The high street is a British universal. Shopping – whether doing the shopping of necessity or going shopping for pleasure – is something that everyone does. Yet the high street in many of Britain’s towns and cities is now in what seems like terminal decline. Rows of empty shops litter our cities; the footfall of shoppers is desultory and occasional.


Out-of-town supermarkets, hypermarkets, retail parks and online shopping have rendered redundant scores of the high streets that once not only served communities’ material needs but were the focus for many of their activities. They were a place of provisioning and commerce but also a meeting place; a hub of social as well as monetary exchange.

What has been lost in this decline is the thread running through Turn Back Time, a six-part series airing on BBC One this month. It's an ambitious project which focuses on the Somerset town of Shepton Mallet to explore the evolution of the high street over 100 years, starting in 1870. Shops have been bought and real-life shopkeepers and their families – a baker, butcher, grocer, ironmonger and dressmaker – installed. Their role is not only to keep shop under conditions familiar to everyone from Victorian retailers through to those who worked in the Sixties consumer boom, but also to interact with the town's modern-day shoppers. In doing so, they aim to show the people of Shepton Mallet something of shopping experiences over a century and see if this could persuade them back to their former ways.

As a social historian I have joined Masterchef presenter Greg Wallace and a fifth-generation baker, Tom Herbert, in the 'Chamber of Commerce' to ensure that the shopkeepers have an authentic historical experience – and to realise the maxim that the social history of Britain can be seen through its shop windows.

What is the origin of the term 'High Street'?

Rupert Matthews, historian and author, answers a popular question…

There are thought to be about 3,000 roads in Britain called High Street, with another 2,300 having a variation on the name such as Upper High Street or High Street East. In the vast majority of cases the high street in a town or village is the main commercial or shopping thoroughfare.

The name seems to have emerged in the 12th century when the word ‘high’ began to be used to indicate something or someone of a higher, or more important, status than others.

At first the term high street did not apply to any one street in particular, but was a generic term used to indicate the most important road in a place. Most of the streets now known as High Street originally had another, more local name, but came to be called the more generic term as its use became widespread.

During the 20th century, the term reverted to having a more generic meaning. People now often talk about ‘high street’ shops, when what they really mean is national chains of shops. As the 21st century progresses it is becoming possible for a chain of ‘high street stores’ to only have shops in out-of-town shopping centres – and not to have any shops actually on a road named High Street at all.


High streets are born

The roots of the modern high street can be found in the era of rural self-sufficiency when the vast majority of the populace grew their own food, and bartered for livestock and services. At this time, baking, dressmaking, cobbling, hairdressing and other tasks were part of the domestic economy.

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This developed into a more urban pattern with itinerant peddlers and market stall holders selling goods at prices that were haggled. Next came the move of retail into fixed-location shops selling goods at fixed prices.

Well into the 19th century, biweekly markets would sell perishable local goods: dairy produce, poultry and vegetables, as well as ‘homemade’ pies and gingerbread. The stalls on these markets were usually leased from a landlord, who could prohibit any competition within five miles.

Yet as early as 1688 there was as many as 50,000 shopkeepers, and by 1800 the number was perhaps 170,000. After 1850, increased urbanisation, a rising population, improvements in transport, innovative manufacturing processes and lack of tariffs all provided high-street shopkeepers with a wider range of goods to sell – and more customers to buy them.

While some butchers and fishmongers continued to sell through market stalls or hawkers, other traders such as grocers and ironmongers invested in fixed premises with goods displayed behind plate glass windows and shopkeepers attentive to customers’ needs. This was a far cry from the “tumult of a thousand different cries of the eager dealers all shouting at the tops of their voices” that could be heard at a market in Lambeth.


Victorians see the value of hard work

The Victorian high street was characterised by independent, family-run shops, manned by shopkeepers who were increasingly regarded as respectable and skilled members of the community. Many of the products on sale were prepared on the premises so that shops continued to be part workshop, part retail outlet.

Bakers worked punishingly long days. Charles Booth’s 1903 survey found that 80 to100 hours a week was not unusual. They consequently suffered poor health and often a limited life span, while their premises were described in an 1862 parliamentary report as “extremely dirty… covered in cobwebs and flour dust”. Their loaves, staples of a working-class diet, might be adulterated with alum (a chemical compound) chalk or potatoes to improve the whiteness and bulk out the volume.

By 1890 “butchers in the strict sense of the word (ie those who kill their own meat) are a rapidly decreasing class,” reported Booth. Butchers increasingly bought dead meat wholesale (and frozen imports from the 1870s), displaying carcasses outside their shops and being skilled at dismembering and selling all parts of an animal to their customers.

