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Shopping In Old London

November 30, 2015
by the gentle author

Butcher, Hoxton St, Shoreditch, c.1910

D0 Black Friday and Cyber Monday fill you with overwhelming feelings of lethargy, apathy and disdain? Why not consider visiting the shops of old London instead? There are no supermarkets, malls or pop-ups, but plenty of other diversions to captivate the eager shopper.

These glass slides once used for magic lantern shows by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Bishopsgate Institute offer the ideal consumer experience for a reluctant browser such as myself since, as this crowd outside a butcher in Hoxton a century ago illustrates, shopping in London has always been a fiercely competitive sport.

Instead of braving the crowds and emptying our wallets, we can enjoy window shopping in old London safe from the temptation to pop inside and buy anything – because most of these shops do not exist anymore.

Towering over the shopping landscape of a century ago were monumental department stores, beloved destinations for the passionate shopper just as the City churches were once spiritual landmarks to pilgrims and the devout. Of particular interest to me are the two huge posters for Yardley that you can see in the Strand and on Shaftesbury Avenue, incorporating the Lavender Seller from Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London, originally painted in the seventeen nineties. There is an intriguing paradox in this romanticised image of a street seller of two centuries earlier, used to promote a brand of twentieth century cosmetics that were manufactured in a factory in Stratford and sold through a sleek modernist flagship store, Yardley House, in the West End.

Wych St, lined with medieval shambles that predated the Fire of London and famous for its dusty old bookshops and printsellers is my kind of shopping street, demolished in 1901 to construct the Aldwych. Equally, I am fascinated by the notion of cramming commerce into church porches, such as the C. Burrell, the Dealer in Pickled Tongues & Sweetbreads who used to operate from the gatehouse of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield and E.H. Robinson, the optician, through whose premises you once entered  St Ethelburga’s in Bishopsgate. Note that a toilet saloon was conveniently placed next door for those were nervous at the prospect of getting their eyes tested.

So let us set out together to explore the shops of old London. We do not need a shopping basket. We do not need a list. We do not even need money. We are shopping for wonders and delights. And we shall not have to carry anything home. This is my kind of shopping.

Optician built into St Ethelburga’s, Bishopsgate, c.1910

Decorators and Pencil Works, Great Queen St, c.1910

Newsagent and Hairdresser at 152 Strand, c.1930

Dairy and ‘Sacks, bags, ropes, twines, tents, canvas, etc.’ Shop, c. 1940

Liberty of London, c.1910

Regent St, c.1920.

Harrods of Knightsbridge, c.1910

The Fashion Shoe Shop, c.1920 “Repetiton is the soul of advertising”

Evsns Tabacconist, Haymarket, c.1910

F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. 3d and 6d store, c.1910

Finnigan’s of New Bond St, gold- & silversmiths, c.1910

Achille Serre,Cleaner & Dyers, c. 1920

Old Bond St. c. 1910

W.H.Daniel, Cow Keeper, White Hart Yard, c.1910

John Barker & Co. Ltd., High St Kensington, c.1910

Tobacconist, Glovers and Shoe Shop, c.1910

Ford Showroom, c.1925

Civil Service Supply Association, c. 1930

Swears & Wells Ltd, Ladies Modes, c. 1925

Glave’s Hosiery, c 1920

Shopping in Wych St, c. 1910 – note the sign of the crescent moon.

Horne Brothers Ltd, c. 1920

Tobacconist, High Holborn, c. 1910

Yardley House, c. 1930

Peter Robinson, Oxford St, c. 1920

Confectionery Shop, corner of Greek St and Shaftesbury Ave, c. 1930

Bookseller, Wych St, c. 1890

Pawnbroker, 201 Seven Sisters Rd, Finsbury Park, c. 1910

Bookseller &  Tobacconist and Dealer in Pickled Tongues at the entrance to St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, c. 1910

Oxford Circus, c. 1920

Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Nights of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

18 Responses leave one →
  1. martin permalink
    November 30, 2015

    They seem so far away in time but if i look at some of the kids in the 1910 photos and think, “Well, they’re 5 or 10 now, and say some of them live to be 60+ yrs old, that would put them somewhere in the 60s”. What changes they would have witnessed from these photos thru 2 x World wars to the Beatles. Incredible photos.

