Gallery: The humble shopgirls who were the pioneers of their day - Dr Pamela Cox fronts new TV show charting history of life behind the counter

John Lewis Staff Credit: John Lewis John Lewis Staff Credit: John Lewis

Sunday, June 22, 2014
11:18 AM

Most shop work is done by women these days - but it wasn’t always that way. University of Essex historian Dr Pamela Cox tells Sheena Grant about her new television series, which lifts the lid on the sometimes surprising lives of Britain’s first shopgirls

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Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter -  Dr Pamela Cox.  Photographer: Mark JohnsonShopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter - Dr Pamela Cox. Photographer: Mark Johnson

They were the women pioneers of their day, a phenomenon so radical that they were written about in novels and plays of the period, changing the social order so completely that it would never be the same again.

But these women weren’t politicians, social reformers or even of aristocratic birth. They were humble shopgirls who, by taking control of their own destinies at a time when the feminist movement was just spluttering into life, paved the way for generations of women to come.

Today, we take the presence of female shop assistants for granted − why wouldn’t we, when they make up two thirds of the workforce? But it wasn’t always that way. If you go back just 150 years most shops were staffed by men.

The story of how all that changed, and what led a generation of financially independent young women to take over the shop floor, is a fascinating but strangely little-told tale.

For Dr Pamela Cox, a social historian and lecturer at the University of Essex, it’s a story that’s inextricably linked to who we are as a nation. After all, she says, most of us have worked in a shop at some time or another, or have a close relative who has. In Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter, a three-part BBC2 series beginning on Tuesday, she traces how a retail revolution took the shopgirl from an almost invisible figure in stark Victorian stores to the heart of our modern shops and glossy boutiques.

It’s the second BBC2 series Dr Cox has fronted, following on from her 2012 ratings success, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs.

She’s talking to me over the phone today, fittingly enough from a cafe in a London store, on an away-day in the capital to promote Shopgirls.

The programme, she says, came out of the servants series, which was, incidentally, watched by six million people.

“The success of the servants programme showed people are interested in the history of our ancestors, what they did and how they lived,” she says. “I am fascinated by something like this that involves a mass of the population. I worked in shops as a teenager. Almost everyone has worked in a shop at some point in their lives. They are a front row seat on life.

“Up until the mid-19th Century most shops were owned and staffed by men. Apart from a few exceptions, such as millinery and dressmaking, shop work was a closed world for most women. But by 1900 a quarter of a million women were working in shops. It was an incredible change that was driven by the Industrial Revolution and the expansion in the number of shops. More people had more money to spend.”

As jobs opened in the factories of industrial cities, shops no longer had the same ready supply of young male apprentices. Women’s groups actively sought to promote women’s employment and shrug off the notion that shop work was somehow “un-ladylike”.

“Women and girls were cheap labour,” says Dr Cox. “Shop owners only paid them half or two thirds of the amount they paid men, but once they got the girls in the shops they realised their presence appealed to female customers and middle class spending power.

“For the girls, shop work was seen as preferable to domestic service or agriculture. It was thought that it wasn’t such hard work as those things, although, actually, it was hard and involved long hours. I think that’s one of the reasons why the history of it isn’t as well known as some other areas of work. It wasn’t seen as real work. That’s a perception we’re hoping this series will change.

“Everything had to be done by hand. Everything had to be unpacked and laid out and packed up again at the end of the day. There was lots of personal service provided to more wealthy customers, who expected that level of attention.

“There was also a lot of standing, so much so that a Seats for Shop Assistants Act was passed in Parliament. Now, of course, you’ll find a lot of shop assistants standing up once again, so it seems to have gone full circle.”

Because the role was seen as a respectable occupation it attracted aspirational girls who perhaps were even trying to disguise their working class origins by passing themselves off as middle class. And while the wages of the average shopgirl were not vast, this wave of pioneering women enjoyed new-found independence and had their own money to spend.

“Shop work was perfect for girls looking for more independence because they couldn’t rely on marriage − there weren’t enough men to go round,” says Dr Cox. “People made such a fuss about these girls in the late 19th century. There were novels written about them and plays. They were working away from the home in a public place for the first time. They were not servants in the home, a factory or dairy. They were a new kind of woman doing a new kind of thing. They even looked different, wearing the shopgirl uniform of a black silk dress. They were independent women out and about on the town. They were consumers and that is why they were sometimes seen as threatening.”

Shopgirls could be as young as 13 but were rarely older than their 20s. When they married they left the shops and often took on cooking or cleaning jobs instead.

The series will also lift the lid on some of the little-known realities of life for shopgirls, many of whom “lived in”, above shops and the new department stores. Often poorly paid, some doubled as sex workers, contributing to a sometimes seedy reputation in the late Victorian era.

Dr Cox is keen to highlight the role of PhD student Amanda Wilkinson in researching this area of some shopgirls’ lives.

“Not a lot was really known about it,” she says. “No-one lists their profession as ‘prostitute’. It was by no means widespread but it did exist.”

The series will also reveal how the lives of the girls and the stores they worked in were revolutionised in the early 20th Century, as they rebelled against poor working conditions.

Britain’s first woman cabinet minister, Margaret Bondfield, was actually a former shopgirl, who, in the late 1890s, before entering politics, went undercover to reveal the harshness of life behind the counter.

The First World War changed the lives of women shop assistants still further, giving them the opportunity to step into new roles and up-market stores, such as Harrods.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, younger women started to sign up for the Land Army, leaving shop owners with no choice but to employ older women − many of whom were mothers − and set up nurseries for their children.

“It was the start of the rise of part-time work in shops, which was to characterise much of retail for the rest of the century,” says Dr Cox.

It’s been an incredible journey, from the trailblazers of the mid-19th Century to the modern consumer 
culture of the 21st Century.

“The series acknowledges 
how hard these girls worked and 
the impact they made,” says Dr Cox.

Nowadays, of course, the high street they helped shape is under threat from a new 
kind of shopping phenomenon, with the rise of online retailing.

“We don’t need shops in the way we once did,” says Dr Cox, “but because of the service, or the experience, we want to do it. The future of retail is up to us, as consumers.”

• Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter begins on BBC2 on Tuesday, June 24 at 9pm. A book to accompany the series, Shopgirls, by Dr Cox and series producer Annabel Hobley, is available from www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/9780091954468.

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