The Pearce Signs Group is today an industry-leader; probably Europe’s largest sign maker; in the top six in the world. Yet it remains an entirely private family-owned company. Its present chairman, Brian, is the sixth generation to head the company in an unbroken line since his great-great-great grandfather, Samuel, signed his formal indentures in 1791.
Meanwhile: The French Revolution entered its second year (1789 - 1799)
Throughout much of the 19th century sign making remained an individual craft operation. Typically illustrated in paint on wood. Then, as now, the early Pearces recognised that success lay in the effective marriage of sign making and design in the transfer of two-dimensional images to three.
Meanwhile: The town of Chicago was established
NEW HEAD OFFICE
From its earliest beginnings, Pearce Signs has operated in South-East London - moving on several occasions before settling at its present New Cross head office prior to the First World War.
Meanwhile: British writer Charles Dickens died.
In many ways signs are closely related to other advertising media, a point well illustrated by the 1870s plaques for Rimmel and Allsops the brewer - the company's leading customer at the time. They show a very close conformity to magazine advertisements of the same date.
Meanwhile: Wimbledon replaced a croquet court with the first lawn tennis court.
As the Victorian era closed, the company was beginning a process of steady expansion under H.J Pearce, the present chairman's grandfather. It was also making its mark in the sign industry. Pioneering new developments, such as gas illumination under the joint venture 'Chameleon' name. And introducing a note of controversy in a major patenting dispute over the same product.
Meanwhile: Henry Ford sets a new automobile land speed record of 91.37mph.
With the return of peace - to celebrate which the company made its own distinctive sign making contribution - economic life returned to normality and Pearce to the serious business of growth. Illumination became an ever more frequent feature in signs, originally by gas but soon to be replaced by electrical operation. Neon first became used around 1930.
Meanwhile: Einstein's theory of general relativity was tested through the observation of bending light.
With expansion came a growing fleet of vehicles, part of which was shortly to be replaced and upgraded only to be requisitioned for the war effort! Sign making too, with the advent of neon, had entered a new bolder era and, among many special jobs, Pearce was responsible for signing the 'new' Odeon, Leicester Square just prior to the premiere of 'The prisoner of Zenda' starring Ronald Colman, the first film to be shown there.
Meanwhile: The Hindenburg made it's maiden and last voyage.
TIME OF CHANGE
The Second World War brought to an end the rapid expansion of the first years under Harold Pearce. It brought disruptions and changes - many of them. Not least restrictions to the use of electricity in public places which remained in force until 1948. And it also brought women to the shop floor very successfully for the first time.
Meanwhile: Mick Jagger was born.
But, as for many businesses, war had it's compensations. The main factory, still then on the New Cross site, had switched over to the production of transformers. This continued afterwards - both for specialist uses and as a support to the main sign making company. As the company sought to resume its pre-war growth, Harold Pearce too, led a first move into the international marketplace.
Meanwhile: Florence Chadwick, the first female, to swim the English Channel in both directions.
INNOVATION & EXPANSION
Diversification, expansion, acquisition, innovation. These were the watchwords of an exciting period which saw Pearce pioneer such developments as the metal bevelled edge and black-lit halo letters; saw it enter the road signing market, supported by the later acquisition of Gowshall; and which culminated in the 1962 opening of the new Thanet factory by Kent and England Cricket Captain, Colin Cowdrey.
Meanwhile: The first James Bond film, Dr No featuring Sean Connery, premiered at the London Pavillion.
By the late 1960s, the founder would have struggled to recognise his own now very substantial business. Wood and paint had metamorphosis into plastics, metals and complex systems of illumination. The typical customer was now a large corporate concerned with exacting identity programmes. The group itself was establishing a new reputation for total project management - often over many hundreds of sites.
Meanwhile: Apollo 11 was the first manned craft to land on the moon.
One small step for man...
PERFORMANCE & QUALITY
The result was a customer list second to none and an enviable reputation for performance and quality. The group's expertise was channelled into new areas. Into Security Systems, for example, and later in 1985, into GRP plastics itself with the acquisition of Davand.
Meanwhile: Thriller in Manilla. Muhammad Ali defeats Joe Frazier in rivalry fight.
Now 200 years on it seems that we are again on the verge of a new era. After forty years of restrictions, the sign industry is undergoing a period of official 'de-regulation' - opening up new creative and manufacturing possibilities. Signs themselves are returning more and more to their marketing roots and the range of applications is increasing. It promises to be interesting...
Meanwhile: Charlie Chaplin was knighted by Elizabeth II.