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Monday, 28 July 2014

The mysterious carved symbols on the kerbstones of London

kerbstone symbol

Whilst walking from Oxford Street through Soho in London, I saw this symbol carved into the kerbstone at my feet, then another further along the stone. The stones each side were not marked in such a way. At first they looked like stonemason's marks, cut to show that a certain number of kerbstones had been completed that day. But, in common with some other kerbs in the area, why two marks on a single stone?

London is not the only town or city in Britain to have such markings on its kerbs. There are apparently many in Glasgow too. No one seems to be exactly sure what they mean. Some say stonecutter's marks, showing either a certain number of kerbstones that had been laid within a particular time or a certain number shaped at the quarry. Some say that they mark surveying points, while others even say that they mark secret Masonic meeting places or are related to the Great Plague or local executions at Tyburn. These particular marks are also repeated on other stones in the area.

soho kerbstone symbols

My own feeling is that they are probably stonecutter's marks or road laying crew signs. Maybe two symbols show either the end of one cutter's work and the start of another's, or are the foreman's marks from a particular gang of workers either shaping or laying the stones. I wonder who they were and where the stones were quarried? A visit to the remains of the stone quarries on Dartmoor will show half-finished kerbstones lying around in the wild landscape. It must have been a tough life being a stonemason up there, are those weather-beaten quarries where these stones were originally shaped?

On New Oxford Street, these signs were all carved within a run of fifteen kerbstones, with whole streets nearby not showing a single one:







Although nearby Museum Street has a few symbols on display too, surely too close to each other to show the start and finish of a run being laid:




A week later, I was walking through Bristol and noticed these marks on the kerb of Gatton Road in St Werburghs, unlikely to be a centre for Masonic ritual in my opinion: 

bristol kerbstone symbol

The same marks appeared three times on stones within a run of fifteen. The D-shaped mark then appeared again about half a mile away, alone on High Street in Easton:


...and again on South Street in Southville, on the other side of the city. This time it was accompanied by a circular mark that I haven't seen elsewhere in Bristol, apart from on that street.



While walking down Western Road, between Hove and Brighton, more kerbstone marks could be seen. These were at Second Avenue in Hove:

brighton kerbstone symbols

further along Western Road towards Brighton, more cross-shaped marks could be seen:


before letters started to appear.


Further still towards Brighton and these 'N' shaped marks could be seen. They are a little different to the others, as they were clearly made using a modern stone cutting circular saw rather than cut by hand. They were accompanied by long saw cut marks running along the kerbstones for a few metres.



I wonder if these marks point to such symbols being a road maintenance crew's work, or if it was just a bored workman messing about. The cuts along the kerbstones are pretty haphazard and not very straight.

Peter Dolan has written two very interesting articles in Geoscientist, the magazine of The Geological Society, which I recommend reading if you are also intrigued by these enigmatic markings. His first, Kerbstone Conundrum, introduces the subject and includes a list of symbols that he has seen or heard of. The second, Kerbstone Markings 2, goes into more detail. Peter has told me by email:

'Suffice it to say at present that I am 90% sure that most of these markings do relate to utility services, but haven't followed it far enough to get independent, documented verification.'

I like the way that the exact meaning of these symbols is still somewhat mysterious and subject to debate, whilst some of them are being walked past by hundreds of people every day.

23 comments:

  1. Ive seen numerous streets in central London with a whole variety of symbols. In fact each morning during my 2 mile walk I look down and see them. Loads of them and as you say, it just doesnt make any sense at all. No logical or even illogical explanation

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  2. The best examples I've seen are Red Lion Square in Holborn where there's a symbol on almost every stone in the square. Some are quite exotic looking.

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  3. It's true, there are such a range that it does make one wonder why they are all crammed in in certain places when other streets have none. Thank you both for the commons and for the tip about Red Lion Square as well.
    Now that I've 'got my eye in', it's interesting seeing them in other towns around Britain too. Bristol has quite a few, but that 'D' shaped mark seems the most common.

