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The Shops of Old London

November 17, 2012
by the gentle author

Butcher, Hoxton St, Shoreditch, c.1910

Are you setting out to do your Saturday shopping? For a change, why not consider visiting the shops of old London? There are no supermarkets or malls, 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 Jones, 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 copyright © 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

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

29 Responses leave one →
  1. November 17, 2012

    “Swears and Wells” – great name! Hard to believe after all that time that Barkers is now a Whole Foods! “Progress”!

  2. Libby Hall permalink
    November 17, 2012

    Wonderful images! How I would love to go shopping in 1910 Liberty’s, or in 1890 Wych Street.

    And what fascinating unexpected things- The Front of St. Ethelburga’s with a bit of its Medieval window peeping out over the top of the opticians, like a funny drawing by Osbert Lancaster. Those theatre posters in Greek Street completely covering the upper windows. Did people live in those darkened flats, or were they just used as store rooms?

    Perhaps best of all the dealer in Pickled Tongues and Sweetbreads at St. Bartholomew’s. What a pragmatic approach to commercial life must have been forced upon these churches.

  3. Teresa Stokes permalink
    November 17, 2012

    The Woolworths shown was their flagship at 311 Oxford Street. It’s in a prime position opposite John Lewis and this fine building is now a branch of Uniqlo. I wonder how many people go along Oxford Street and look up at the architecture? I love doing this. So much more interesting than the modern shop fronts below, especially down the grotty end at New Oxford Street.
    Dickins and Jones only closed in 2006. They were the official outfitters for school uniforms at my boarding school, so my only memory of it is going there with feelings of dread in 1966, not wanting to be sent away, and I don’t think I ever set foot in it since, even after I had left school, moved to London and worked in an office on the corner of Maddox Street / Regent Street where I could see it from my window!

  4. November 17, 2012

    I wonder if that was the Woolworths that used to be in the Strand. Lots of my school friends used to have Saturday jobs in that particular one and many a frolics were had in the store rooms!

  5. November 17, 2012

    Wonderful views. I was particularly thrilled to see Wych Street where my 3x great grandfather, George Thomas Joseph Ruthven, Bow Street detective and government spy, lived in the 1820s. He later established his son in a stationer’s business in Copenhagen Street, Islington. Thank you for yet another fascinating article.

  6. November 17, 2012

    I feel as if I remember Liberty’s looking much like that back in the 1950’s. Is that a false memory? Great photos, great memories.

  7. Gary permalink
    November 17, 2012

    Woolworths was still a 3d. & 6d. store when I was a child in the 1930’s, sixpence would buy anything in the store. They could only supply one metal roller skate for 6d. so a child would buy one and skate with one foot until he bought the second one. I once bought a tortoise for 3d. A popular insult when a child boasted about a toy was “Yah tanner Woolworths”

  8. Wednesday permalink
    November 17, 2012

    Sweeney Todd Hairdresser? They named their shop after a penny dreadful?

  9. November 17, 2012

    Good to see those evocative photographs and I want to draw your attention to my watercolours of London shopfronts drawn a little later than most of those you show. I am pleased to find someone who shares my enthusiasm. Cheers


  10. julie permalink
    November 18, 2012

    I understand Wych Street was noted for porn.

  11. November 18, 2012

    Julie is wholly correct, Wych Street and adjacent Holywell Street were late 19th century London’s porn central. They vanished, to the joy of moralists, when Kingsway and the Aldwych were created. For those who might like a little more on this lost corner of London, I wrote a post to The Dabbler on the topic last year:

  12. Bob Davenport permalink
    November 18, 2012

    Fascinating stuff, as ever. But according to the main building shown as ‘New Bond St. c. 1910’ is actually 24 Old Bond Street, built in 1926 (as I discovered, to my surprise, only last week).

  13. Ray Johnson permalink
    November 19, 2012

    I am Achille Serre’s great grand son and have done some research into the family. the first shop and where they lived was in Manor Road, Stoke Newington (1881 Census). The Guild of Dry Cleaners in the person of Roy Brazier have produced a history of the Company and there is apparently an Achille Serre archive at Waltham Forest Museum, Vestry Road, Walthamstow.

