When was the High Street at its best?

Debbie Sergison, who runs a deli in real life, tries out life as a grocer in the 1930s, WWII and the 1970s Shopkeeper Debbie Sergison spools through different eras

At its birth in the Victorian age, or the gracious Edwardian era? Or more recently, before the arrival of superstores and online rivals? Over the course of six weeks, one market town turned back the clock to try out shopping in each era for itself for BBC One's Turn Back Time.

Today's High Street is not in the rudest health. It must compete with online retailers and super-malls, or risk the whited-out windows and boarded-up shopfronts of empty units.

Nationally, 13% of shops are vacant, up from 12% in 2009. While a feared double-dip recession has yet to materialise, official retail figures show weaker than expected sales in September - and that was before the spending cuts and January's looming VAT rise.

Find out more

Shepton Mallet circa 1972. Photo courtesy of Alan Woollard Photography
  • Shepton Mallet (pictured above in 1972) stars in BBC One's Turn Back Time starts Tuesday 2 November at 2100 GMT
  • Shopkeepers spent a week in each era: Victorian, Edwardian, Interwar, WWII, 1960s and 1970s
  • Also pop-up shops and events around the UK

It normally takes decades for a shop to spool from bakery to tea shop to milk bar to chain cafe, or ironmonger to penny bazaar to record shop to mobile phone outlet to vacant store.

Most High Streets (it's the most common street name in the UK) show glimpses of their retail history. Look up for bygone trade names in brick or stonework; look down and there may be brand names in doorway mosaics, a form of advertising popular until the 1950s.

To gauge how High Street shopping has changed, empty premises in the once-thriving market square of Somerset's Shepton Mallet turned into time capsules over the summer.

Modern-day shopkeepers lived and worked as Victorians for a week - with the wares, equipment and etiquette of the 1870s - then spent a week as Edwardian retailers, and so on up to the 1970s. Locals were encouraged to shop at these stores.

So when was a golden era for the High Street?

"It was in the 1860s and 70s that the High Street as we know it came about," says social historian Juliet Gardiner.

A glimpse of the past

Pinner High Street, in 1950 and today

Pinner High Street, in 1950 and as it is today

"Because of urbanisation, people no longer had the facilities to grow food themselves or keep livestock. It was then that market stalls became shops, with fixed prices, customer service and home deliveries to entice people in."

But it wasn't until Edwardian times that shopping came of age, when product choice matched customer service thanks to the riches of the Empire. And its popularity was boosted by the Votes for Women movement.

"The suffragettes were quite bullish about women having somewhere respectable to go on their own - and this meant tea shops and department stores."

The next golden age took 50 years to arrive, she says, when Britain became affluent again in the 1960s.

"Mass production and disposable culture really took off, bringing prices down. Young people didn't want clothes made to last, they wanted fashionable clothes. And in 1964, the Resale Prices Act opened the way for buying in volume and slashing prices."

Andrew Sharp, second left, outside his Edwardian era butchery Andrew Sharp, second left, outside his Edwardian era butchery

What customers gained in choice and discounts, they lost in personal service. "This was the era of self-service and of sniffy boutique girls," says Ms Gardiner.

What about on the other side of the counter? Among the shopkeepers taking part was Andrew Sharp, a butcher with 30 years experience whose family has been in the meat trade for centuries. Which era did he prefer?

"The Edwardian age, without a shadow of a doubt. The level of customer service, the level of formality of the person serving, and the customer too," says Mr Sharp.

This was a time when customers were referred to as sir, madam, miss or master. Staff had to be well turned out at all times. Convivial chats across the counter were frowned upon.

Birth of shopping as national pastime

Oxford St - London's main shopping drag - in 1890

Demand for goods fuelled the Victorian economy.

Wage-earning opportunities for women and children boosted family spending. More people bought a greater variety of textiles, clothing, household and domestic items. More beer, butter, bread, milk, meat, vegetables, fruit, fish and all other foodstuffs were bought rather than made or grown at home.

And clothing, personal and household possessions were important ways of communicating one's position in society. Ever-changing fashions and designs also stimulated demand.

Hence the growth of urban and village shops, the use of window displays, the rise of department stores from the 1880s, and of newspaper and billboard advertising.

