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Authors: Pamela Cox


BOOK: Shopgirls
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About the Book

About the Authors

Title Page


List of Illustrations



The Girling of Shopwork


Servants of the Counter


Scandalous Shopgirls


Grace Dare Undercover


Thoroughly Modern Management




Keep Calm and Carry On Shopping


Chelsea Girls and Counter-Cultures


Picture Section



Select Bibliography



About the Book

From the Victorian age through to the present day, an unsung army of shopgirls have been at the heart of Britain’s retail revolution.
reveals their enterprising and courageous stories as never before.

We meet Selfridges’ ‘businesswomen’, fighting for their good name, and arsonist suffragette Gladys Evans, jailed for standing up for her beliefs; join Margaret Bondfield as she goes undercover, fiercely championing the rights of early shopgirls; and stand alongside the impoverished interwar chain store assistants who stole stockings to supplement their meagre wages. We encounter young apprentices, the first generation of female graduate trainees and 1940s working mums. We follow Chili Bouchier’s journey from the small ladies’ department at Harrods to star of the silver screen; uncover the raw courage of John Lewis’s Miss Austin during the Blitz in the West End; and celebrate the art school entrepreneurs who kick-started the boutique movement of the swinging ’60s.

As this lively book reveals, the story of British shopgirls – and their spirited camaraderie – is one woven deep into the fabric of our history and changes the way we understand our society. You will never shop in the same way again.

About the Authors

Pamela Cox is a social historian at the University of Essex. She has presented two major history series for BBC Two –
Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter
(2014) and
Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs
(2012), both produced by Annabel Hobley for betty. Her previous books include
Bad Girls
(2012) and
Becoming Delinquent

Annabel Hobley is a television producer and writer. Her credits for the BBC, ITV and More4 include
Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter
Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs
McQueen & I
, a documentary on fashion icons Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow; and
The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon
, about an extraordinary treasure trove of Edwardian films.

Dedicated to
Leonore Davidoff
Alice and Dominic O’Malley

Chapter Illustrations

.  Shopgirls at Marks and Spencer Ltd, 1890s. The Marks & Spencer Company Archive.

.  ‘A Portable Shop Seat’,
The Girl’s Own Paper
, 1880. Public Domain.

.  Fashionably dressed shopgirl. Courtesy 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

.  Suffragettes with smashed shop windows, 1912. Heritage Images/Getty Images.

.  Selfridges shopgirls on duty, 1922. Reproduced by kind permission: Selfridges Archive.

.  ‘West End Shop Girls’ Strike’, 1920. Courtesy
Daily Mail

.  Bombed-blasted shop,
.1940. Popperfoto/Getty Images.

.  Shop assistant Valerie Allen, 1969. Mirrorpix.

Plate Section Illustrations

.  Wisbech, 1854. Courtesy of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum.

.  Jenner’s department store, 1895. © RCAHMS (Harry Bedford Lemere Collection) Licensor:

.  The Burlington Arcade,
.1910. Getty Images.

.  Anderson and McAuley’s, early 1900s. National Museums Northern Ireland.

The Shop Girl
musical comedy, 1895. Courtesy Betty TV.

.  ‘Miss Bondfield On Tour’,
The Shop Assistant
, July 1898 Reproduced with thanks to USDAW: Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

.  ‘The case of Miss Cass’,
Illustrated Police News
, July 1887. By permission of the British Library.

.  Whiteley’s, 1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

.  ‘The Delights of “Living-In”’,
The Shop Assistant
, March 1901. Reproduced with thanks to USDAW: Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

.  Harrods’ moving staircase, 1898. Courtesy of Harrods Archive.

.  Marks and Spencer Ltd stall, 1906. The Marks & Spencer Company Archive.

.  Selfridges window display.
The Draper’s Record
, 20 March 1909. By kind permission of EMAP.

.  Marshall & Snelgrove’s,
The Draper’s Record
, 20 March 1909. By kind permission of EMAP.

.  Selfridges advertisement, 1909. Reproduced by kind permission: Selfridges Archive.

.  Lucile’s models, 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

.  Suffragettes, 1912. Getty Images.

.  Co-op departmental manageresses. From
The Jubilee History of Annfield Plain Industrial Co-operative Society Ltd. 1870 to 1920
, 1921. Public Domain.

.  Harrods’ ‘Green Lady’, First World War. Courtesy of Harrods Archive.

.  Women serving in a grocer’s shop, 1915. Getty Images.

.  Co-Operative Society Ltd,
.1929. Getty Images.

