Retailing, Distribution in Hard Times: Historical Perspectives - 02 May 2012


14.00 - 14.30 Pol Serrahima, Universitat de Lleida, ‘War, food dearth and charity in a medieval town. Barcelona 1462-1472’

Food production and food distribution techniques were not as advanced in medieval Europe as they are today. Thus, famine and food dearth were a permanent concern to urban societies. The poor were especially vulnerable to these, and that explains the existence of almonries, a kind of ecclesiastic foundations which, unlike hospitals, that gave shelter to the poor, had the aim to provide them with food or, at least, with some money to buy it.

War had especially negative effects on foodstuffs markets. The presence of troops increased pressure on land’s resources, the blockade of supply lines made it difficult to provide cities with enough nourishment, and hoarding became usual. Hence, the risk of food dearth or even famine increased significantly. In that situation, how could the almonries react in order to keep on with their usual work rate?

In this paper I will try to answer to this question through the analysis of one specific case study, that of the Almonry of Barcelona from 1462 to 1472. In these years, the town council of Barcelona, along with some other towns and the government of Catalonia, confronted the King of Aragon and his allies in the so-called Catalan Civil War. The Almonry of Barcelona had been founded in the 12th century, and by the 15th century it fed about 300 poor people a day in its alms-house. Its administration books are preserved almost intact for all the 15th century and it is possible to study in detail which was the nature of its revenues and expenses.

Hence, my object in this talk is to try to explain in which ways the occurrence of war altered the normal functioning of the institution, both by diminishing its usual income and by making it far more expensive to acquire foodstuffs. By doing so, I will be examining the medieval idea of assistance, its limits, its responsibilities and the consequences of its failure associated to hard times economy.

14.30-15.00 Sheryllynne Haggerty, University of Nottingham, ‘Trading in a period of crises: business culture in the British-Atlantic 1750-1815’

This paper comes from a larger interdisciplinary project on commerce in the British Atlantic which hopes, by explicitly using socio-economic theory to provide a more nuanced perspective on merchant culture during this period. The larger project argues that the business culture of this period represented an informal institution which was important in helping the British to be economically very successful in a period dominated by credit crises, political upheaval, and war. In particular this paper looks at how that business culture was affected during crises, and more importantly, how it coped and adapted. Three case studies are used: The American War of Independence; Abolition of the British slave trade; and the build up to the Anglo-American War of 1812. Using a variety of sources such as parliamentary papers, merchant letterbooks and state papers, this paper aims to demonstrate that the business culture of this period was both strong and adaptable enough to cope in ‘hard times’ whether caused by political upheaval, legislative changes, or war. For example, the business community often contracted its networks during war or credit crises, but during legislative changes, the whole trading community (or parts thereof) had to pull together. At the same time, they could find that such changes altered their relationship with the state. Indeed this latter point became increasingly important towards the end of the period, as merchants in Britain in particular sensed a sea-change in the political economy, with the decline, if not demise, of mercantilism.

15.00-15.30 Martin Purvis, University of Leeds, ‘Hard times in interwar Britain: a co-operative perspective on uneven retail fortunes’

Recent studies of retailing in interwar Britain have tended to emphasise the extension in tandem of mass-consumption and substantial multiple store chains. The impact of industrial depression and unemployment on retailing in substantial parts of the country is often less well understood. Business returns from the hundreds of co-operative societies trading across Britain do, however, offer some important insights into the effects of wider economic upheaval upon retail sales, costs and profits. These returns reveal the scale and rapidity of retail reversals in communities most affected by industrial disputes and decline during the 1920s and 1930s; often in sharp contrast to expansion elsewhere. Moreover, in the worst affected areas the real value of co-operative retail takings in the late 1930s was still lower than it had been in the years immediately after World War I.

Developing retail practice thus reflected not only the growth of consumer demand chiefly concentrated in the most prosperous parts of midland and southern England, but also the persistence of hard times in much of the industrial north and west of Britain. Difficult trading conditions both reinforced retailers’ search for new operational efficiencies and inspired efforts to restore consumer confidence. Experiences of sales collapse and long-term deflation thus helped to accelerate change in areas including stock control, store design and retail employment practice.

As the paper also explores, the economic climate posed particular challenges for co-operative retailing. Important sections of the movement came to question the continuing relevance of long-established principles and practice with respect to stocking, pricing, dividends, advertising and display. Yet conditions prompted hopes of substantial co-operative advance, not only as a reflection of the immediate appeal of honest trading to growing numbers of hard-pressed consumers, but also as a stable and equitable alternative to an apparently chaotic and failing capitalist system of distribution and production. This was a further reflection of the hope and despair which persisted alongside each other in retailing and in the wide life of interwar Britain.

16.00-16.30 Hayley Cross, University of Glasgow, ‘Under the counter’ black-market trade; consumers and local retailers in Glasgow, 1939-54

This paper will explore black-market trade in Glasgow during the period of rationing, 1939-54. Black-market activity during this period has received attention from historians including Ina Zweiniger-Bargeilowska and Mark Roodhouse, yet the social aspects of black-market trade remain underdeveloped in the literature. This is especially true at the Scottish level. Drawing on records from the Glasgow Sheriff Court and qualitative data, in the form of questionnaires and oral testimony, this paper will examine black-market trade from the consumer perspective. It will specifically address the relationship between consumers and local retailers during the period and shall show that ‘under the counter’ trade was a significant form of black-market activity in Glasgow. ‘Under the counter’ trade is here use to define trade, primarily in foodstuffs, between retailers and consumers which contravened rationing regulations. This paper shall also be particularly concerned with consumer attitudes towards under the counter trade. Attitudes were found to incorporate both support for the rationing system and also ambivalence towards the illegality of under the counter trade. It will be shown that under the counter trade was less readily associated with illegal activity compared with other forms of black-market trade, such as trade in stolen goods, for two principal reasons; firstly, drawing upon long-standing community relationships with local retailers, consumers more readily associated under the counter trade with sociable community assistance than illegal activity, and secondly, because the vast majority of under the counter consumers were women, this form of black-market trade was often seen as an almost natural extension of their role as family providers. In this regard, issues of community and gender can be said to have negated government attempts to establish the link between illegal, or criminal, behaviour and this form of black-market trade in the public consciousness. As well as drawing upon the sources stated above, this paper would like to employ analysis of the only film relating to black-market activity produced by the Ministry of Information, Partners in Crime (Frank Launder, 1942), to assist in the exploration of ideas relating to under the counter trade.

16.30-17.00 Mike Haynes, University of Wolverhampton, ‘A death in the High Street: takeover, restructuring, redundancy and a suicide in a UK department store’

This paper explores the way in which an iconic regional department store in the United Kingdom was buffeted, first by the boom of the early twenty first century, and then its collapse. Takeover,  including by House of Fraser and then Baugar – an Icelandic company that collapsed in the crisis of 2008-200,  led to successive restructurings and a widespread sense of loss of identity in the local  community. The changing nature of the department store undermined the community-family focus of the store and was implicated in the suicide of a senior manager charged with dismissing staff.  


Dr Laura Ugolini

Room MC334

Tel: 01902 321890