Every Shop Front tells a Story

Our talk in April was given by Ned Williams. He explained that the well known book "A Nation of Shopkeepers", written by Bill Evans and Andrew Lawson, which was supposedly a nationwide survey included few examples from the Midlands - others being considered "not worthy".

Ned's book "Shops in the Black Country" challenges this view and his presentation took us though an intriguing series of images. His first showed a mock up of a toy shop with children gazing longingly at a 'Meccano Catalogue', a scene typical of the nostalgic use of shops on cards and biscuit tins; but today we are admonished "why just go shopping when you can go the Merry Hill" - promising the ultimate shopping experience. Shopping malls are now international.

Ned's survey covered several locations, with the industrial era and trades tracing the evolution of shop design. Initially many were merely cottages converted to provide an alternative family income. [The example shown was of an enterprising miner after injury in the Donkey Row, Essington].

Grander Georgian examples appeared, part of town planning for a different clientele, often double fronted with bays and a central entrance. Windows increased in size with added fascia boards. Victorian fronts became more ornamental with pilasters, gilded boards, ceramic tiles and cast iron grilles. Art nouveau motifs appeared in the Edwardian era. The steel framed building would provide large windows on all floors; for example the Arighi Bianchi furniture shop in Macclesfield.

'Multiples' appeared; Home and Colonial, Liptons, George Mason, W.H. Smith and the Co-operatives. The first Marks & Spencer 'chain store' with its distinctive lettering appeared in 1910. 'Off the shelf' shop-fronts could be bought from catalogues. Art deco made use of new materials including black vitrolite, reflecting new sleek designs. Ned had looked in vain for an intact Woolworths. Leyton, by 1986, had lost its wooden floored interior. Burton's developed a distinctive Art deco style with animals and plants above columns; still to be seen despite subsequent change of use.

After the Second World War there were attempts to modernise, but rationing create a 'make do and mend' image with cheap materials. In the 1960s the Buchanan report discouraged traffic in towns resulting in the 'precinct' such as Dudley's Churchill in 1969. Creating wind tunnels these were later roofed. Another 60's style 'the Boutique' was short lived. In the 1990s Victorian pastiche appeared but individuality was demonstrated in the eclectic style of Laura Ashley; making no period reference but, according to a proud manageress, using "real tree wood"! Quality materials re-appeared as seen in the use of marble at Merry Hill, but in the malls real shop fronts disappeared.

Ned also discussed the shop-fronts of High Street traders. Butchers were particularly proud of displaying former generations. [Earlier Ned had mentioned the EU ban on wooden floors and sawdust putting a butcher out of business]. Others he looked at were bakers, grocers (with elaborate displays of fruit and veg), and novel fish and chip fronts. Some corner shops survive but the number of distinctive outlets has declined. Eel shops in London have been reduced to three. Many of the products sold survive in Robert Opie's "Museum of Branding".

But, reader beware, such searches can become an all consuming obsession; as Ned warned, "it can seriously damage your health". Even his daughter wanted toy shops not dolls houses. This nostalgic subject was delivered with humour by a social historian who is clearly fascinated by the Black Country, its people and customs.

Lorna Bushell
March 2019