By Prof Pat Hudson for BBC History

The decor and layout popular at the time is still seen today, particularly among high-end retailers and artisan producers - all muted colours and airy spaces. Selfridges, the London department store, dates from this era - its doors opened in 1909.

The customers lapped it up. "I felt like a lady. I was asked to sit down, and what would you like madam. I wish every shop was like that," said one Shepton Mallet resident after an Edwardian shopping trip.

And, when living the life of a Victorian pork butcher, Mr Sharp rediscovered the art of retail showmanship. His shop looked scarily visceral to 21st Century eyes, its frontage adorned with pigs' heads - complete with glued-on dolls eyes.

To tempt people closer, Mr Sharp did what his Victorian forebears did - live butchery and sausage-making on the street, complete with quick-fire sales patter. It proved a palpable hit.

But what was good for the retailer wasn't so good for the customer - trading standards had yet to be introduced, and until the 1870s there were no laws guaranteeing the quality of goods.

Butchers disguised rancid meat by painting it with chemicals. Bakers bulked up expensive flour with sawdust or plaster of Paris. Grocers added gravel to coffee beans and freshened old vinegar with sulphuric acid. They watered down milk, and added poisonous nasties such as red lead and mercury to cheese, pickles, sweets and tea leaves to improve the colour.

The poisonous additives in Victorian food

These sharp practices came as a shock to Shepton Mallet's time travelling grocer, Debbie Sergison. She refused to indulge in such dubious methods, but has taken some Victorian methods back to her Lincolnshire deli.

"It was a very manual era, you had to do everything from scratch - we blended tea, roasted coffee and made soap. I'd never thought to blend my own tea before, but it's delicious."

She found life as a 1930s grocer involved stock heavily weighted towards branded goods and confectionery as disposable incomes rose after the Depression, and the 1940s dominated by rationing and absent men. In the 60s came self-service, her shop decked out with new-fangled conveyor belts and pricing so competitive the butcher went out of business. By the 70s, it was a supermarket.

How to keep High Streets healthy

  • Emphasise heritage features or natural surroundings to give a sense of place
  • Clear up litter and repair damage to property
  • Deter anti-social behaviour
  • Keep it accessible with good transport links and reasonable parking charges

Which, for her, was the golden age? "For the look of the shops, it's the Edwardian era. Everything was so smart. And we had assistants so we could provide great service to our customers."

And did the residents of Shepton Mallet fall back in love with their market square? Yes, to a point.

Some of the time capsule shops once again stand vacant. But hopes are high the 1960s milk bar will reopen, and 1970s boutique will be reborn as a vintage shop.

Below is a selection of your comments

It was so lovely to see our poor old high street come alive again, which died with the arrival of a large, oversized supermarket chain store in the town (I live there and saw it happen, including the death of our own village store). I was born in the wrong era, I would have loved to have been a housewife in the 50s, shopping for fresh food everyday in specialised shops, being served by friendly and helpful shopkeepers. Supermarkets have killed off high streets and are slowly killing off farming with their demands for cheap (tasteless) food - and with most couples having to work, we no longer have the luxury of time to shop properly.

Anne, Pilton, Shepton Mallet

Interesting article. In the main I'd argue that High Streets have responded well to the changing way retailers provide their services. Towns and High Streets are no longer single purpose trips as their vitality is determined by what's offer generally. For example, High Streets now provide a better overall shopping experience as people mix their shopping with other needs or habits - cafe society, for shopping, drinking and meeting people. This has been helped by some of the food retailers shifting to edge or out of centre sites. The empty shops providing space for more non-food goods and related services. The challenge now though is how High Streets respond to current economics, who will occupy empty shops, and what other needs are there to make these areas attractive places to visit.

Russell Hughes-Pickering, Aberystwyth, Wales

It may seem a little overly optimistic in the face of boarded up shopfronts and the clone town (in)experience but I have a positive feeling that we're a decade away from a new golden age for the High Street. The clone stores that rely on a high street presence are feeling the pinch every bit as much as the specialist stores. Where once Boots destroyed the family chemist, now Tescos is destroying Boots. Similarly both the supermarkets and the internet are having the same effect on Waterstones, WHSmiths and HMV that they had on their smaller forbearers. Extrapolate this into the future and we're looking at the collapse of the clone town as more and more of the everyday essentials are accommodated for by the out-of-town supermarkets. Society will still retain its desire for a general meeting place so a little intelligent town planning will create an opportunity for smaller specialist shops to thrive interspersed between convenience stores and cafes.

