Counter intelligence

Counter intelligence

Time traveller Michelle Higgs takes us on a Victorian shopping trip

Michelle Higgs, author

Michelle Higgs


Behold Regent Street at two p.m… Not without reason do I declare it the most fashionable street in the world…Regent Street is an avenue of superfluities – a great trunk road in Vanity Fair. Fancy watchmakers, haberdashers, and photographers; fancy stationers, fancy hosiers, and fancy staymakers; music shops, shawl shops, jewellers, French glove shops, perfumery, and point lace shops, confectioners and milliners.

George Augustus Sala, Twice Round the Clock, 1859

From markets, bazaars and village shops through to cooperatives, specialist retailers and department stores, in Victorian England you can buy an amazing cornucopia of goods for both the necessities and luxuries of life. In towns, the type of shops you will come across depends largely on whether you’re exploring a workingclass district or a more affluent area. In the poorest streets, where the people have little or no spare money, all you will find are gin palaces, pawnbrokers, cook-shops, rag-andbottle stores and chandlers’ shops (selling small quantities of cheese, bacon and groceries). Small market towns have a good variety of stores, while in a rural village, there is usually just one shop stocking anything and everything.

All the main types of shops – the grocer, the baker, the fishmonger and so on – offer small amounts of credit to their customers. Transactions are recorded in a book, sometimes called a ‘trust book’, and the account has to be paid at the end of the week before more goods can be bought on ‘trust’ for the next week. To buy ‘on tick’ or ‘on the slate’ is a common practice in working-class areas where the main breadwinner is paid weekly. Of course, problems arise when the customer is unemployed or cannot work through illness, and falls behind with payments. There comes a point when the shopkeeper can no longer extend credit, and at this stage, the poor turn to pawnbrokers and chandlers’ shops. When all avenues to obtain money to buy food have been exhausted, families have little choice but to seek admission to the workhouse.

The credit system is also used at the opposite end of the social scale. Middle and upper-class customers have accounts set up with the shops they regularly buy from, which are settled weekly, monthly or even quarterly. One advantage of this is that servants can be sent to buy goods without the need for them to carry money, avoiding the risk of them being tempted to steal it or falling prey to pickpockets.

Cash and credit
As you are a stranger in Victorian England, it’s unlikely that you will be able to obtain credit from shops, so you will need to pay for everything in cash. Only the wealthy have bank accounts and access to cheques; everyone else is paid in, and uses, cash in the form of coins (rarely notes) as part of daily life. Victorian currency consists of lots of different coins in circulation. Goods are priced and sold in pounds, shillings and pence.

You may not recognise some of the smaller establishments as shops at all. Many shopkeepers serve customers through an open window at the front of the premises; you remain on the street and do not actually go into the shop. Some larger establishments also operate in this way or by using a trestle table in the street, as well as trading inside. This provides a better chance of capturing passing customers. These shops are not very hygienic, especially if they are selling food, as flies can easily settle on the produce.

When you enter a larger Victorian shop, the first thing you will probably notice is that customers are served from the counter, unlike modern selfservice stores. The staff will treat you with deference, especially if it appears that you have money to spend. Shopkeepers work hard to retain custom, and to loyal shoppers with an account,they offer a home delivery service. This is provided by more and more shops in the 1880s and 1890s when the bicycle comes into common use and boys are employed specifically to deliver goods to customers at home.

Although you’ll pay at the counter, few small shops have a till or cash register before the late 19th century. They use a wooden cash tray with bowls for the coins, or a simple drawer instead. If you visit a large draper’s, co-operative or department store in the early 1880s, look out for a new invention: the overhead ‘cash railway’ which originated as Lamson’s Cash Balls. This is a system in which money and bills are placed in hollow capsules, and transported on an overhead wire to a central cash office by means of a pulley operated by the counter assistant; the change comes back the same way. The system is designed to eliminate errors or fraud, but it also provides endless amusement to bored children out shopping with their parents.

You’ll also notice that shops stay open late into the night, for six days a week, sometimes seven. This is particularly the case in working-class districts, where evening trade is so important; retailers selling food stay open until midnight,and often later on Fridays and Saturdays. Although this is convenient for customers, it means that working conditions for staff are very difficult. In more affluent areas such as the West End of London or other large cities such as Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool, shops usually close at six o’clock during the week, and some are only open for half the day on Saturdays after 1894.

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