Destination art

Sheffield tram blind

I was born in working-class post-war Sheffield to parents who were determined that I would have the educational opportunities that had been denied them between the wars.

They started early, teaching me to read at every opportunity, which included reading the destinations – and the fleet numbers – of the trams that went back and forth along Attercliffe Common outside our house.

The typeface of the blinds that Sheffield Corporation used for both tram and bus destinations is Curwen Sans, developed by the typographer Harold Curwen (1885-1949), and dating from 1912. 

Harold Curwen was taught at the Central School of Arts & Crafts by Edward Johnston (1872-1944) and Eric Gill (1882-1940), respectively the designers of the London Transport Johnston font (1916) and Gill Sans (1928).

Curwen’s lettering is distinctive and I recognised it immediately when some years ago I spotted and afterwards bought a half-size canvas print of a Sheffield tram blind in an antique shop on the Abbeydale Road.

Like Johnston, the Curwen ‘O’ is a circle, as for practical purposes are the ‘C’, ‘G’ and ‘Q’.  The ‘W’ is in fact two overlapping ‘Vs’.  The bar, or middle stroke, of ‘E’ and ‘F’ protrudes, instead of being the same length as or less than those above and below.  Perhaps this is to improve the legibility of a white-on-black sign on the front of an approaching vehicle.

The individual destinations are meticulously composed.  Abbreviations – ‘ST.’ for ‘STREET’ and ‘RD.’ for ‘ROAD’ – are followed by dots.  ‘HILLSBORO’’ has an apostrophe but ‘HUNTERS BAR’ oddly doesn’t.  ‘WOODHOUSE ROAD’, which would only appear in the lower aperture below ‘INTAKE’ above it, has brackets.

Destinations too long to appear as a single line – ‘INTAKE/(ELM TREE)’, ‘CITY/(FITZALAN SQUARE)’ and ‘FOOTBALL/GROUND’ are displayed as two lines which are not of equal height.  The top line is bigger than the bottom, following the typographical convention that the upper half of a line of letters is more noticeable than the bottom.

Even the sequence of destinations is carefully thought out, with displays grouped geographically, clockwise from north to west, to save unnecessary winding of the fiddly handle that turned the blind rollers.

In two well-produced films of the final year of Sheffield trams, tram crews mention the tedium of changing four sets of indicators at each end of a journey:  Sheffield Tram 1960 – Meadowhead to Sheffield Lane Top – YouTube and Sheffield The Last Trams – YouTube.

Nowadays it’s all done by key-taps on a digital display.

Roller blinds are still manufactured, in plastic, primarily for owners of preserved heritage buses and trams:  (2) Replica Blinds by PWC | Facebook.

Complete original rolls change hands for three-figure sums, though cut-up sections framed can cost as little as £10.

Like railway memorabilia – station signs and loco name and number plates – visual mementos of latter-day street-transport have become iconic.

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