and Ron is still with us.

Ron left school at 14 and was apprenticed to Ron Choat, of Fawley Road, Hilsea and on his indentures he was obliged to ‘faithfully serve his master, his secrets keep, his lawful commands everywhere gladly do’.

In return Mr Choat taught the young Ron the art of signwriting, signpainting, graining and marbling.

In total, for the three years of apprenticeship, Ron’s parents had to fork out £58 10s – and pay for his keep of course.

In modern money it worked out at 25p a week for the first year, 37p a year for the second and 50p a week for the third and final year.

Ron learnt quickly. He had to as Mr Choat had high blood pressure and got dizzy on ladders. ‘Most of the work was for the building trade. Front doors and bay windows were often grained and porches marbled. Graining contour called scumble was made up by myself from pigments.’

Planning permission did not seem to be an issue back then either. Window panes were often sign-written, many in gold leaf.

Wooden letters were cut by bow saw and painted and gilded. A book of 25 leaves cost the equivalent of £42 in today’s money. They were used a lot on signs and decorations.

‘Car number plates were also written by hand and the signwriting on vehicles like company vans increased over the years,’ says Ron.

‘By the time I retired 30 years ago that formed 80 per cent of my work.’

Ron did much work about the city on building sites and Hilsea Market in London Road came to mind. ‘Nestles Milk adverts were painted all over the city. The firms paid the property owner a fee for the use of their wall and employed the signwriter under contract.’

One unusual job Ron had to undertake was at Portsmouth airfield where he had to paint in French instructions for where the pilots had to refuel for those taking part in the 1936 Portsmouth to South Africa air race.

Some 30 years later Ron painted names on the aircraft used in the film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and made by Hants & Sussex Aviation in Portsmouth.

In the synagogue, newly-built in 1930, Ron had to write in Hebrew script. He told me when writing in Hebrew he had made a ‘tic’ in one of the letters, not unlike italics, but this ‘tic’ gave a completely different meaning to the word in Hebrew and he had to re-write the whole thing again.

During the war Ron volunteered for service but was told he was three months too young. He returned later and gave the recruiting officer a different birth date. He had added six months and he was recruited.

He joined the Royal Engineers 698 General Construction Company. He was sent to Chatham for basic training and a few months later, with the BEF, he was in France.

‘There were many Fifth Columnists out there,’ Ron reckoned. ‘We were in a wood outside Arras and there was no way the Germans would have known we were there, but their fighters and bombers attacked us so they must have got the information from somewhere.’

A few months later Ron found himself on the beaches of Dunkirk trying to hide in the dunes. He was on the beach for two days organising the men into lines to get to the small boats which in turn took them to larger boats and ships farther out. After two days an officer came to him and told Ron to follow him.

Along with a few others they made their way back inland where they came upon a wrecked lorry with dozens of corned beef tins lying about. Ron grabbed a few and then they made their way to a harbour wall where either HMS Jaguar or Leopard was waiting to take them back to England.

On arrival Ron boarded a train, but not to London. The train took him on a journey of many hours across the south of England to Tavistock in Devon.

Ron was given work of a clerical nature later being sent to Africa and India.

He returned home for demob in February 1946 when once again he took up his trade.

He was soon back in his stride. Quality signwriters of the time worked for George A Dick and Ron worked with his son Bill on many a job around Portsmouth.

Ron’s tools were eight brushes and a mahl stick, which was a yard stick with a soft pad on one end used for steadying the painter’s hand.

The large wording, as in the Nestles Milk advert in the photograph, were painted in white first and then outlined in black.

Fashions changed after the war and as time cost money and the embellishment of the letters took many hours, so the individual flair was lost.

In the foyer of the Kings Theatre, Southsea, the moulded ceiling panels depict cherubs whose faces are of children of the Sperring family who once owned the theatre. When damaged by water, Ron was called in to restore them.

Ron now lives in retirement in Copnor.

He not only painted the signs on so many walls around the city but also made a few paintings for himself. He takes say, three scenes from different postcards and then makes up a montage to form a new scene and they are all very cleverly done.