What shops were on the high street?

A busy wartime high street

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During World War One, the high street looked very different from how it is today. There were no supermarkets or shopping centres. Shops were smaller and many were named after the families who owned them.

The invention of street lamps

A lamplighter lighting a gas street lamp.

Gas lighting became a popular way of lighting streets in the early 1800s. At first gas lamps had to be lit by hand, but a self-lighting mechanism was later invented. Some streets in London are still lit by gas to this day.

Often, shopkeepers displayed their goods outside the shop and then brought them indoors at closing time.

To buy the things a family needed meant walking to lots of different shops, like the butcher for meat, the tailor for clothes, the baker for bread and the greengrocer for fruit and vegetables.

There were lots of posters on walls and notice boards encouraging people to support the war.

Every high street had a recruitment office where men could join the army or navy. Often, groups of friends from the same town or workplace would join up together in Pals Battalions.

The jobs they left behind were taken by women who had previously worked at home or as servants in domestic service.

The home front

Newspaper sellers stood on the pavement, shouting the latest war headlines. Horse-drawn vehicles rattled by and on the motor buses and trams, women drivers and conductors could be seen in their new, smart uniforms.

As darkness fell, the shops closed and gas street lamps were lit.

From the start of the war, towns closer to the coast had to be dark at night in case of air raids. When the bells were rung to warn people of an attack, all vehicles had to drive without lights.

People of the high street

Here are some of the people you might have found on a typical wartime high street. Can you spot all the characters in the scene above?

A group of characters from a war time high street Scroll across to find out a bit more about each of the characters.
William Mcleod and Charlie William McLeod, the butcher, says he makes the best sausages in town. Although meat is scarce, he gets lots of game from his friend's farm. He usually has pheasant, grouse, partridges and rabbits to sell. Sometimes he also has ducks and geese. When people call at the shop to place an order, Mr McLeod's boy Charlie cycles over the bumpy cobbles to deliver the meat to their homes.
BBC Robert's pals called him Bert. He sells newspapers at the same place every day so people know where to find him. People like to find out what is happening in the war. When the main news story is a good one, like today's, people are happy and when they buy a newspaper, some let Bert keep the change. Like his pals, Bert left school when he was 12 and now he has to work to bring money home to his mother.
Mr and Mrs Knight the grocer Mr and Mrs Knight own the grocers and confectioners shop. Before the war, it was a very good business but things are so expensive now, people don't buy as much as they used to. Prices have been going up because of the shortages. By the end of the war, Mr and Mrs Knight and their neighbours will have to learn how to stamp people's ration books and share the food out fairly. Mr Knight is too old to be a soldier.
Captain Shields the recruitment officer Captain Shields is a recruitment officer at the town hall. The Minister for War has asked the men of Britain to volunteer to fight in the army. There are posters all over town to encourage them. The posters tell the men it is their duty to defend their king and country. Some come to Mr Shields' office because they think it is the right thing to do, others because their friends are joining and they do not want to be left out.
Police Constable Smith Police Constable Tremewan retired a few years ago, but has come back to work again after other policemen in the town went to war. He patrols the streets by foot, making sure everyone is safe and well. There are also some policewomen joining the force - it's the first time women have been allowed to join the police. They're not allowed to arrest people, but they can present evidence in court.
Mr and Mrs Robinson The tearoom is owned by William Robinson and his wife Charlotte, who makes the cakes. She has to be creative in the kitchen because of the shortages but always manages to make lovely things for their customers. Mr and Mrs Robinson grow lots of fruit in their garden so almost always have pots of home-made jam to sell too.
Georgina Shields the gas street lighter Arthur Shields was the town lamplighter until he went to war. However, he has trained his niece, Georgina, to do the job while he's away. Georgina does the job well and knows when the lamps should be lit and put out. In some towns all lights have to be out by 11pm. Luckily Georgina doesn't live by the sea or she wouldn't have a job, because towns on the coast must be completely dark in case the enemy can see them.
Mr Orme the tailor Harold Orme has owned the gent's outfitters for many years. He trained as a tailor, learning how to measure, cut and sew perfect shirts, jackets and trousers. Now he employs two tailors and runs the shop himself. Having been a tailor, he knows how to make clothes to please his customers. His shop is one of the few places men can buy clothes in town. Ladies have their clothes all made specially too.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at the high street 100 years ago.


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