The story of shopping

We all love a bit of retail therapy, so with shops finally able to re-open, our curator Liz takes a look at shopping throughout history…

Along with many other ‘non-essential’ local shops, St Neots Museum reopened its shop on the 16th June, after a closure of almost three months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Planning the reopening of the museum shop set us thinking about the history of shops and shopping! For thousands of years people have traded food and other goods and services. Since the rise of the Greek civilisation around 700 BC and into the later Roman period (500 BC to AD 400) a wide variety of shops and markets were well established across Europe. Although we don’t have any evidence (yet!) for Roman shops in St Neots, we do have evidence for the Roman roadside tabernae (later corrupted to tavern) at Godmanchester (Durovigutum) along the Roman Ermine Street, less than ten miles from St Neots.

In St Neots, we believe that the top end of the High Street where the road widens at the crossroads with Huntingdon Street marks the site of the Anglo-Saxon market place. The fact that this part of the High Street was known as ‘sheep street’, perhaps refers to an animal market on the site.

St Neots Market Square, about 1900

The origin of St Neots’ market

It was the monks of St Neots Priory who developed the town’s current large market square in the AD 1130s, as the shopping mall of its day. Situated right outside the walls of the monk’s Priory and next to the busy river crossing, between the Great North Road and the City of Cambridge, it was ideally placed to encourage market trading and provide the monks with an income from the stall rents. Some stalls gradually developed into permanent shops along the outer wall of the Priory, known for many years as ‘shop row’. Victorian and Edwardian photographs show the old wooden stalls used on St Neots Market Square, which look almost unchanged from their medieval predecessors.

Shopping in the 19th and 20th centuries

Adam Bailey – Tea Dealer & Grocer, billhead from 1831, 20 High Street

The earliest evidence we have for the interior layout of a local shop comes from a billhead found in a local scrap book. On the 1831 billhead of Adam Bailey, Tea Dealer & Grocer, appears a small drawing showing a Georgian grocers shop. Male shop assistants stand behind long wooden counters while smartly dressed women make their purchases. Did St Neots have such a shop? Or was it an idealised scene? We will never know, but it does show us how Mr Bailey wanted his customers to think of his shop.

From the time of the Industrial Revolution, in the later 1700s, a vast new range of consumer goods began to be produced, and by the early Victorian period new shops were opening and selling everything from groceries and sweets to medicines, furniture, household china and ornaments. With the development of the lock-stitch sewing machine from the 1850s, mass produced clothing also began to be sold. Despite this new consumer boom though, older ways of shopping still continued. A photograph from about 1860 in the museum’s collection shows John Chamberlain, a Victorian pedlar, who sold nuts, cakes, sweets and packets of seeds from the baskets he carried to customers in local St Neots pubs.

Plum’s Café, 31 High Street, taken from their paper bag

In Victorian England, the delivery of groceries from local shops was an accepted way of life, and new online shopping services today reflect the earlier practise of leaving your shopping list with the grocer and waiting for your items to be delivered to your home. An image of Plum’s, the Victorian confectioner and café on St Neots High Street, taken from one of their paper bags, shows a delivery van waiting outside the shop ready to deliver orders.

As the consumer boom developed in the Victorian period, one way that shops tried to attract customers was by displaying their goods. They might hang goods on the outside of their premises, as many clothing and footwear shops did (for example Barratts), or display them on the pavement outside their shops. Many photographs of the town from the early 1900s show household goods and furniture displayed in this way. One photograph in the museum collection shows a fascinating display of household goods outside Franks High Street furniture shop (now Brittain’s), including a piano and a treadle sewing machine being loaded onto a cart, presumably ready for delivery.

The First and Second World Wars

International Stores 1916

The First World War brought huge changes to everyday life, and one striking change to the shopping experience was the introduction of woman staff, or ‘lady grocers’. to grocery stores. The International Stores in St Neots even felt the need to take out advertisements explaining that employing women allowed their male employees to join the army. A photograph in the museum’s collection shows the new female members of staff in their Great War uniforms, standing alongside the remaining male staff outside the shop on St Neots High Street.

As thousands of women took up paid employment to support the country’s huge war effort, many had their own income for the first time in their lives. Retailers were not slow to pick up on this opportunity and adverts for women’s clothes began to appear in the local paper, the St Neots Advertiser. Thomas Armstrong’s shop on the market square was the leading drapers and milliners in the district in the early 1900s, and their adverts for fashionable women’s clothes appear regularly on the front page of the paper during the First World War. Today, Armstrong’s shop is the Estate Agent, Haart, on the market square.

Thomas Armstrong shop & advert,1916

Times were hard during the depression of the 1930s, and after the Second World War it was time for another change in shopping habits. Home deliveries fell out of fashion as the motor car and self-service shopping made it possible to take home most purchases immediately.

And today…

Despite a brief flirtation with a shopping Mall in the 1990s (on the Market Square where the Brook and Barter stands today) and the growth of out of town shopping in St Neots and Eaton Socon, the High Street and weekly Thursday market are still the busy heart of our town. Chains and independents alike can be found side by side, owing their location to those medieval market stalls which sprang up over 800 years ago.

If you’ve not yet been into our own lovely shop, do stop by on your next visit into St Neots!