    I was born in Stepney Green in 1933 and worked in the area during the 1960’s and 70’s and have therefore an interest in that part of London. If any reader has a connection with Carlton Square, E. 1. pre WWII I’d be happy to hear from them.

  14. Miriam Delorie permalink
    December 4, 2012

    An absolute treat to see all these old pictures. thank you- I am so enjoying them. rgds Miriam

  15. December 15, 2012

    Great image of Woolworth’s, gentle author. Cheers-Priscilla

  16. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    January 4, 2013

    I can remember getting my school uniform from Dickins & Jones,hateful grey flannel!I also remember Achille Serre were considered “posh ” dry cleaners!

  17. May 5, 2013

    Wow, what a collection. Is there a book or similar with these and more in it? If not, there should be!

  18. December 4, 2013

    These were some better times …

  19. Edwin Hayslip permalink
    February 8, 2014

    The Ford showroom dates from 1930. The car in the showroom is a 1930 Ford Cabriolet.

  20. Julian Hopkins permalink
    May 20, 2014

    Does anyone know where I can get a copy of Roy Brazier’s book ‘The Achille Serre Story’, please?

  21. Luciana permalink
    August 2, 2014

    Love it all!!!! Just a note: The website of Liberty of London says their Tudor arevival store was built in the 1920s, and your caption says 1910 – is that the same store on Regent St?

  22. aubrey permalink
    April 27, 2015

    The furs for the 1960 film Make Mine Mink with Terry Thomas and Hattie Jaques were supplied by Swears and Wells.

    Great photos btw.

  23. June 1, 2016

    I am old enough to remember the bombings of WWII. I remember coming out of Bond Street Station and seeing piles of rubble across the street that had once been a famous shop, I have always thought it was Liberty’s, but can not be sure of memories now. These pictures are pure nostalgia. I find myself longing to be there again as a child loving the glamour of famous shops.
    My Canadian husband’s officer’s uniform was made by Horne Brothers of Oxford Street or Bond Street, not sure, it was a long time ago. I am 92 he is 95. Thank you for the memories of long ago.

  24. Giles Enders permalink
    July 14, 2016

    The timber used in the construction of Liberty’s was from old warships which the admiralty was breaking up. The Regent Street façade of this store war rebuilt in 1910 and that is where cthe confusion might lie.

    I wonder if there any pictures extant of the largest and most glamorous hairdessers and perfumiers in London, Robert Douglas which was in Bond Street. It was bombed in the war. Each cubicle was decorated in a different colour marble. They had uniformed doorman.

  25. January 8, 2017

    Wonderful pictures. Delayed me considerably in my search for Red Cross Street in 1850s.

  26. Ben Hurren permalink
    August 17, 2017

    I am anxious to obtain a copy of Roy Brasier’s The Achille Serre Story.
    My father-in-law (Ben Waddington) was Transport Manager before, during and after the War. He was responsible for over 150 vehicles. He married Elsie Russell who was a member of the Achille Serre Fire Brigade. I married their daughter, Norma in 1963. I would appreciate any help in tracking down a copy of the book. Norma was a frequent visitor to the factory and knew many staff and departmental managers.

  27. May 28, 2020

    Oxford street 311 was, before the Woolwort store came in, a garage for selling cars. In 1906 french cars named “CORRE” were for sale on 311 Oxford street. Who knows more about this? I am searching for this history for my website about ‘corre-lalicorne’

  28. Grace B. permalink
    June 28, 2020

    I have a vintage bottle with a high quality leather case with GF logo.
    It’s for Hill’s hair wash prepared to motorists using before and after driving.
    The company name is E.S.Hill&Co(1929) Ltd and the address is 23-23A Old Bond Street, London. W. I.
    Who knows more about this company. I can’t find more information from Google.

  29. Maria permalink
    February 7, 2024

    Thanks for very interesting article.

    Maybe the author or someone can help me with information – I’m searching for any information about a store in London with Ukrainian carpets and fabrics.

    This store was established by Ukrainian patroness Varvara Khanenko between 1904-1912 .

    This fabrics and carpets were produced in Olenivka, Kyiv region, in a workshop that she owned.

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