A PINT of live fleas. When the order came in, William Whiteley, one of a new breed of Victorian shopkeepers who prided themselves on meeting all of his customers’ needs, contacted London Zoo. The monkey keeper combed his charges’ fur and by that evening a pint of live fleas was despatched to the buyer (presumably the owner of a flea circus).
Pity his poor shopgirl Hannah, taken on when Whiteley’s shop was established in Bayswater in 1863, and whose job it was to help meet every request. According to Whiteley, customers enquired about everything from elephants to second-hand coffins to wives, and it was their job to keep the customer satisfied, selling goods as diverse as handkerchiefs and mourning silk, beef and vegetables.
Hannah lived over the shop, and by the time Whiteley put up the shutters at night, she could “barely keep her eyes open”. But the hard work was worth it when she married the boss and her fortunes soared along with her husband’s, founder of one of the first UK department stores with an eventual staff of hundreds.
Hannah is one of the women whose vital role in a social revolution is charted in Shopgirls: True stories of friendship, hardship and triumph from behind the counter, by Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley. The social historians, responsible for the book and TV series for BBC2, have explored the lives of the many women, both workers and customers, who were agents for social change as the world of shopping emerged as a global phenomenon.
“It’s an important story about millions of women who were, and still are, employed in this industry,” says Hobley. “There’s been a lot of work done on heroic women, the land army and munitions workers, but shop work is not very heroic and harder to find out about. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
“It’s interesting to write about ordinary people’s lives and make TV series that show that all of our lives are historically important and that there are reasons why we do things like live in a house with two rooms, work in a shop, or travel on the bus.”
Among the women who jump out of the book to ask if you need any assistance or are just browsing, is Margaret Bondfield who went undercover to find out how shopgirls were treated and wound up as Britain’s first female Cabinet minister in Ramsay Macdonald’s 1924 Labour government – as Minister for Labour no less. Then there was the glamorous Chili Bouchier, who swapped womenswear in Harrods for life as a movie star in Hollywood and Flora Solomon, daughter of a Russian gold tycoon who shook up Marks & Spencer’s working practices and its boss.
There’s Florence Lorimer, one of the young women recruited from university to work in Peter Jones, who Spedan Lewis [son of John] sent to the Punjab, Kashmir, and Afghanistan with £5,000 to buy carpets and antiquities, as well as a few hummingbirds for his collection. And Katherine Austin, one of the women who gives the lie to the notion that shop work is not heroic, when she led 200 evacuees, who were sheltering in the basement of the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis during the Blitz of 1940, through the basement shelters to safety while the shop was destroyed.
Then there are the suffragette Pankhursts, and equally politically strident, the union-bashing Margaret Thatcher, whose own rise to prime minister charted how far the life of a shopgirl had changed over the course of the 20th century. From the sex who didn’t get the vote, shopgirls became people who could rise to become Prime Minister.
The Pankhursts were less successful in business than grocer’s daughter Thatcher, who lived above the shop and became imbued with an idea of service, and that the customer is always right as people knocked on their door at all hours for groceries.
“The Pankhursts were shopkeepers for a while but weren’t very successful,” says Hobley. “The daughters weren’t keen on working in it. One of them sat up in a studio above the shop and sold art goods. They weren’t great at it and gave it up.”
It’s doubtful then that Emmeline Pankhurst paused to look past the watching crowds to Jenners window as she and Flora Drummond led hundreds of suffragettes marching down Princes Street in 1909. We don’t know if she considered smashing its window displays with toffee hammers and other implements, as did more than 200 of her fellow suffragettes in London in 1912.
THE REVOLUTION in shopping that swept the country began in the 1850s and 1860s when the Victorian economic boom and rise of the middle classes saw shops and co-operatives expand into larger emporia like Jenners of Edinburgh, Debenhams, Kendal, Milne and Faulkner in Manchester, Fraser Sons & Co, Whiteleys and Harrods in London. To meet the demands of the new middle classes, the modern pastime of shopping was born.
These new shops needed staff, and women were cheaper than men. Working in a shop also had a veneer of gentility, and was better paid and less onerous than being a servant, or working in a mill, some of the other job options for working class women, so they flocked in their thousands to apply.
