Considering the enormous changes in the retail trades over the 20th century, I thought it would be interesting to compare the experience of shopping in the High Street in 1903 with what it is like today. Would there be a vast difference in the types of shops? Would the street be recognisable to the people of 100 years ago?
At the beginning of the 20thcentury, most High Street customers would have lived within walking distance or travelled in from the growing suburbs of Longfleet, Parkstone and Branksome by the newly opened tram service. There was of course no need to find space in the town centre for car parks. Today the street is given over to pedestrians; a hundred years ago it was open to traffic but it was hardly very busy in modern terms. Old photographs often show pedestrians standing in the street unconcerned by the occasional horses and carts, bicycles and delivery vehicles.
A visit to the grocers or the butchers was a much more leisurely business than today’s brisk transaction. In Poole was my Oyster, Ernest Bristowe describes how ‘items like flour, tea, sugar and dried peas were stored in drawers behind the counter, from which they were extracted with scoops to be weighed on brass scales. Biscuits were kept loose in square tins, and there were always broken biscuits for sale. One side of the shop sold butter and margarine which was cut from large blocks and patted into pounds or half pounds with two wooden patters, the grocer taking a small bit off or putting on a bit to get the correct weight. Cheese was cut into wedges with a steel wire. Ham, roast pork and cold beef were cut on a slicer while we waited.’ This is a far cry from shopping in a modern self-service grocer’s shop with everything pre-weighed and packaged and the contact with the shop staff confined to paying at the till.
Butcher’s shops were also very hands-on in 1903. Many High Street butchers did their own slaughtering and jointing, using the whole carcass including such cuts as tripe, sweetbreads, trotters and cheeks. The shop floor was covered with sawdust, and the meat for sale was displayed on hooks across the shop front – not a scrap of cellophane wrapping to be seen!
In 1903 there were 12 grocer’s shops and 11 butchers, poulterers or ‘meat purveyors’ in High Street. Today, there are 4 grocers, Sainbury’s Local, the Poole Convenience Store, Iceland and The Polish Market, all of them self-service. There are no specialist butcher’s shops, although a butcher’s van does visit the street every week to sell packs of meat rather dramatically with a microphone. Other particular types of food shops have disappeared from the High Street including greengrocers (of which there were 4 in 1903), fishmongers, dairies and tea stores. Some shops remain surprisingly constant. For instance, 2 shops advertised themselves as bakers in 1903 and today we have Greggs and Betts. There are also a similar number of confectioners as 100 years ago, Truly Scrumptious tantalising the taste buds as Thomas Parrot and Walter George Green used to do.
Other trades and services have also resisted the passage of time and are still represented on High Street. They include barbers and hairdressers, stationers, clothing shops of various kinds, ironmongers, shoe shops, opticians, banks, solicitors, chemists, house furnishers, drapers, bicycle dealers and suppliers of ‘fancy goods’. Some of the trades which have now gone remind us of a different age. In 1903 there was still a shoeing smith on High Street as well as several milliners, a saddler, ship chandler, corn dealer, basket maker and a carriage hire service ‘with or without driver’.
As for pubs and hotels, the Antelope, King’s Head, King’s Arms (now the Spotted Cow) and London Hotel (now the Globe Café) are still in business. The ones that have gone are the Bell and Crown (now Lush), the Bull’s Head (currently vacant), the White Hart and the Globe, but they have been replaced by the Slug and Lettuce, the Brewhouse and Yates’ Wine Lodge, providing a very similar number of drinking places as 100 years ago.
In 1903, fried fish shops were the latest thing, the equivalent of today’s takeaways, and the High Street boasted 3 of them. There were a few cafés, described as ‘refreshment rooms’ or ‘coffee taverns’ but nothing like the 24 cafes and restaurants that the High Street has today, showing how greater affluence and more leisure time have changed our habits. This is also indicated by travel agents, yacht brokers and shops dealing in home entertainment equipment and electronic games. Shoppers from 1903 would probably be astonished or even disapproving to see the bookmakers, shops with coin-in-the-slot gambling machines and tattoo parlours which are now part of the scene in the High Street. With the current recession, there are quite a lot of empty shops in High Street today, not uncommon at times in the past. In 1903, there was a pawnbroker, Tuson’s, at No. 70. Today there are 3 dealers offering cash for gold, silver and other valuables in High Street.
In spite of all the 20th century changes, the development of chain stores, self service, urban shopping centres, out of town retail parks and online shopping I think that residents of 1903 would recognise the High Street as basically serving the same function as in their day. Time may be hard and competition tough but the modern High Street is still a bustling place and a destination for lots of shoppers. As for businesses which still remain from 1903, the only ones I can identify are the 3 or 4 pubs mentioned and Boone’s Ironmongers, still going strong. Can you think of any others?