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Shops and Shopping

Outline of Roman shops at Richborough


J.K. Galbraith in his History Of Economics suggests that the Romans were the first civilisation to enshrine private property in law. As a society which valued private property it then followed that shops developed in Roman towns and cities. Shops first appeared in Britain following the Roman invasion of 43AD. It is thought that an advance force of Roman soldiers came ashore at Richborough in Kent. Richborough then quickly developed into a major port. Close to a huge Monumental Arch built to announce a travellers' arrival in Britain, shops were built to take advantage of passing trade. The outline of a row of open fronted shops survives at the Richborough site.

When the Romans left around 410AD shops disappeared with them, and by the early Middle Ages shopping had ceased to exist. People had little surplus money with which to buy things. Peasants worked not to make money, but, in the words of Dorothy Davis, "so as to avoid as far as possible the need for money". Some money had to be made to pay taxes, but the main focus was on goods rather than money. There were weekly markets where farmers and craftsmen would sell their goods directly, but this was about the limit of "shopping". Trading time was fixed to give everyone an equal chance. Today markets continue, and some of them, such as Borough Market in Southwark, London, have a very long history. Click on this link for a selection of historic markets in London.




Cheap Street, Frome

By the fourteenth century things had begun to change. Every town had at least one general store owner, who stood between producer and customer. Later in the Middle Ages streets were regulated and trades assigned to specific areas. These areas can still be seen in street names today, such as London's Haymarket, or Bread Street. The Shambles in York gives an idea of a shopping street of this era. The Shambles specialised in meat, and was named after the Saxon word for shelves, from which the meat was sold. Cheap Street in Frome, Somerset is a rare reminder of the earliest shopping streets, with its open drain still running down the middle. The King John's Hunting Lodge Museum in Axbridge, Somerset has recreated the effect of open arcaded shop booths.










Berry Bros and Rudd, St James's, London

Retail trade took on a more modern look in London in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. By 1700 shops had taken their present form with glazed ground floors. Products were still not standardised and prices were settled by argument. A few shops survive from this time. In St James's Street London, Berry Bros and Rudd, selling wines, dates from the seventeenth century, and has a shop front created in the 1730s. Locks, which sells hats, and is a few doors down from Berry Bros and Rudd, dates from 1759. Artillery Lane in London has Georgian shop fronts.

At the time these shops were founded Britain's population was growing, and there were more wealthy people looking to buy things. Because there were things to buy, people wanted to make money to buy them. Shopping and production fed one another. This cycle was particularly likely to gain momentum in Britain due to society being relatively mobile. A mobile society bred snobbery, a desire to emulate the lifestyle of those above in the social chain. Daniel Defoe said in the Complete English Tradesman of 1726:

"While the poorest citizens live like the rich, the rich like the gentry, the gentry like the nobility, and the nobility striving to outshine one another, no wonder all the sumptuary trades increase."





Fortnum and Mason - photo by Julian Jones

Department stores began in France, with Bon Marche and Louvre in the 1860s and 1870s. Britain soon followed suit with Debenhams, Swan and Edgar, Dickens and Jones, Harrods, and Army and Navy. Debenhams and Harrods still survive, with Harrods continuing as one of London's best known stores. The department store Fortnum and Masons is particularly interesting as a symbol of the new consumer society driven by aspiration. William Fortnum was originally a footman for Queen Anne, who did some business on the side, selling groceries, and slightly used royal candles. In royal palaces, candles would be used once, and then replaced with fresh ones every morning. The used candles then had an air of specialness about them when Fortnum sold them on. He was a natural businessman, who knew that his royal connections would be useful in retailing. Together with his landlord Hugh Mason, Fortnum set up a shop in Piccadilly in 1707, selling groceries at the luxury end of the market. This shop in a much extended form survives in Piccadilly today. Royalty has often been a source of aspiration in history, with monarchs setting fashion trends throughout the period of the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps this is one reason that monarchy survived in Britain when many monarchies were being lost on the continent. Britain was the first country to industrialise, and aspiration driven by monarchs and their families made their maintenance worthwhile. Fortnum and Mason with its royal link via an enterprising footman selling part used royal candles, illustrates this nicely.

Like department stores, shopping arcades were primarily a continental innovation, streets in Italy being arcaded as early as the thirteenth century. Britain only has one example of very early arcaded streets, the Chester Rows in Cheshire, where the arcade is on the first floor level. The Chester Rows have a very long history and may date back to chaotic times following the Roman withdrawal. No more arcades were built until Inigo Jones built his "Piazza" at Covent Garden between 1631 and 1635, none of which now survives. The first modern arcade under cover in Britain was the Royal Opera Arcade in London, built between 1816 and 1818. This was soon followed by the Burlington Arcade in 1819. The north also had its arcades. Thornton's Arcade (1878) in Leeds still survives and gives a sense of the Victorian shopping experience, as does the restored Barton Arcade in Manchester. All of these arcades sold expensive goods, and illustrate the way shopping was driven by a desire to emulate the upper classes. In the twentieth century arcades developed into vast out of town shopping centres. Planning opinion has moved against these developments but shoppers continue to like them. The ultimate in mammoth out of town "arcades" is Bluewater near Greenhithe in Kent, which has about 330 shops, 40 cafes, bars or restaurants, and a thirteen screen cinema.


Barton Arcade, Manchester - photo by Julian Jones


The cycle of work to earn money, stimulating the provision of things to spend it on, stimulating more work, stimulating the provision of more things to buy, has created Bluewater, and it has to be said, the modern world. At Bluewater there is a Place of Quiet, a good place to sit and reflect on the cycle of restlessness that really got going in the sixteenth century, and accelerated hugely in the nineteenth. Money will only lead to more things to buy, and a need to make more money. There is of course nothing wrong with shopping, and nothing wrong with wanting to buy nice things. Life depends on there always being something else to aspire to. But in the sparkling surroundings of Bluewater I think the Place of Quiet is a place to remember that it doesn't matter how much money you have, because having more will only generate more things to buy. Might as well accept what we've got, even while we're looking for a way to buy all those lovely things we can't afford.

The Place of Quiet can be found in the Lower Rose Gallery Welcome Hall. It is accessible via a buzzer on the door. Inside there is a Reflections Space for those who wish for some quiet time, and a Listening Space suitable for quiet conversations.

Bluewater is a few miles from junction 2 of the M25.















©2006 InfoBritain (updated 01/11)