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    1. There are dozens of kerbstones here in Tooting, London with a "V" carved into them. The point of the V is always pointing toward the road. I just assumed this had to do with ensuring that the stone was laid correctly..ie the dressed edges showing...Alternatively, perhaps the mark was made by the mason in the process of manufacture to indicate the best side to work on or "face-up" .Like a carpenter or joiner would when cleaning and shaping a piece of timber, in that process he lays on his "face/edge marks".
      I have also heard it said that secret marks were left by tramps and rough travellers on stones to indicate to other travellers what kind of a welcome they could be expect at the place where the mark is cut. For example: A kind welcome, provided you work, a hostile welcome, generous, mean, food only, drink only, etc etc..

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  4. Thank you for the comments even!

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  5. Is it possible they could mark the route of pilgrimage at a time when people didn't have maps -?

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  6. Maybe, although I doubt that some of the kerbstones are that old. Gatton Road is also a dead-end, so I'd be surprised if it was a pilgrimage route. I like the idea though! I also wondered if they could show parish boundaries, but that 'D' shaped mark is too widely spread in Bristol for this to be the case.

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  7. Stafford LInsley13 March 2016 at 13:01

    Plenty of these in Newcastle upon Tyne. They are indications of the nature of the electricity connections to adjacent buildings, and possibly also the nature of electricity cable jointings

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  8. I believe that many indicate the location of buried utilities - Water, Sewerage, Electric and Gas services to properties, often where the property is newer than the surrounding properties and the mark was left 'for future reference/location'. Often nearby you'll see evidence of a repaired hole in the road or pavement......but then that's not unusual!

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  9. Could the mystery be solved? Thank you both for the suggestions. I wonder if there is a universally-understood code for these markings then? There seem to be quite a variety of them, if they are utilities markings it would be interesting to know what that code is.

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  10. Has anyone approached their local Highways Authority for an answer ??

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    Replies
    1. I have looked into it, but struggled to find a contact number that seemed to be the right one to go for.

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  11. A good site is here:

    http://72.9.148.189/library/Stone_Mason

    Excerpt:
    "A stonemason was paid by the number of blocks laid and to help differentiate their work from other stone masons they would carve a symbol into the face of the block. This also provided a simple ‘quality assurance’ system."

    Adrian P

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  12. jersey [st helier) has lots of similar markings too.

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  13. Hi there.

    I have just published a comprehensive interpretation on the UK's Kerbstone symbols. Hope you enjoy:

    http://ashleycowie.com/new-blog/.

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    1. Stafford M Linsley20 April 2017 at 12:37

      Interesting, but probably in error.

      In the 1970s I was in communication with a Mr E H Sadler, who had arrived in North East England from London in 1925 to take up a Premium Pupil student apprenticeship - ‘equivalent to a BSc’ - with the Newcastle upon Tyne Electricity Supply Co (NESCO). Mr Sadler would remain in the Newcastle electricity supply industry for the rest of his working life, and was very familiar with the kerbstone marks. In his words:

      'Cable faults ... were common and there was a continuously manned emergency squad of one engineer and three assistants to give ‘fire brigade’ style service to deal with these faults. Location of the actual faults was difficult, and heating of the pavements from the fault current going into the earth was often the quickest and best indication. To help, the position of every joint was marked on the kerbstones of Newcastle'.

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  14. Hi Ashley, thanks for letting me know about your very interesting blog. After all the comments in favour of utilities marks, it's interesting to see the arguments for stonemason's marks expanded on! I'm not sure that it fully explains why the same marks would be seen on adjacent stones if marking the end of a day's work, or why they are only in certain areas and not in others that would have been laid out around the same time in the Victorian days. As you mention, perhaps there are more than one reason for the marks?

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  15. Hi, I've been lead to this page whilst Googling (when did 'Google' become a verb?) kerbstone carvings. I live in Macclesfield, Cheshire, and there are loads of these carvings! I have taken numerous photos (which was quite amusing - seeing the funny looks I was getting from people) and have been trying to find someone else who is as fascinated as me!!

