Shops and Shopping in Britain: from market stalls to chain stores

The Shambles in York - Photo by Steve Daniels
The Shambles in York – Photo by Steve Daniels

Shops and Shopping in Britain: from market stalls to chain stores

Gerard M. Koot

Aspects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain: Published online (2011)


The story of the Industrial Revolution is almost always told from the perspective of he getting and processing of raw materials and the manufacturing of goods. Its heroes have been the inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, workers and sailors who made possible the innovations in trade, mines, transportation, factories, machines and he new industrial cities. This is what economic historians call the supply side. By contrast, the demand side, or the consumption of goods and service, has been relatively neglected in the story of Britain’s industrial revolution. Since the late twentieth century, however, more and more attention has been paid to the role of the consumers who bought the goods produced and where and how they bought them. This illustrated essay seeks to provide an introduction to one aspect of the birth of a consumer society, shops and shopping in Britain from about the Medieval through the Victorian period.

While Medieval England was primarily a rural and manorial society, there were many towns and villages and few individuals or communities were self-sufficient. The wealthy bought goods directly from craftsmen and artisans, such as carpenters, goldsmiths, and tailors, who made them. They brought goods directly to their homes or the buyers visited the workshops where the products were made. Imported luxuries, such as silks, furs, spices, olive oil and wines, were bought by merchants at annual fairs and retailed by middlemen in shops. Ordinary people bought very few goods that were not necessities. They bought what they needed directly from itinerant peddlers, at a local market or, less frequently, at larger regional fairs. The central role of the local markets was to exchange agricultural products for simple goods–such as cloth, cooking pots, pottery, shoes, tools, wooden products–made by the craftsmen and artisans of the town. Markets also provided such essentials as coal, salt, grain, produce, and dairy products.

From the twelfth century, the right to hold markets in Medieval England was a privilege granted by the Crown and amounted to a local or regional monopoly. Markets and shops were heavily regulated by local authorities, merchant and craft guilds. Regulations were designed to assure quality, the adherence to local standards of weights and measures, and to prevent hoarding and price gouging. Sellers of food products were required to sell their goods in the open markets to prevent fraud. The first retail shops, as opposed to those of craftsmen and artisans selling goods they made themselves, were drapers, mercers, haberdashers and grocers.

Click here to read this article from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

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