  2. Elizabeth Kennedy permalink
    November 30, 2015

    I love your blog – it’s the first thing I read in the morning. How I wish I could afford a little house in Spitalfields, where my great, great grandfather lived!
    Elizabeth

  3. November 30, 2015

    Gosh, I hadn’t given a thought to Achille Serre for years! It was always a place of mystery when I walked past as a child: what did they do inside, and how did you pronounce it? (BTW I’m sure you know that Wheatley’s original was a primrose seller: Yardley altered the image to suit their commercial purposes. http://bit.ly/1IcfHgz)

  4. November 30, 2015

    Wonderful, as always, GA. I do love ‘Sweeney Todd Hairdresser’ at 152 Strand. Wonder how popular it was?

    It seems odd to see the streets so free of cars. How much of the past has been knocked down to accommodate them (or us using them)?

  5. November 30, 2015

    Another wonderful set of photographs. I wonder who would have been brave enough to go to a hairdresser called Sweeney Todd.

  6. November 30, 2015

    Fabulous photos! Martin…my great great grandmother lived from 1849-1945..I often think that she must have lived through some of the greatest changes known to the modern world! The Crimean war, the Boer war plus both World wars…electricity, aeroplanes, cars, cameras, one Queen and 4 Kings to name just a few!

  7. Bronchitikat permalink
    November 30, 2015

    “Sweeney Todd, Hairdresser” Not that Sweeney Todd surely? Some hairdresser with an odd sense of humour (and a nearby pie shop?)

    BTW – what does ‘wych’ mean, please? My Little Oxford English Dictionary is, unusually, of no help at all giving, as it does, ‘pref, for trees eg: wych-elm’!

  8. November 30, 2015

    My kind of shopping too.

  9. November 30, 2015

    Far be it from me to lower the Gentle Author’s omniscient tone, but readers might want to know that the booksellers of Wych Street (above) and nearby Holywell Street were for about 40 years at the heart of the London porn trade. For those whose mind is as debased as is mine, I have written about the area and its history here: http://thedabbler.co.uk/2015/10/the-slang-guide-to-london-holywell-street-2/

  10. Robert Brown permalink
    November 30, 2015

    Remember going into the tobacconist’s shop about forty years ago, I think it became Fribourg and Treyer before it closed.

  11. Ros permalink
    November 30, 2015

    How did you know my feelings about Black Friday and Cyber Monday? Today’s post is a great antidote, with an excellent selection of slides. There’s so much interesting detail too, eg the clothes the boys are wearing outside the pawn shop and the Bovril advertisement on the side of the carriage.

  12. November 30, 2015

    “Bobbing, Shingling, & Waving”—love it!

    As ever, fantastic photographs selected with care.

    Thanks for sharing these moments. (and how could some of those buildings not fall down!)

  13. November 30, 2015

    From the Dickensian to Art Deco. It makes we want to explore and see what is still around and what has been eaten up by London’s constant redevelopment.

  14. Dawn permalink
    November 30, 2015

    Wow… Sweeney Todd Hairdressers???? Yikes!

  15. Shaun Peters permalink
    November 30, 2015

    Thank you for the photographs today. I liked the individuality of many of them and particularly the Art Deco frontages.

  16. IanSilverton permalink
    December 1, 2015

    Never new my first school in the Gate House,was once a pickle factory,the old shop next door was our local sweet shop, Sweeny Todd barber shop also had a outlet off Fleet Street,near the Express newspaper,called Sweeny Todds, Poppins Court lane,wonder if its still there.

  17. Bruce permalink
    December 1, 2015

    The Tobacconist, Glovers and Shoe Shop are respectively 126, 124 and 122 Cheapside, with the foliage of the “Wordsworth” plane tree in the churchyard of St Peter Cheap visible behind.

  18. Anne permalink
    December 2, 2015

    As a child, my family lived in a flat above a butcher’s shop in South London. If we didn’t get home before 4.30pm on a Saturday, it was impossible to push and shove through the crowd which appeared without fail as the butcher prepared to auction off the left- over meat before the weekend. We used to trail in mounds of sawdust too, and my poor mother was continually chanting “wipe your feet!” to stop the sawdust being trailed up the stairs.

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