Grocers, threatened by the rise of ‘multiples’ such as Lipton’s, fought back by emphasising personal service, delivering orders to customers, cutting portions of cheese and butter from large blocks, roasting coffee beans, weighing out tea and shaving sugar from cones and bagging it up.


Shop workers fight for their rights

Traditionally the shopkeeper’s lot was not a happy one with long hours, and low pay. Competition was particularly fierce in working-class areas and, as long as there were customers ready to buy, shops had little option but to stay open. This could mean opening as late as midnight in urban districts on Friday and Saturday nights, though in more prosperous areas and city centres, closing hours were more likely to be 7pm and a weekly ‘early closing’ at 2pm.

There had been campaigns for shorter working hours since the 1820s, but even the 1904 Early Closing Act was permissive – giving local authorities the power to enforce limited opening hours if requested by two-thirds of traders – and by 1909 fewer than 15,000 shops were covered by such legislation. Shopkeepers argued that to enforce closing hours would remove the main competitive weapon small family-run shops had against larger outlets. Many politicians – anxious not to interfere with the free play of market forces and people’s right to trade – agreed.

Compulsory ‘living in’ was another complaint of shop assistants. In 1901 a strike of 13 Whiteley’s assistants, parading through Oxford Street in top hats, sparked a wave of sympathetic actions and, by the First World War, most employers had reluctantly conceded shop workers’ right to a rise in wages in lieu of board.


Cashing in on war

The First World War had a dramatic impact on all aspects of life in Britain – and the high street was no exception. There was panic buying and hoarding of food as soon as war was declared in August 1914. By 1918, prices had risen by 100 per cent, as imports were largely cut off and Britain’s agricultural resources could not meet demand.

Shopkeepers lost staff as young men flocked to enlist, and women flooded into the retail trades to take their place. This was particularly evident in grocers and bakers’ shops where, by the end of 1917, the number of women employees had risen by 56 per cent.

It was not until 1916 that the government appointed its first food controller. Lord Devonport introduced price controls, and brought profiteers to book. But some shopkeepers were still able to cash in on the war, refusing to sell scarce commodities such as tea unless customers also purchased ‘other goods’ – usually margarine.

Devonport banned this practice in March 1917, yet was reluctant to impose rationing, instead appealing to the public to voluntarily restrict themselves. However, places like Liverpool, where there had been food riots, introduced their own rationing system. Finally, in February 1918, Lord Rhondda, Devonport’s successor, announced that meat would be rationed, soon followed by bacon, tea, butter and margarine. The government also restricted shop opening hours in order to save fuel – a move that passed into law after the war ended.


Beating the slump

Unemployment during the depression of the 1930s meant that the high street suffered. Staff were laid off, wages cut, several large department stores had merged soon after the war, while many smaller shops went out of business. Yet ironically, ‘setting up shop’ was an alternative form of employment and it could be done on modest capital or an easily obtainable loan. A fish and chip shop with secondhand equipment could be opened for a few hundred pounds.

In fact, in the Midlands and the south, where jobs were to be had, the standard of living actually rose. The result was a real transformation in the growth of branded goods, the explosion of advertising and the inexorable rise of the ‘multiples’ and the ‘chains’. Far more goods were packaged, deskilling traditional trades such as grocers, yet offering more of a level playing field as customers came to trust brands stocked by retailers large and small. Female-owned fashion shops, known as ‘madam shops’, also increased in popularity.

However, Currys increasingly took trade in electrical goods and bicycles away from specialist shops; Marks & Spencer and C&A challenged high-street drapers; and FW Woolworth, advertising “nothing more than 6d”, had become ubiquitous in democratising the retail aspirations of all.

Bentall’s of Kingston ran mannequin parades and ‘bonny baby’ competitions; Alder’s of Croydon imported a baby elephant to advertise its ‘jumbo sale’; Selfridges displayed the aviatrix Amy Johnson’s record-breaking plane; and Derry & Tom’s in Kensington opened a roof garden replete with flamingoes – all to attract customers in to spend.


Rationing stalks the land

Shopkeepers were on the front line during the Second World War. Several department stores were requisitioned: Kendal Milne in Manchester housed civil servants; the basement of Arnolds in Great Yarmouth was converted into a military hospital; other stores had public shelters in their basements.

Food rationing involved traders in an avalanche of directives and regulations. Customers had to register with a shop which supplied the rationed goods they were entitled to. Small shops tended to lose out to larger ones offering a wider range of goods.

