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Shalford's Village Sign

The village sign standing at the junction of the A281 and King’s Road dates from 1922, although restored several times since, most recently in 2007. It was designed by Christopher Webb, better known as one of the twentieth century’s finest artists in stained glass, and eminent church and cathedral architect W.H. Randall Blacking. The two shared a studio in Quarry Street. The sign was the result of a competition to create village signs run by the Daily Mail. This followed remarks made by the Duke of York, later George VI, at a Royal Academy dinner in June 1920: “I feel sure that many of my comrade motorists would welcome a revival of the old village sign …a welcome guide to a visitor in a strange land.”

The competition attracted 525 entries. The Duke himself presided over the panel of judges who awarded ten prizes, including six runner-up or ‘special prizes’ of £50. Shalford was one of these ‘specials’: the Daily Mail also paid £200 for the making of the sign, which was finally unveiled on 1 July 1922 by the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey. The sign showed St Christopher carrying the Christ Child through a shallow ford, and on the front of the post pilgrims journeying to Canterbury with Shalford Fair in the centre. As a statement of community identity it drew heavily on local myth and folklore. The £500 second prize won by his brother Geoffrey Webb (they trained together under architect Sir Ninian Comper) for Mayfield in Sussex featured that village’s legend of the Devil and St Dunstan.

The competition stipulated that the signs had to be suitable for erection on a village green, rather than just being signposts. This nostalgia for a romanticised past combined with the desire for improvement is typical of the post-war period. The signs were a ray of cheerfulness in the post-war gloom. Rather than motorists, returning soldiers felt lost in a strange land with the world they had left vanished forever and their Promised Land fit for heroes dissolving like a mirage. Newspapers were filled with strikes, unemployment, war disability and financial hardship. Twelve months before the unveiling of the village sign a very different ceremony had taken place in Shalford, an altogether more sombre affair. On 17 July 1921 a thousand people gathered to witness the dedication of the village war memorial outside the church. The plain cross surrounded by a symbol of eternity was inscribed with the names of the 44 sons, husbands, brothers, friends and neighbours who would never return. Of the thousand gathered there many would have been wearing their newly-received campaign medals – chests decorated with the 1914-15 Star, the British Empire and Victory Medals. There were 328 ex-servicemen in the parish, about 12% of the population.

Both Christopher Webb and Randall Blacking created items for the parish church during the 1920s. Blacking designed the pulpit given by Mrs Wigan of Bradstone Brook in memory of her brother Maurice Bagot, lost in the Battle of Coronel in 1914 (the pulpit was removed from the church in the 2011 refurbishment, although there are plans to preserve the memorial inscription and decorations). Blacking was also responsible for the panelling and redesign of the chancel in 1929. As part of these improvements Christopher Webb was commissioned to design the reredos or triptych behind the altar, presented as a bequest from churchwarden Edwin Hanmer Everett of Chinthurst House. The reredos, although created by Webb alone, has similarities to one Blacking and Webb worked on together for the fourteenth century parish church at Lowick in Northamptonshire (described by Simon Jenkins as one of the top 100 churches in England).

Randall Blacking moved to Salisbury in 1930. His son John Anthony Randall Blacking became a world-famous musicologist. Christopher Webb moved to St Albans. The church of St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London, and Salisbury, Exeter, Sheffield and Chichester cathedrals contain fine examples of his stained glass windows. His descendants still carry on the tradition of outstanding work in stone masonry, lettercarving and ecclesiastical silver.

But what about the Daily Mail village signs? St Peter’s in Thanet (the £1,000 first prize winner), Mayfield and Battle in Sussex, Biddenden and Bromley in Kent, and Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Devon are the only other ones I could find information about. Some have been damaged over the years, most have been restored at some point, including Shalford’s. It’s a pity that the scene of pilgrims and the Fair that used to be on the front of the post has disappeared. Folklore and myth helped to anchor the community in a changing world.