Sign Painting the Goldrush in Hill End, New South Wales

1870s Australian sign painting and sign painters in the remarkable A&A Photographic Co. collection.

Two men posing outside a ramshakle timber shack with a large No.2 painted on the side, and bits of sign painting work around.
John Osborne's sign shop in Hill End, New South Wales, 1872.

150 years ago, a remarkable photographic endeavour was undertaken during the New South Wales goldrush, 250 km (155 miles) from Sydney, Australia. In addition to capturing those seeking the noble metal, the work of sign painters, and their commercial clients, was captured. Design Historian Michael Bogle has pored over these images to present this sign painting slice through the collection.

All of the photographs are from The Holtermann Collection, A&A Photographic Co., at the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Links to the original records are given via the reference codes in the captions.

Sign Painting the Goldrush in Hill End, New South Wales

By Michael Bogle

In 1872, two photographers, Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss, moved to the goldfields in the village of Hill End, New South Wales, Australia. Working as the American & Australasian Photographic Company (A&A Photographic Co.), they established a store-front operation on one of the village's main streets. From here, they began to record Hill End and the neighbouring villages of Home Rule, Tambaroora and Gulgong.

Group of smartly dressed men posing outside a shop with a sign above the window saying 'A&A Photographic Company'.
Studios of the American & Australasian Photographic Company, Tambaroora Street, Hill End. Reference code 62677.

The Holtermann Collection

The resulting collection of 3,500 images is named after one of their patrons, Bernard Otto Holtermann, but it is Merlin and Bayliss who should be credited for the photographic achievements it contains. The pair produced wet plate negatives of extraordinary quality, with their rich details revealed by the State Library of New South Wales' scanning and digitisation project.

People posing for a photo in front of a show and clothing shop with an oversized fascia sign that reads 'the greatest wonder of the world'.
Moses Bros. Colonial Boot & Shoe Depot, Gulgong. Reference code 62044.

The collection's significance was recognised by UNESCO in 2013, and accompanied by an exhibition: The Greatest Wonder of the World.

Hill End Sign Painters

Many photos in the collection feature hand-painted signs for the various businesses that served Hill End and the nearby villages. Their quality allows details such as brushstrokes to be seen.

Roof-mounted sign with a mixture of slab-serif and block lettering for 'A. McCulloch, Bookseller & Stationer'.
Brushstrokes visible on these slab-serif letters for the bookseller and stationer, A. McCulloch. Reference code 62037.

The mining operations themselves also provided work for the sign painters of Hill End, with the Sydney Mail reporting in 1872 that:

“The sign-writers must have found trade good in that respect as nearly all of these companies have gone to the expense of erecting these special sign posts”.
Man in a bowler hat on top of a ladder propped against a shopfront sign that he is working on.
An unidentified sign painter at work on Short Street, Hill End. Reference code 62568.

The quality of the photographs, and their high resolution scans, has allowed the identification of some of these sign painters via their names and initials found on shop fascias.

Corner of a mounted sign board showing a bit of the main letters ('Wholesale, Js') and the signature of the sign painter, Valentine bottom left.
The signature of 'Valentine, Writer' on this detail of a fascia sign for James Leggatt's butcher on Mayne Street, Hill End. Reference code 62143.

While some of the signatures are illegible in the photographs, 'sign writer' appears to be the accepted term for commercial-scale sign work, with alternatives including writer, sign painter, or simply those providing sign boards and shop signs. Graining is also included among the services of some practitioners.

Sign painters active in the Hill End mining area included: John Bryant (identified as a practical sign writer and house decorator); George Cooper (painter, writer); J.C. Howe (painter); M.S.E. (unidentified); John Osborne (painter and sign writer); Fred Russell (signwriter); W. Udall (sign writer); and Valentine (writer).

Sign Painting Gold

The following are some examples of the output from these Hill End sign painters, as captured by the A&A Photographic Co. in the 1870s.

Valentine's signature is found on a fascia sign for the Guardian Newspaper Office, next door to A. McCulloch's book and stationery shop in Gulgong.

Smartly dressed me standing in front of a basic structure with signs advertising the Guardian Newspaper Office and A. McCulloch bookseller and stationer.
Guardian Newspaper Office and A. McCulloch in Gulgong. Reference code 62037.

Another Valentine sign is for the butcher James Leggatt. This appears to claim some heritage from London's famous Smithfield meat market.

Three men standing in front of a butcher shop with carcasses hanging form the awning, and a sign mounted on the frontage above them.
Sign painted by Valentine for James Leggatt, Smithfield Butcher, Mayne Street, Hill End. Reference code 62143.
Hand-painted sign with pictorials of cows and sheep, and lettering that reads 'Smithfield butchery, Js. Leggatt, Wholesale, Retail'.
Valentine's sign for James Leggatt, Smithfield Butcher, Mayne Street, Hill End. Reference code 62143.

The 'painter' and 'writer' George Cooper went to town with the fishtails for John Nicholas Davey's Canadian Bakery.

Four people and a baby posing in front of a basic structure that houses a bakery as advertised on the painted sign on the frontage.
The J.N. Davey bakery, with the sign by George Cooper blending extravagant bifurcated Tuscan lettering and a more conservative thick 'n' thin. Reference code 62275.

The initials M.S.E. are found just below the pictorial element on this Sam Hand boarding house sign, but the writer is otherwise unidentified.

Family of three in smart clothes in front of a basic structure with a sign board for 'Boarding House, Sam Hand' mounted above the entranceway.
Sam Hand and family in front of their boarding house. Reference code 62224.
Hand-painted sign board with scrolling, a rural scene pictorial, and lettering that reads 'Boarding house, Sam Hand'.
The hand-painted sign by M.S.E. for the Sam Hand boarding house. Photo reference code 62224.

On the Brush

Two photos in the collection captured sign painters at work. Neither are identified.

Large timber building housing George Hodgson's shop selling various goods. Men are posing in front, including one up a ladder painting a sign on the frontage.
Sign painter up a ladder working on the fascia for George Hodgson's stores, Short Street, Hill End. Reference code 62568.
Row of wooden structures housing commercial premises and adorned with hand-painted signs. A number of men are posing of a photo on the rough dirt road in front.
Sign painter working at L. Ritzwoller & Co.'s Berlin House Draper & Clothier, Short Street, Hill End. Reference code 62366.

Shop Life

Just one sign shop is captured among the many businesses photographed, that of John Osborne. Working out of a very basic structure, Osborne offered his services as a painter, wallpaper designer, and sign-writer.

Two men posing outside a ramshakle timber shack with a large No.2 painted on the side, and bits of sign painting work around.
John Osborne's sign shop in Hill End, New South Wales, with Osborne (seated) pictured with an assistant. To the left is some work-in-progress, and on the right some of Osborne's wallpapers can be seen draped over the board beneath the large No.2 sign. Reference code 62263.
The Holtermann Collection of photography by A&A Photographic Co. is a collection of over 3,500 glass-plate negatives and albumen prints, many of which depict life in New South Wales goldfield towns. It also includes numerous photographs of Australian rural towns and the cities of Sydney and Melbourne taken between 1871 and 1876 and can be explored in full on the State Library of New South Wales website.

Written by Michael Bogle

Michael Bogle's research and writing also includes this fascinating account of the Sydney sign painting and decorating firm, Althouse & Geiger, founded in 1875 by two American immigrants from Pennsylvania.

More History

Sign & Sign Painting HIstory on Better Letters Magazine
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