Abstracts - for the 5th September 2012

Retailing and Distribution History  - CHORD Conference

Abstracts 11.30-13.00

Peter Jones, Queen Mary University of London, UK, ‘A History in Rags: Reckoning with London’s ‘Cast-offs’ in the Old Clothes Market, 1800 – 1870’

In London: The Biography Peter Ackroyd ends a chapter discussing London’s markets by describing ‘Rag Fair’ as a ‘woebegone place’ that over the course of the nineteenth-century ‘disappeared beneath its own waste.’ This response is typical of critical approaches that have thus far treated the Victorian rag trade as a topic barely warranting scrutiny. But why is it that irrespective of its apparent social value, the rag market still tends to disappear ‘beneath its own waste’ within economic and social histories? What are the implicit assumptions upon which this attitude is grounded?

This paper approaches this question by examining a number of literary responses to used clothing markets by writers and journalists such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle and George Augustus Sala. Discussions scrutinize a marked tendency within these accounts to associate the processes of recycling and reprocessing that took place in London’s informal markets with a degree of shame and moral suspicion. For example, in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) Field Lane (significantly chosen as the location of Fagin’s Lair) is imagined as a ‘commercial colony in itself’, set apart according to its foreignness and criminality. The handkerchiefs, old boots and clothes sold in the market are coded as ‘sign-boards to the petty thief’ that effectively act as markers for the disreputable character of this district and the socially outcast condition of the local population.

Subsequently, representational strategies that sought to de-legitimize the rag trade as an ‘unsightly’ and ‘undesirable’ presence in the modernizing metropolis, need to be reread for the inherent contradictions and paradoxes that they were intended to preclude. Far from being an isolated and insignificant remnant of a more ‘developed’ urban economy, Henry Mayhew’s investigations suggest that by the 1840s old clothes reprocessing was an immensely profitable enterprise that was taking place on an industrial and global scale. Efforts to discredit and marginalize those workers who dealt with society’s ‘cast-offs’ on the city’s streets, corresponded to increasingly stringent attempts to regulate and reform informal marketing throughout the nineteenth-century. However, concluding remarks will explain how these cultural and commercial spaces were able to resist and ultimately survive the attempted deformation and denigration of their social function.

Peter Jones is studying for a PhD in English Literature at Queen Mary. This paper relates to his research into the literary representation of marginal and surplus populations in urban exploratory fiction and journalism. Peter has previously given talks discussing street markets, urban waste, and ‘residual’ economies at the Literary London Conference held at the Institute of English Studies, and at the Emergent Critical Environments event, which was held at Queen Mary. He has also been involved in setting up the Literary London Reading Group that takes place on a monthly basis at Senate House.

Victoria Kelley, University of the Arts and University of the Creative Arts, UK, ‘Shopping on the Kerbstone: London’s Street Markets, c.1880-1939’

‘The street markets are an institution of real social and economic utility to the London poor, who believe, not without reason, that they get better value for their money by dealing with the stalls than with the shops.’ These words are from the 1932 New Survey of London Life and Labour, which set out to update Charles Booth’s great study, Life and Labour of the People in London, published in full in 1902 and 20 years in the making. The New Survey noted that the number of stalls in the capital’s most important (although strictly unauthorized) street markets had risen by at least 50 per cent since Booth’s time. The report’s authors found such a figure ‘indisputable, if surprising’ – they appear to have been somewhat taken aback that such an unregulated and apparently primitive form of retailing could be flourishing amidst the modernity and increasing prosperity of a great capital city. Their surprise mirrors a common concern in the commentary of the period: that London’s street markets were chaotic and unregulated, and seemed resistant to the sort of reform (new buildings and tighter regulation) that had taken place in many provincial cities. Indeed in London, reform schemes such as those at Columbia Market and Clare Market were notable failures, but the markets nonetheless continued to provide an essential service to large numbers of customers.

