Chloe Allen

Chloe Allen

Our Digital Marketing Executive Chloe is in charge of our e-newsletter. There's no one better placed to inform and delight you every month, so keep your eyes peeled for her newsletter hitting an email inbox near you soon.

Read time of 5 minutes.

We see them everywhere, all the time – but how much do you really know about our road sign system? 

It might surprise you to learn that there’s a varied history behind Britain’s road signs.

We didn’t always have the uniform, standardised system that’s in place now. Previous generations would’ve found navigating the roads a lot more confusing – especially when heading somewhere new.

So where did our beautiful (if sometimes bemusing) system come from?

From its origins in Roman Britain, all the way to 2023 – what we’ve discovered about the history of our traffic signage may surprise you.

Roman origins

Brace yourself – we’re going back to Provincia Britannia for the origins of the humble road sign.

If the Romans brought their famously straight roads to Great Britain – many of which are still in use today – for their army to traverse our island, then it stands to reason that this is probably when the first road signs or markers started to appear, in the form of the milestone.

Roman milestones were often cylindrical in shape and varied in height from 6ft to 13ft.

Yet, despite the ample surface area for information, some were inscribed with nothing more than a dedication to the emperor of the time. Forget about the practicalities – it seems some of those early milestones were nothing more than vanity projects.

Still, they did set a precedence in Britain.

Milestones continued to be placed even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, mostly at the expense of private individuals.

Turnpikes, tolls and the invention of the bicycle 

It took centuries for Parliament to take on greater responsibility for repairing and maintaining our roads.

Turnpike Acts authorised a trust to levy tolls – and with more turnpikes popping up across the parishes, so too did guideposts or ‘fingerposts’ at any crossroads following the General Turnpike Act in 1773.

However, the introduction of warning signs didn’t take off until the invention of the bicycle.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, bikes became a lot more popular; and Britain’s steep hills, sharp bends and hazardous roads were very dangerous for those early cyclists.

The first warning signs would have been for ‘danger’ or ‘caution’ at the top of steep hills, but the most perilous spots would have been marked by a skull and crossbones sign.

While your first thought might be of pirates, there’s no mistaking that any sign with a skull on it screams danger ahead. At the very least, it’s enough to put you on your guard!

Cars! Cars! Cars!

No human invention has had the same impact on modern life as the motor car. 

Not only has it shaped modern life in the last century, making small, rural communities more accessible and opening up opportunities to work further from home, but it has redefined the road as we know it. 

It’s also made them more dangerous than ever before.

The faster your car moves, the more likely you are to suffer major injuries or a fatality in the event of a collision. With so many hazards on the road, reckless driving at high speeds is a short cut for a crash.

The Motor Car Act of 1903 attempted to introduce some safety measures, with local authorities made responsible for placing warning and prohibitory signs where needed – but the main task of signposting our roads didn’t start until the 1920s.

‘No entry’, ‘keep left’ and warning signs for narrow roads, bridges and roundabouts all started to make an appearance on our roads from 1933, and the first Ministry of Transport started putting markings directly on the road to help control the flow of traffic around the same time.

However, as technology advanced and cars became faster and more powerful, drivers struggled to decipher the slapdash series of signs on the roadside, which all varied in size, colour and font.

The motorway and the modern road sign

We’ve all reckoned with the hell that is the motorway.

Now imagine being on the M25 without clear road signs guiding you.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

Fortunately, some bright spark had the forethought to do something about it after design magazine Typographica published not one, but two essays condemning the terrible nature of British road signs.

With it being clear that an overhaul was needed as the motorway came into being, government ministers hired London-based designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert to design and standardise a new signage system for our roads.

Kinneir was the perfect choice for this, having created the signage for Gatwick Airport just a few years previously. Calvert, hired by Kinneir to work on the project with him, was ultimately responsible for the pictograms that we see in these signs every day – including the ‘men at work’ and ‘farm animals’ signs.

Only two factors were specified in the brief for our sign system – what does a driver need to know while travelling at speed, and at what distance do they need to know it? Functionality was emphasised over style.

Together they tested reading distance, looking at clarity, letter spacing and type facing using methods that were unheard of at the time.

The results were obviously successful – the system that Kinneir and Calvert produced is still in use today and their designs have endured as some of the most classic in history. They have been keeping us safe and informed on Britain’s ever-busier roads for more than fifty years.

With such a timeless system in place we can’t imagine this changing any time soon!