.  Woolworths shopgirls, 1937. Getty Images.

.  Shopgirls from Marks and Spencer Ltd, 1936. The Marks & Spencer Company Archive.

.  Bombed-out John Lewis, 1940. Popperfoto/Getty Images.

.  Former Woolworths shopgirl, Second World War. Mary Evans.

.  London’s first self-service store, 1948. Getty Images.

.  Biba twins, 1966. Getty Images.

.  ‘This is your Company’, 1958. Courtesy of
3D and 6D Pictures Ltd.


‘And there is a girl behind the counter too – I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats.’

Virginia Woolf,
A Room of One’s Own
, 1929


In 1900, a quarter of a million women worked in shops. By the mid 1960s, the number was over a million, nearly one fifth of the country’s female workforce. Today, women are such familiar figures behind the till, the counter and in the boardrooms of retail chains that it’s hard to imagine shoplife without them. Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when they were rare. This is the story of shopgirls and the part they have played, from the Victorian age through to the present day, in Britain’s retail revolution.

Napoleon’s famous line – often quoted in the many biographies of him bemoaned by Virginia Woolf – that Britain was ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ was meant as an insult. To him, we were a country powered by nothing more than shallow commerce, not grand designs.

But British shopkeeping went hand in hand with growth in trade and empire. By the early nineteenth century, British commerce was booming and the country was indeed experiencing a huge growth in shops of every kind. And, as Woolf may have guessed, in becoming a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, we had come to rely on a growing, but unsung, army of shopgirls.

Coined in the 1820s, the very word ‘shopgirl’ was new: a new term to describe a very new kind of employee, and a term that would be used for the next 150 years. The Industrial Revolution had created jobs for legions of additional workers but they only had jobs if people bought the things they made. Britain’s prosperity depended on consumers just as much as on manufacturers. As people left the countryside and crowded into towns and cities, wages rose and even the most meagre income had to buy basic provisions. More demand meant more shops, and more shops meant a different kind of shop assistant. From small local outlets to large drapery stores, proprietors started to see selling as a job for the girls and no longer just for the boys.

The story of British shopgirls is one woven deep into the fabric of our country’s history and yet, until now, historians have allowed them to fall through the cracks. They have remained ‘behind the counter’ of history – playing a vital part in the stories of work, consumer culture, living standards and politics but rarely mentioned. We hope this book changes that.

In contrast, the writers of Victorian music hall songs, newspaper columns, plays and novels were obsessed with shopgirls. The label itself was always double-edged, quickly becoming a shorthand for both the lowering effects of mass consumer culture and, at the same time, its guilty pleasures and attractions. Certain kinds of shopgirls became the stuff of fantasy: who were these girls behind the counter in their demure black silk dresses and what were they really selling? Émile Zola’s classic 1883 novel,
The Ladies’ Paradise
, is a torrid tale of the temptations posed by Paris’s new and decadent department stores. His lead shopgirl is ingénue Denise Baudu, a provincial draper’s assistant. The story sees her battling through the store’s moral maze to find her eventual reward, not only in a promotion, but also in a socially mobile marriage to the boss, Octave Mouret, having steadfastly resisted his earlier efforts to seduce her.

Zola based his novel on the Bon Marché, one of Europe’s first and finest department stores. As we shall discover, by the time the book was published, Britain also boasted several stores of a similar scale, from Whiteley’s and Harrods in London, to Kendals in Manchester and Jenners in Edinburgh. These large stores, with their opulent designs, seductive displays and luxury goods, seemed to be far removed from the two other worlds that the Victorians held most dear: home and work. Shops like these were places for spending, distinct from the more ‘noble’ arts of homemaking or manufacturing. Spending was the antithesis of ‘working’, however much thought, skill, planning and budgeting went into it. It was an activity of leisure and in particular of women’s leisure, regardless of whether the items bought on a given excursion were ‘essential’ provisions from the grocer’s or butcher’s or more ‘frivolous’ purchases from the milliner’s, confectioner’s or draper’s.

Shopgirls’ lives have also been played out on screen in several period dramas. In the early 1990s, the television series
The House of Eliott
, told the story of the Eliott sisters as they evolved from humble dressmakers into owners of an haute-couture house in Edwardian London. The more recent
Mr Selfridge
depicts the same era and locale, presenting Harry Gordon Selfridge as a man who understands not only what his female customers want, but also how his many female staff can help give them just that. One of its storylines follows young Agnes Towler as she overcomes her deprived background and works her way up from junior assistant to head of displays.

BOOK: Shopgirls
10.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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