This paper will explore the tenacity and vibrancy of London’s street markets in the years between Booth’s work and the New Survey. Why were London’s street markets and their traders and customers so tenaciously attached to very particular open-air locations? And how did they interact with other, more apparently progressive forms of retailing, both in long-established inner city sites and in newly developing suburban centres? These questions will be examined through evidence from across the capital, but with a particular emphasis on the south-east London suburb of Lewisham. Here, in the early twentieth century, market traders ran their businesses alongside a department store, a large co-operative store, and chain stores including Woolworths, Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury, and fought a protracted battle with the local council to stay in their established high street location. This paper will thus attempt to reintegrate the street market into the story of retail development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This paper is part of Victoria Kelley’s research into the development of commercial cultures and working-class material culture. Her published work on these subjects includes ‘ “The All-Conquering Advertiser”?: magazines, advertising and the consumer, 1880-1914’, in Jeremy Aynsley and Kate Forde (eds), Design and the Modern Magazine, Manchester University Press, 2007, and Soap and Water: cleanliness, dirt and the working classes in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, I.B. Tauris, 2010. Her work on London street markets is ongoing; as well as the issues examined in this paper, it also covers pleasure, sociability and sensory experience in the street market, with previous papers presented at the Urban History Group Conference, 2011, and the Metropolitan History seminar series, Institute of Historical Research, February 2012. Dr Kelley teaches at Central St Martins School of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London, and at the University for the Creative Arts, Kent.

Ros Watkiss, University of Wolverhampton, UK, ‘Doing Your Bit for the Country: Women and Saving, Government Initiatives c. 1939-1970’

The National Savings Movement was established in 1916 to encourage the British people to ‘Save and Prosper’. Local volunteers, supported by national committees and civil servants, sold a range of products through the Post Office Savings Bank. The need for investment in government schemes escalated in 1939 with the War Savings Campaign, and various strategies were used to encourage investment in the post-war era. Exhorted by advertisements in magazines and newspapers, encouraged by long service awards, and employer incentives, the schemes were extremely successful.  However, although patriotism undoubtedly played a role in women’s contributions to state finances their motives for saving were mixed.  Oral testimony in Birmingham and the Black Country indicates that, although women recognised the importance of “doing your bit for the country”, there was a good deal of pressure to fulfil community expectations, with many women explaining that they conformed in order to uphold their family’s status within their immediate neighbourhood.  The impetus to invest in government schemes was inspired by a combination of factors - national pride, the wish to contribute to the economic recovery of the country, and the desire to demonstrate that the family was respectable, financially stable and aspirational.  Utilising the testimony of those who sold the national savings stamps it is clear that although patriotism was one factor in the success of the scheme, in some instances women from tight-knit communities, where intimate knowledge of a family’s financial status was readily disseminated, felt an obligation to invest excessive sums in order to uphold personal and familial prestige.

May Rosenthal Sloan, University of Glasgow, UK, ‘Ridley Road: An Edible World in Miniature'

The author of an unpublished work on Hackney’s social history held at the borough’s archive stated in 1950 that ‘Should a minority be oppressed in Europe, sooner or later elements of that minority will show up in East London. Periodic oppressions throughout history have formed a world in miniature in East London.’ Even for that time, this was an overly Eurocentric view however it captures rather well the atmosphere found in Ridley Road market, on the western border of the borough, where the ‘world in miniature’ is a particularly intense version, full of internationally diverse sounds, smells, people and above all, food.

Officially established in the 1920s, Ridley Road for many years represented more than any other, the local Jewish population in the goods on offer. When new groups of immigrants moved into Hackney, this was usually reflected in the market, where stalls selling to Turkish, Caribbean and West African customers amongst others, introduced new goods and traditions at various times. As layers of migration built up and the mix of people and foods became more complex, the networks of social and culinary influence between different customers and traders became more and more intricate. Like any chaotic human environment, the market today is full of surprises, paradoxes and unusual combinations. There are the white stallholders who ‘hate’ foreign food, though they sell yams and cassava to Caribbean customers, or the Jamaican man who through food, reinforces a surprising sense of solidarity with the now all but departed Jewish population. Unsurprisingly, many of the stallholders express fear and resentment toward the supermarkets, seen as encroaching upon even specialist ethnic food markets. Yet those same people very often admit to patronising Sainsbury, Tesco or Marks and Spencer themselves.

