When researching a topic on social history, one can only get so far with books, newspapers and photographs. It is the experiences of others that help to paint a picture of life in bygone times. Talking to older Lancaster residents tells us a great deal about shops and retailing in an earlier era of the city’s life. We can also learn a lot from written and photographic records, and from other sources such as contemporary newspaper adverts.
The Lancaster City Museum provides the public with important bites of information about local history. This is the first port of call for anyone researching into Lancaster’s retailing past. The walls are crammed with information relating to a wide range of relevant topics, such as transport, housing, shops and pubs. More in-depth information can be found at the Lancaster community history library, which should be the next stop on the historian’s journey. Books, photographs, adverts, bills and newspapers can all be found there. These provide a more personal account of Lancaster’s trading history. The photographs illustrate the changing shop fronts in Lancaster’s town centre, while the adverts and bills tell us which items were popular to sell and buy. From these we can start to discover what Lancaster was like years ago; this gives us a better understanding of the daily lives of shop keepers. Photographs also tell us how Lancaster has changed from a thriving market town to a more commercial centre including chains such as Sainsburys and BHS. These sources combine effectively with the residents’ personal experiences to give a comprehensive picture of life in an earlier era.
The St Thomas More Centre hosts a local history group and it is at these meetings where history comes to life through members’ stories and shared experiences. Goad maps laid out on the tables are there to provoke conversation between the participants, but it is the adverts from local shop windows which create the greatest response. Memories are sparked by vintage adverts and discussion leads to the layout of Lancaster town centre and the shops which have since closed down. Tripe shops, clog shops and hardware stores were common in Lancaster town centre. There were no supermarket chains and everything was tailored to one’s personal needs. Everyone knew everyone else, where they shopped and what they wanted. The shopkeeper’s relationship with the customer went beyond that of vendor and purchaser. The shop keeper was likely to be a friend, neighbour or even a family member. The sense of community Lancaster used to have is a hot topic among the history group. The shopkeeper treated the customer with respect rather than just seeing him as a source of revenue. One member of the group referred to a major shopping chain as a ‘conveyor belt of customers’. The group also commented on how we now live in a throwaway society- consider the excessive amount of packaging which comes with anything you buy. All products are now standardised and no longer come with any kind of personal touch as they used to. Each supermarket has its own range but underneath all the packaging, it’s all the same.
In earlier times much less food was thrown away than is the case today. What we would now regard as scraps were kept and reused to provide further meals. One older resident said ‘we used to ask the butcher for a bone for the dog. Everyone knew we didn’t have a dog, we just needed something to eat’. The end of market day was also a time to gather food for a meal. Local traders would give scraps to children from poor families rather than just discarding them. Whywas so little thrown away in earlier times? Because people couldn’t afford to discard potentially usable items of food.
What does all this add up to? So far as retailing is concerned, the past really is ‘another country’. They did things differently there. Was it better in earlier times? The residents we spoke to thought it was, many no longer shop in Lancaster but go further a field.