Graham Bell, Braunton, UK

My memories of the High Streets in East London are of women shopping every day and carrying heavy bags of inferior food home after visiting umpteen shops in their lunch break. Very little choice, no 'best buy' dates and poor refrigeration meant meat butter and milk smelling a bit off. Fruit and vegetables were packed by shopkeepers from the back of the pile - you had to inspect every bag before you left the shop otherwise you got bruised and damaged goods. There were some nice shops with knowledgeable staff who would chat - OK for the ladies with nothing better to do with their time but not for busy working women like my mum. Out of town supermarkets and online shopping has given more choice, lower prices and a better experience for ordinary day to day shopping.

Barbara Dickens, UK

I can remember going to Sainsbury's in Southampton High Street with my parents when customers had to go to the various counters to order items from the assistants. It was famous for its bacon and cheese counters, both of which were cut individually for your order. Then we would go to the Cadena Cafe, which roasted its beans in the window so that the smell would attract customers. We were always served at the table.

Anthony Lee, Muntinlupa, Philippines

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation three years ago concluded that high streets, despite neglect over the years by engineers, planners and politicians, have a key role to play in enhancing urban liveability, social inclusion and cohesion, and in developing sustainable urban communities. But to realise their potential a town centre's design needed to more balanced, to take due account of their function as "places" to shop and visit as well as their role as "links" in providing through routes for road traffic. Sadly, my own home town's town centre isn't as well thought out as it could be. There are two large out of town retail parks and some smaller retail parks in the local area which have all but drained the life out of the centre.

James Pilkington, Bolton

Shopping in the 50s when I was young was the best time. No supermarkets. All the shopkeepers were friendly and knew you by name. Not as much variety as today but everything was local grown and locally made on the premises. And you could buy a lot of things for coppers - a pair of kippers for two old pence.

Barbara Eagles, Clitheroe, Lincs

Thank god for the death of the high street shops. Why? Greengrocers selling more soil than produce, never any veg without the ubiquitous green fly. Bakers selling old cakes that were mouldy. Newspapers shops refusing to return money on bottles. Mutton dressed as lamb. Milk delivery of yesterdays' milk. Underweight amounts of bacon, ham etc. Cheese that had more mould that Lister would have been proud of. Consumer protection was the death of the high street NOT the supermarkets. Open your eyes to hygiene and product satisfaction not the misty rose tinted past you think you knew.

Howard Parry, Hong Kong

It is the car that has had the biggest effect of the decline on the High Street. Without our cars we would not be able to drive to the out of town retail malls, we could not buy and carry more than a few days provisions from the supermarket and we would not cause parking chaos in our towns. No, we would all walk or catch the bus, we would be fitter and healthier, we would interact with those around us and we would bring life back to the High Street. Best of all kids would learn mental arithmetic instead of how to use a credit card. Supermarkets have profited from the fact that so many of us now are lazy; busy, but lazy. We want it all NOW and for as little effort and money as possible.

Zoe Woodruff, Carmarthen, South Wales

My high street was at its best before the global take over of all things grocery by Tesco. My local High Street, now consists of one fruit and veg shop, six charity shops and one travel agent. To add further insult our Tesco megastore now has a Timpson shoe, key cutting outlet in-store along with an automated DVD console hire station. Which will force the local Blockbuster and cobbler to close.

Karl Duvall, Prescot, Merseyside

When I was a kid in the 70s the high street was full of smaller, specialised and interesting shops. These were staffed by people with knowledge to help and advise. Mum used to buy material, cotton, needles, patterns from a shop where the staff new how to make clothes, curtains and the like; Dad used to get tools from hardware shops where staff built things; I got models from a model shop where the guy made models. Now you can buy stuff from the internet - as long as you know what you are doing, or browse the shelves of a big multinational staffed by kids who don't know how to fry and egg let alone anything else. I would go back to the high street from the 70s - even if it meant having to wear flared trousers and a horrible shirt.

Dave, UK

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