Following two historical papers on markets, this one will move decisively into the latter half of the twentieth century and use a case study approach to look at of one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the capital, through one of its busiest street markets. It will discuss the history of Ridley Road as well as using a more ethnographic methodology to discuss the dynamics between traders, customers and goods at play today. It will draw extensively on oral history interviews carried out over the last five years with traders and customers in the market. The material presented here forms part of May Rosenthal Sloan’s doctoral research into the relationship between food and ethnic identity in London and New York since 1945, undertaken in the History Department at the University of Glasgow and due for completion later this year.

Lucy A. Bailey, University of Northampton, UK, ‘”The place is a news agency”: Gossip and the Village Shop as portrayed in popular Victorian literature’

The analysis of cultural representations of retailing provides a unique angle from which to explore the historical perspective. Yet whilst Cox and Dannehl pioneered the study of perceptions of retailing in relation to the eighteenth century, including some analysis of both visual and literary representations, this area of research remains largely neglected for the nineteenth century. Drawing on evidence from a rich array of British Victorian periodical literature, this paper aims to address an element of this gap by exploring literary representations of rural retailing, our understanding of the ways in which the popular image of the village shop and shopkeeper, typically romantic and heavily steeped in nostalgia, was constructed being vague. By exploring literary representations of people, place, space and everyday life an insight can be gained into the influence of nostalgia and stereotyping and the fundamental question of how our image of rural society has been historically and discursively constructed. Furthermore, by analyzing the literary material within its publishing context an indication is given as to how both authors and publishers of popular literature might have influenced and shaped reader perception in their projection of such images of the rural into the wider national consciousness.

The focus of the paper will be an analysis of the portrayal within Victorian periodical literature of the role of the shop and shopkeeper in the creation and dissemination of news and gossip in the rural community. Whilst, as will be shown, the depiction of this role took both positive and negative forms, it will be argued that the interaction presented between retailer, customer and other villagers suggests a connection between everyday shopping and sociability. The Victorian village shop was depicted as more than just a commercial centre; it was a place to meet, interact, gossip and gather news. Essentially it was portrayed as a site of personal and social exchange and therefore was perceived to be important to the vitality of communal life. By highlighting the significance of the place of shop and shopkeeper within the life of the nineteenth-century village community, the analysis of Victorian periodical literature helps to broaden our understanding of the history of rural retailing beyond the commercial.

On the Streets: London’s retail markets 1800 - 2012

 John Benson and Laura Ugolini, in A Nation of Shopkeepers, note the tendency of retail history to concentrate on analysing innovation. In the modern period retail innovations have included the rise of department stores, co-operatives and multiple retailers, as vertical integration brought economies of scale, and mass-market brands emerged. Benson and Ugolini identify a cluster of more traditional practices, including market selling, as a neglected area in the history of retailing, overlooked in the secondary literature, but that ‘deserves study in its own right’. This panel takes up the challenge to address one aspect of this neglect, looking specifically at the London street market. London’s retailing is often told as a narrative of glamour and spectacle, with the great stores of Oxford Street and Regent Street as the chief characters. But many primary accounts describe the contrasting spectacle of the market streets, the main source of provisions, household goods and clothing for working-class consumers well into the twentieth century. As well as cheap food and sundries, these markets offered entertainment and sociality, and constituted sites of independent working-class material culture that resisted local government attempts at regulation and control, yet were an important part of the retail economy of the capital. In more recent years, London’s markets have reflected the changing ethnic mix of the city, retaining many of their traditional locations but altering to meet the new demands of the communities around them. They are a prime example of ‘retailing in hard times’ offering their customers everyday items at bargain prices.

This panel brings together papers by three researchers who are working to uncover the little-known world of the London street market. Between them, the papers offer a chronological span that stretches from 1800 to the present day, and raise many important research issues in this field.



Dr Laura Ugolini

Room MC334

Tel: 01902 321890

Email: L.Ugolini@wlv.ac.uk