Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Turn Back Time

No, nothing to do with changing clocks, but an attempt by the BBC to show us how different High Street shopping was in the 1870's. For a week, they had a group of modern shopkeepers take over some empty shops in a neglected Market Square in Shepton Mallet, Somerset.

This photo ( thanks to the BBC article) shows the grocer, who along with a baker, a butcher and an ironmonger cum blacksmith cum candlestick maker(!), spent a week plying their trades under the same conditions their predecessors would have had to contend with two centuries ago - no electricity, no running water, no women allowed to serve in the front shop...
The grocer probably had the easiest task - the female members of his family had to work in the back room, weighing and wrapping goods to order, while he played the jovial showman front of house - especially on Market Day, when he sold cuts from a giant cheese, outside his shop. When the shop had became overfull of customers waiting for the wrapping/weighing process to be completed, he decided to revert to the old tradition of merely taking orders, then having goods delivered directly to the customer's homes.

The butcher and his son had one huge Gloucester Old Spot pig delivered, with the challenge of selling every scrap of it by the end of the week. When you learn it took six men to manhandle this beastie into the shop, it should give you an idea of its size. With the only refrigeration supplied by a few enormous ice blocks in metal cages, the need for selling quickly was obvious, though there was no such thing as a sell by date back then. Sausages made from the less aesthetic cuts of meat, and encased in the well washed intestines, were a popular choice with shoppers, though an attempt at making pork pies was less successful, as they were put to cook in the baker's oven, then forgotten and burned to a crisp. On the market day, their own version of fast food - i.e. bacon and pea soup (peas pudding) - made them a good profit, as well as pleasing the crowds.

The Ironmonger soon realised he did a better trade from his blacksmith's forge than from behind his counter, and closed the shop. He took on an apprentice and set him to work making candles, while he himself crafted wrought iron candle holders, plus meat hooks for the butcher, and bread knives for the baker. At the end of the week he had made the largest amount of money, totalling about one and a half thousand pounds.

The baker's family had the greatest challenge to contend with, for it was the wife, not the husband, who was the master baker in real life, but in the eighteen hundred's women were not allowed to work in the trade. So the husband, who had never baked a loaf in his life, had to immediately set to work to produce 150 loaves overnight, ready for opening day on the morrow. Needless to say, as he wouldn't listen to any of his wife's gentle hints regarding quantities of salt and water needed to produce decent bread, the results were disastrous - burnt, and too salty by far.
After a crash course with a specialist baker, who gave him a lesson in how to make a profit by adding other ingredients to bulk out the flour (chalk, sawdust, alum and even arsenic were sometimes used!) he opted for the fairly innocuous rice to add to the fine white flour that had been delivered to him, and his bread improved.

The programme made it obvious how difficult life was for all tradesmen, not to mention their families who worked hard behind the scenes, supporting the men. But what it also brought into high relief, was how the  shoppers loved the personal interaction with the shop owners, especially on Market Day, when they turned to showmanship to advertise their wares to passers-by, be it by means of a giant cheese, pig's head complete with glass eyes hung above the shop, homemade candles and holders by the forge, or simply baskets of fresh bread displayed on trestles on the pavement; a far cry indeed from an out of town, all-purpose, impersonal supermarket.


  1. Interesting, but this dude is quite happy to be living in the era of computers and satellite tv.

  2. Sigh. It sounds wonderful. Even with the burnt pies and salty bread. Who needs giant box stores anyway?

    No women in the shops? That seems so outrageous. I guess we've come a long way.

    Love this post Jinksy!

  3. Having been a shopkeeper (and we ran our own tearoom for which we baked everything on the premises) for 10 years - it's not easy!
    I love shopping in markets or failing that more traditional shops, I grow most of my own veg and only enter into supermarkets for cleaning materials. I have checked and discovered that actually its cheaper to do it my way, just much more time consuming!

  4. What a wonderful week to observe! Wish I could have witnessed it in person.

  5. I watched the programme too and was amazed by the adulteration of flour with such poisonous ingredients.

    The pig was the star. :-)

  6. Personal interaction Jinksy - you have hit the nail on the head! I still do much of my shopping in our little town and on the market on a Friday - much more interaction.

  7. Dear Jinksy,
    what a lot of work those people had to do! And how spoilt we are (which I prefer). Reminds me a bit of "Cranford", that, being much later, allowed Miss Matty to open a tea-shop.
    When I think of how many people are really picky eaters nowadays, a week at that BBC-site might do them good :-)

  8. A wonderful story Penny. I was able to imagine the fun and pandemonium there must have been for some :-) Dave

  9. Adding to all that others have said, I note your artist's eye at work when you close the post with comments on the eye-catching ways they displayed their wares. We made a Saturday tradition of going to our local farmer's market all summer. Was sad to say good-bye to everyone one at the end of October, not to mention saying good-bye to good vegetables, artisanal cheese, and homemade fruit tarts!

  10. I had no idea that women couldn't be in the front of the shop. That does make life difficult for all involved, doesn't it? I am also amazed that the blacksmith did better than the rest. Very interesting post - as always.

  11. ye ole times... things sure were different then.

  12. I like the way the BBC "trails" this series by delivering the Victorian tradespeople to the Victorian High Street in a rocket-propelled van, leaving innocent passers-by falling about on the pavements!

  13. I saw this was going to be on, but I'm guessing I missed it! Sounds interesting... ah iPlayer! Hurrah! Although I almost don't need to you - your bring it so vividly to life (and none of telly's endless 're-caps!)

    I bet the library assistant's job would be more or less the same though -tee hee!

    p.s. I have a giant Old Spot... and it's not a pig!

  14. When we lived in Beaconsfield I loved going to the different specialty shops in town, the butcher the haker the candlestick maker, it was the highlight of our stay there, walking Digby into the village tying her to the style whilst I did my shopping, I loved every minute of it. I would love to read the article!

  15. I didn't see this, Jinksy but your post makes me wish I had! If there is such interest in these artisan businesses, why does Shepton Mallet have a neglected Market Square?!

  16. Extremely interesting post, Jinksy. Merchandising and store-keeping have changed dramatically. I would have enjoyed watching the BBC documentary, however, your excellent prose serves very well to bring the images to mind.


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