I’ve just watched this fascinating programme on BBC iplayer. Beginning with the 1870’s, each episode takes a look at the culture of the British High Street through the ages. Set in Shepton Mallet, four shops have been transformed into historic themed shops. I’m a big fan of hese ‘history brought to life’ programmes, even if some people sniff about them not being realistic or being cheap.
Of course we all know pretty well that the old British High Street has taken something of a hammering since the advent of the supermarket and out of town shopping. This isn’t necessarily all bad, but it is impossible not to think that shopping in an old school High Street might have been a lot more pleasant than battling your way through the endless supermarket aisles. And not only in terms of shopping, but in terms of community, the High Street was important to life. Its a fascinating glimpse into ways of life that have all but disappeared – how female members of the family would never work in the front of house, how most shopkeepers would routinely deliver items at no extra charge (beating online shopping by a clear century), and how Victorian Butchers would display their wares on the outside of their shops – something that Environmental Health curtails nowadays.
It was interesting to see how the various traders fared. The Grocers learnt to be flexible, to adapt to what they did or did not have in stock, and to deliver. The Baker struggled to begin with, but fared better after compromising quality for economy – clearly the Victorian consumer was not bothered overly if their bread was fluffy or white enough, but just wanted something to eat at a decent price. The Butcher struggled with modern sensibilities about what exactly goes into sausages, and in trying to sell every part of a pig. Even though we still eat most of the body of an animal nowadays, we have a naive ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude – people were really not used to seeing a carcass being Butchered in front of them. And the Ironmonger struggled to sell to customers, but spent most of his time servicing the other shopkeepers.
Lets take a quick look at Portsmouth High Street. The main thoroughfare in the town, it was an extremely fashionable place, and was described by conteporaries during the nineteenth century as ‘ranking among the finest streets in London’. You could purchase telescopes, barometers, books, miniatures, clothes, and also the usual fare such as food and drink. Everyone would have known each other, and the shopkeepers all moved in the same circles, and lived above their shops. Charpentier’s 1840 guide to the High Street even included a full length panorama of the street, showing each shop and house. On market day in particular you could have walked the length of the street and picked up everything that you needed, and also nearby you had a host of pubs, inns, hotels, coffee shops, banks, the Parish Church and of course the Town Hall and Market House in the middle of the street. Its not difficult to see how communities are more disjointed without this kind of hub.
I’m not sure if it was really necessary to have the annoying bloke from masterchef as the presenter, but thankfully he doesn’t rear his shiny head or open his mouth too often.
Future episodes will focus on the Edwardian, Wartime Britain, the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s; and its that change through time that I’ll be interested to see. The BBC is also running a ‘Hands on History’ campaign tied in with the programme, encouraging viewers to find out more about their High Street. That’s the beauty of a programme like this – it could apply to any High Street in any town in the country.
- TV review: Turn Back Time: the High Street and Kirstie’s Homemade Home (guardian.co.uk)
- Turn Back Time, BBC One: a history of our shops – from John Lewis to dodgy sweets (telegraph.co.uk)
- Window dressing (bbc.co.uk)
- Turn Back Time: The High Street – BBC1, 9pm (mirror.co.uk)
- My experience of Turn Back Time: The High Street (guardian.co.uk)