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    1. Hi elljaycee, It's amazing how many others are noticing these markings and are having their curiosity piqued by them. This post has far more comments than any other that I've published.
      I can also relate to feeling a bit eccentric for taking photos of kerbstones in public - explaining it to my friends is never particularly easy, especially when they are on a mission to get to the pub!
      Still no definite answers yet either...

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    2. Please allow me to expand on my earlier posting by providing a short note which was recently published in 'Industrial Archaeology Review':

      'Kerbstone Marks:

      The note in Industrial Archaeology News, 180 (Spring 2017) on ‘Kerbstone Marks’ reminded me once again of the many fanciful explanations that I have seen regarding the significance or otherwise of such marks. They have nothing whatsoever to do with mason’s marks, nor land ownership, nor pilgrim’s way markers, etc. The truth, certainly for Newcastle upon Tyne, but I suspect also for any area with such marks, is really quite prosaic. They simply indicate the nature of an electrical connection between a main cable, buried in a street, and an adjacent property - coded guides to early supply lines. I have on record about 30 different kerbstone symbols for Newcastle upon Tyne which mainly comprise squares, triangles, arrows, crosses, circles and letters, sometimes in combinations, chiselled into the kerbstone in situ, almost certainly by electricity supply company workers.

      In the 1970s I was in communication with a Mr E H Sadler, who had arrived in North East England from London in 1925 to take up a Premium Pupil student apprenticeship - ‘equivalent to a BSc’ - with the Newcastle upon Tyne Electricity Supply Co (NESCO). Mr Sadler would remain in the Newcastle electricity supply industry for the rest of his working life, and was very familiar with the kerbstone marks. In his words:

      Cable faults ... were common and there was a continuously manned emergency squad of one engineer and three assistants to give ‘fire brigade’ style service to deal with these faults. Location of the actual faults was difficult, and heating of the pavements from the fault current going into the earth was often the quickest and best indication. To help, the position of every joint was marked on the kerbstones of Newcastle.

      Incidentally, this heating of localised areas of pavement through faults led to some interesting scenes, again as described by Mr Sadler:

      The ‘warm pavement’ fault technique was easy when there was a light shower of snow, but on a dry day the spectacle of three or four blokes on their hands and knees on the Gosforth [Newcastle upon Tyne] High Street pavement shouting ‘Cold, cold’, or ‘A bit warm’, as they progressed along the pavement certainly created alarm if not despondency among passers-by.

      The commonest kerb mark in Newcastle is a square with a diagonal cross, Saltire style, which simply indicated a ‘joint’ (Figure 1.) An added plus sign indicated a joint in the ‘positive’ cable, while an added minus sign indicated a joint in the ‘negative’ cable (Figures 2, 3). The letter ‘F’ indicated a fused connection, (Figure 4) and so on. Figure 5 indicates an early fused service giving a 3 wire supply to the premises, e.g. 250V for lighting and 500V for power. All of these marks probably date from the 1920s and possibly the 1930s.



      There is no particular reason to suppose that identical symbols were used elsewhere, for there were no national standards. It was up to individual supply companies to decide to mark their joints on the kerbs, and to determine the design of such marks. The situation in London was bound to be very complicated, for historically it was the most confused district in the country in terms of its electricity supply. By 1917 it had 70 different suppliers, (hence 70 power stations), 50 different types of system, 10 different frequencies, and 20 different voltages; some of these companies would undoubtedly use kerb marks, with their own preferred symbols, while others would not. Hence a possible explanation of ‘long runs - several hundred yards - of uniform kerbstones with no marks’, and hence, no real ‘conundrum’. Newcastle’s situation in the 1920s was much simpler, with only two major supply companies, and far-sighted electrical engineers in the Merz family running the show.



      Stafford M Linsley.

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    3. Excellent! Thank you Stafford, I think we have the answer that we were looking for.

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  16. Thanks all for this. I have also been puzzling over the symbols in Holborn area and Dulwich/Peckham. But if there are road works etc do the workmen put the kerbstones back in the same order? I have asked roadmenders while working but they did not know what these marks were or even that there were any.

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  17. Good question! I imagine that they do - any highways agency workers out there who can answer?

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