In Edinburgh, Charles Jenner had immediately identified how crucial women were to his business, a prime example of one of the flourishing new department stores. It was founded in 1838 after Jenner and his friend Charles Kennington were sacked from their jobs in an Edinburgh drapers for going to the races at Musselburgh instead of to work. With their winnings, they set up the shop that by 1881 was the largest retail establishment in Scotland.
“Like many Victorian shopkeepers, Jenner was a man of standing in his community and thought his shop was part of city life and providing a service,” says Hobley.
Jenner took on a wider role than selling provisions and became the first director of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, and its largest single benefactor, probably driven by the death of his own children. He was a philanthropist, patron of the arts and a man of science, who among other things gave his name to a grey-felted thistle and an alpine moss.
Women, as Jenner was well aware, were crucial to his success. They worked in the shop, did their shopping there and when the old building burnt down and was rebuilt in 1895, they were part of the very fabric of the building. Look up above the windows and you will see several pairs of caryatids, sculpted female figures, supporting the exterior structure, all representing different parts of the globe, and the source of the goods on sale. Inside its vaulted sales hall, women were also courted by the latest mod cons; electric lighting, air conditioning and hydraulic lifts, not to mention a tea room where the tradition of generations of genteel Edinburgh ladies grazing on scones was established.
“It is women who decide how most of the family income is to be spent,” said Charles Jenner at the time. “This is a rock on which some other stores have perished – they concentrated on trying to attract male customers instead of women.” Not a mistake he was about to make.
“For the first time women were the focus,” says Hobley. “Jenner was very forward thinking. He was trying to be at the forefront of the modern psychology of shopping and think about how to attract women customers. The shop was open and light, there were upright glass cabinets, things on display with customers able to see the merchandise. The whole building was very radical and beautiful. It still is.”
For the first time customers were allowed to touch the merchandise. And not only the merchandise, as Hobley reveals. Shopgirl wages might have been more than those of servants, but they weren’t always a living wage and many shopgirls turned to prostitution to make ends meet.
Surely Hobley can’t be saying that Jenners, “the Harrods of the north”, was the centre of a, shudder, Victorian vice ring?
“Well they certainly had shopgirls who were prostitutes,” she says. “Every big shop would have done. There’s a very fine line here. Jenners was a big employer and shopgirls were attractive and seemed available. Most were good girls and went back to their lodgings at night. A small number would have been taken out by customers, a smaller number would have slept with them and some would have been paid in gifts, and some in money.”
The department store’s central role in 20th century culture and women’s lives also made them a target. Firstly for suffragettes with their toffee hammers, and also later for the likes of the Angry Brigade who saw the upmarket boutique Biba as a representation of that behemoth of 1960s class war, the capitalist pig. They set feather boas and velvet loons pants flying when they blew up the Kensington High Street branch on May Day 1971.
“The police at the time suppressed it because they saw them as a quasi-terrorist group and didn’t want to give them publicity,” says Hobley. “The Angry Brigade attacked Biba because they saw it as haute couture, although it wasn’t, but it wasn’t cheap.”
Despite a thousand people being present in the shop on a busy Saturday, no-one was killed. However, thousands of pounds’ worth of stock had been destroyed, and the equivalent stuffed up the jumpers of fleeing customers when the bomb went off.
There was no stopping the consumer revolution, however, and as the Swinging Sixties wore on, technology and mass production meant high street shops were able to sell clothes even cheaper: throw-away fashion had arrived. We shopped till we dropped, but now the wheel is turning once more and authenticity and longevity are in.
“It’s an industry where it’s all about the new, especially in fashion, but many brands are selling their heritage - and places like Jenners still have some of that,” says Hobley.
“As a nation we’re among those who have embraced online shopping most enthusiastically, but still every Saturday, the streets and shopping centres are full of people. We like doing it. It’s part of our culture and we like the personal interaction. Shopping might concentrate into big malls and small, boutique-type shops, but it will never die. It will just keep on changing.”
• Shopgirls by Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley is published by Arrow Books at £6.99 and is out now.
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