Rationing was gradually extended to more and more commodities throughout the war – and shoppers were soon queuing for those unrationed goods in short supply such as a bit of fish, an onion or some cigarettes. In December 1941, the government introduced a points system to offer some limited choice of non-perishable foods, depending on what happened to be plentiful at the time. Clothing rationing was introduced in June 1941 and became ever more stringent as the war progressed. Meanwhile ‘austerity styles’ regulated the design of clothes: no frills on dresses, or turn-ups on men’s trousers.

The war saw a shift in the balance of power between customer and shopkeeper, as the latter could reserve a product that was in short supply for favoured customers. However, prices were regulated, and ‘profiteering’ was punished by fines or prison sentences.

With most factories turned over to war production, the supply of cosmetics, toys and household goods, though never rationed, was severely limited and many shops struggled to survive the war.


The rise of self-service

Britain had its first proto ‘supermarket’ when David Greig briefly converted his grocery shop in Turnpike Lane, London, to self-service in 1923. In a 1942 experiment, necessitated by wartime staff shortages, a self-service shop was created on the ground floor of Co-op in Romford, Essex. It measured just 22 by 8 feet – a far cry from Michael ‘King’ Cullen’s large-scale, low-profit enterprises in the US in the 1930s.

Jack Cohen, a Hackney market trader, opened a Tesco self-service store in St Albans in 1947, where the goods were supplied from a counter but paid for at a turnstile. Rationing was still in force and Cohen reckoned that self-service would cut labour costs and reduce queues – the blight of the postwar high street. By 1951 almost half of Tesco’s shops were self-service with food displayed behind Perspex left over from wartime bomber construction.

In 1956 Cohen’s first proper supermarket (defined as a food retail outlet of more than 2,000 square feet of selling area) opened in a former cinema in Maldon, Essex. Three years later, the Tesco supermarket at Hatfield in Hertfordshire sold drapery, men’s shirts, sheets and towels. Alan Sainsbury also saw the potential of self-service and opened his company’s first purpose-built supermarket in Eastbourne in 1952.

By 1966 Britain boasted more than 20,000 service outlets. Other multiples such as Home and Colonial, Maypole and Lipton’s were slow to embrace the new retail model, and supermarkets were not initially always popular with the housewife: She might welcome the speed and convenience, but regret the loss of personal service and sociability.


Shopping goes Technicolor

IN 1956 the Retail Price Index listed staples like lump sugar, rabbits, candles and turnips. By the mid-Sixties these had been replaced by camera films, telephone rentals, dog food, nylon stockings, sliced bread, fish fingers, jeans and motor scooters. After more than a decade of austerity, prosperity and plenty had arrived on the high street, followed by the affluent teenager with demands for vinyl records, frothy coffee, cheap clothes and make-up.

Just as Technicolor had come to the cinema, so it had to the high street. Greys and blacks were swept aside, as a new generation of fashion-conscious shoppers chose to wear vibrant reds, greens and oranges. Men went into Burton’s menswear shops wearing three-piece serge suits and came out in blazers and lightweight slacks. Newly affluent ‘dolly birds’ sported mini skirts and Laura Ashley milkmaid dresses. And, just a few years after food rationing came to an end, chicken bricks and garlic started to make an impact on the nation’s table. Biba and Habitat were in the vanguard, but it was Marks & Spencer with over 300 outlets whose profits quadrupled and who claimed to dress both the doctor’s and docker’s wife. More and more housewives shopped in supermarkets, buying boil-in-the bag curries, instant mashed potato and tea bags. In 1960 there were six Indian restaurants in Britain. Ten years later, the number had soared to 1,200 (including takeaways).

Many corner shops were transformed by immigrant entrepreneurs stocking exotic foods and staying open late.


A high-street renaissance?

Shoppers complain that today one high street is indistinguishable from the next – the same chains selling the same goods. Worse still, in many cases they are no longer vibrant commercial thoroughfares, instead boasting little but boarded-up premises and graffiti, only enlivened by charity shops. It seems that Britain’s consumer boom happened elsewhere.

Supermarkets have expanded into out-of-town superstores (25,000 square feet or more of selling space), hypermarkets (essentially a supermarket and department store combined) or retail parks with a number of large shops. ‘Remote shopping’ via television, mail order and the internet has trebled in a decade from £9.7 to £26.2 billion, while factory outlet stores (or whole villages) vie with adventure parks and stately homes as day trip destinations.

