Shopgirls: The True Story Of Life Behind The Counter

Confirmed for BBC Two on 24 June at 9.00pm to 10.00pm

Ep 1/3

Tuesday 24 June



Today, we take it for granted that many of our shop assistants are women, but 150 years ago, being served by a shopgirl was a strange new phenomenon, and the story of how an army of women swept onto our shop floors is a fascinating one.

Presented by Dr Pamela Cox, this three-part series follows the journey of the shopgirl from an almost invisible figure in stark Victorian stores, to being the beating heart of our glossy, modern shops. With retail the biggest private sector employer in the UK today, this series charts how shopgirls have been central to Britain’s retail revolution and at the cutting edge of social change. 

In the first episode, Pamela begins in the mid-19th century, when shops up and down the country were owned and staffed by men, and shopwork was a closed world for most women. A new, emerging middle class had money to spend, but the idea of shopping as a pleasurable experience was still a world away.

But as jobs opened in the factories of the big industrial cities, shops no longer had the same ready supply of young male apprentices, and Pamela learns how women’s groups actively sought to promote women’s employment and shrug off the notion that shop work was somehow ‘un-ladylike’. As the Victorians became increasingly consummate shoppers, the experience of shopping became more attuned to the demands of lady customers who preferred being served by women. By the late 19th century, the doors to shops across the country were flung open and thousands of women poured in looking for work.

Pamela lifts the lid on the working conditions and realities of life for shopgirls, many of whom ‘lived in’ above shops and the new department stores. Often poorly paid, some doubled as sex workers, contributing to the shopgirl’s sometimes seedy reputation in the late Victorian era. But this wave of pioneering women also enjoyed newfound independence and their own money to spend, and penny magazines and music halls offered entertainment that reflected and celebrated their lives: the shopgirl had taken centre stage in popular culture.

By the turn of the century, nearly a quarter of a million women were employed in shopwork; they had forged new kinds of work for women and even helped transform the experience of shopping itself. The shopgirl was here to stay.