Paradoxically, farmers’ markets flourish in unpromising urban spaces such as car parks and asphalt playgrounds, and organic ‘veg boxes’ bring food direct from producer to consumer. People order weekly food deliveries as they did in Victorian times – but now they arrive not on a bike ridden by the grocer’s boy but in a large refrigerated lorry.

Out-of-own hypermarkets leave traces of their former selves in pared down high-street versions (going under monikers like ‘Extra’ and ‘Local’). Quirky ‘indie’ bookstores reported a one per cent growth in sales in 2009 – a rare piece of good news for the beleaguered world of British bookselling.

Does this success constitute a green shoot of recovery for the high street? Could it yet again become the focus of local communities?

Juliet Gardiner's books include The Thirties: An Intimate History and The Blitz: The British Under Attack (both Harper Press, 2010).

High street names that have disappeared

The growth of supermarkets proved disastrous to:

Dewhurst's the butchers was founded by the Vestey family in 1895, which also acquired the Oxo beef stock company and the Oxo Tower by the Thames. By 1995 competition from supermarkets meant that the family high-street butcher had disappeared.

Mac Fisheries: Convinced that the Scottish fishing industry could be revived, in 1918 Lord Leverhulme, who had bought the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, started to buy a number of independent fishmongers and rebrand them Mac Fisheries. By April 1979 competition from supermarkets and frozen fish fingers meant that while some of the larger Macshops were sold to the International Stores group, the wet fish shops on high streets across the country went out of business.

Home and Colonial began life on the Edgware Road in 1883 under Julius Drewe (who commissioned the last castle to be built in Britain, Castle Drogo in Devon). Selling mainly tea, it was once the largest food retailers in Britain with over 3,000 shops. It merged with the grocery chain Lipton's between 1924 and 1931. The imperial name was dropped in the 1960s but supermarket competition led to a merger with Safeway in 1986.

Timothy Whites had started as a chandler's and general store in Portsmouth in 1848. In 1935 the company merged with Taylors Drug Company. Selling pharmaceuticals and household goods, Timothy Whites & Taylors had 614 high-street shops when they were taken over by Boots the Chemist.

The Aerated Bread Company: (ABC) was the brainchild of Dr John Dauglish who sought to mass produce loaves that needed less hand kneading. They were thus cleaner to produce and avoided the horrors of food adulteration. The first bakery opened in the 1860s and was soon joined by a chain of tea shops – respectable public spaces that proved popular with women. After being taken over by Allied Foods, ABC disappeared from the high street in the 1980s.

Shoe shops proved vulnerable to changing fashions and recession…

Freeman, Hardy & Willis: (Later the '&' was dropped). Named after three employees, this outlet started selling shoes in the 1870s. A century later the chain was rebranded Hush Puppies but this did not save it from collapse in 1996.

Dolcis grew from a market stall in Woolwich market in 1863 to be a fashionable and ubiquitous high-street shoe shop until it went into liquidation in 2008.

Department stores fared little better…

Gamages: Thomas Gamage took over a watch repair shop in the unfashionable district of Holborn in 1878 and soon his ramshackle premises could claim to be the 'People's Popular Emporium', the official outfitter of the Boy Scouts and a treasure trove of children's toys in the 1950s. Gamages closed in March 1972.

Swan & Edgar opened at Piccadilly Circus in the early 19th century and its hub position made it a popular place to arrange to meet for most of the 20th century. But in 1982 it closed to become in turn Tower Records, a Virgin MegaStore and in the spring of 2010, a clothing store, Sting.

Derry & Toms: In 1860, shopkeeper Joseph Toms set up in business with his brother-in-law Charles Derry. They expanded adjoining shops (including one devoted to selling mourning accoutrements) and in 1932 opened a magnificent sevenstorey art deco store on Kensington High Street with its own exotic roof garden. Derry &Toms closed in 1972 and Biba briefly took over the premises. The store is now owned by one of Britain's most popular clothes (and food) retailers, Marks & Spencer.

In a category of its own…

FW Woolworth: The first British branch of the US 'five and dime' store opened in Liverpool in 1909, celebrated by a brass band and fireworks. Originally selling goods worth no more than 6d, Woolworth democratised retail, offering everything from pins to cosmetics and clothes to furniture. And most adults today have fond memories of its 'pick n' mix' sweet selection. But its generalist approach proved unable to cope with harsh trading conditions. Woolworth stores disappeared from the high streets of Britain between December 2008 and January 2009, though the name has an afterlife in the realm of online shopping.


This article was first published in the November 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine