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The Shops of Old London

June 16, 2020
by the gentle author

Lack of social distancing at the butchers, Hoxton St c.1910

Are you wary about going shopping? Why not consider visiting the shops of old London instead? There are no supermarkets or malls but plenty of other diversions to captivate the eager shopper, without the requirement of hand sanitiser.

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 wearing masks and gloves, 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 to worry about social distancing. We do not need a shopping basket. We do not need a list. We do not even need to pay. 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

23 Responses leave one →
  1. June 16, 2020

    Thanks for this! Achille Serre, Swears and Wells (as in Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Patience’), such blasts from the past. And I hadn’t thought for years about the awnings over shops. As I child I had assumed they were to provide shade for passers-by, but of course they must have been to protect the goods in the windows – chocolates from melting, bright-coloured clothes from fading … I may have said before that the Yardley poster plagiarises Wheatley: the lady was originally a primrose-seller (https://bit.ly/3hwmKom)

  2. Richard permalink
    June 16, 2020

    Your Old Bond Street picture shows the Atkinson building which today is quite striking with its gold and coloured details as well as the spire. The architect was Vincent Harris who was also responsible for the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall, a work of a very different style.
    Thanks.

  3. June 16, 2020

    Breakfast will be late this morning ! Wonderful posting today – thank you.

    When I can get up to town again I shall plan a walk to compare “then and now”.

    No hair-do though from Sweeney Todd hairdresser !

  4. Chris Wright permalink
    June 16, 2020

    The tobacconist on Haymarket is still there – and it’s still a tobacconist (as well as selling tourist tat). The house was built in 1760-70 with the shop front added a few years later.

  5. Katharine Easton permalink
    June 16, 2020

    The photo showing Sweeney Todd Hairdresser caught my eye. Imagine naming your salon after a throat slasher. Bizarre marketing.

  6. Mary permalink
    June 16, 2020

    I popped into the hairdresser for a shilling bob, although rather concerned that it was at Sweeny Todd, Hairdresser but no queue, and desperate times require desperate measures. Luckily I emerged with all my body parts intact.
    I then went into “Woolies” for old times sake and finished off with a wonderful leisurely browse in the Wych St bookshop. Browsing a bookshop is one of the things I have missed most during lockdown.

  7. June 16, 2020

    Liberty of London… 37 years ago, a friend gave me a tablecloth made from Liberty cloth. I still have it and use it. Wonderful pictures, thank you.

  8. Denis Sullivan permalink
    June 16, 2020

    Really enjoying your blog /s G.A.
    Thanks for sharing.

  9. June 16, 2020

    Goodness, I’ve had such a busy morning. I mean……really!……..up and down the thoroughfares, hopping in and out of cabs, rallying my packages-tied-up-in-string, and I’ll definitely need to
    stop for lunch before I barge into the booksellers. Whew! (I always save that as my last
    stop……..). Can’t wait to show my friend Jane my purchases from Liberty (she’s such a fan — I got her a little packet of flowered hankies today) and John will enjoy the pricey cigar. And, certainly, I couldn’t pass up the pencil supply place. Hope my little ribbon-tied box of chocolates doesn’t
    melt before I’m home. Thank you GA — You’ve provided the most wonderful shopping spree.

    Stay safe, all.

  10. paul loften permalink
    June 16, 2020

    Thank you for showing us what we are missing. Where did we get the idea that shopping malls and supermarkets are better than this? Something has gone wrong somewhere along the road. quite literally.

  11. June 16, 2020

    I’d not realised that Peter Jones had been in Oxford Street. But so much dilapidation and so gloomy in part ‘cos glazing bars were not white. And if we think there is too much advertising today …

  12. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    June 16, 2020

    Great posting and we liked the film sign advertising Catherine the Great (film with Elizabeth Bergner who my parents-in-law knew). I think you meant Peter Robinson (not Peter Jones) on Oxford Street, GA. It was still here in the late 1970s when I moved to London. I got a lovely, simple dress I wore for my wedding back in 1977 there. Lots to see and admire in these photos!

  13. Jeanette Hollick permalink
    June 16, 2020

    Interesting article, great images. Love the picture of Achille Serre’s.
    Thanks for posting.

  14. Adele permalink
    June 16, 2020

    Vivid memories of sitting on the number 25 bus to work, and being fascinated by the upper store facades of High Holburn. Visiting Liberty’s on my lunch hour (but never being able to afford anything until I visited as an adult.). Wonder how many of those buildings still exist?

  15. Pimlico Pete permalink
    June 16, 2020

    The Woolworth photo shows their branch at 311 Oxford Street opposite John Lewis. The building’s elevation is still there to admire.

    It would be breaking the spell created by this collection of images to say what now occupies 311 but I can recommend their socks.

  16. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 16, 2020

    This is my kind of shopping trip too! Lots to think about…

    My eye was especially caught by the Pencils sign but it was probably only a wholesale supplier to other outlets rather than a pencil shop – shame!!

    I was also struck by the modish Art Deco facades of the Fashion Shoe shop, Swears and Wells and the Ford Showroom – they must have seemed very radical at the time.

    And also interesting that by 1920 all the traffic seemed to be cars – perhaps the horse drawn deliveries were done earlier in the day?

    Whatever – thanks GA for a very enjoyable shopping trip!

  17. June 16, 2020

    Such amazing pictures – thanks for the tour! My great-great-grandfather, Daniel Spong, was a grocer in Little Earl Street, 7 Dials, in the 1860s…

  18. June 16, 2020

    Beautiful Vintage Pictures!! They are Amazing!!🥰😊💝💖🌻🌹🌼👏

  19. Judi Jones permalink
    June 17, 2020

    Thank you for a taking us on a fabulous shopping spree GA!

    Seeing those wonderful shops makes you realise how Shopping Malls and Retail Parks can never replace the soul of the high streets, sadly.

    I want to rewind and remove malls and retail parks and replace with high streets bursting with people and individual shops full of character.

    I shall dream on . . . .

  20. June 17, 2020

    Wonderful documents from London Town! 🙂

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  21. Cyndra VanDonge permalink
    June 18, 2020

    Thank You,
    These pictures were just amazing!

  22. Dick Mathews permalink
    June 18, 2020

    The pawnbrokers in Seven Sisters Rd was still there in the late 50s / early 60s when I lived in the area.

  23. Jonathon Green permalink
    June 20, 2020

    At the time of the photo Wych St and its neighbour Holywell Street had been the 19th century’s centre of printed pornography. For anyone in search of further info, I wrote about them here:
    http://thedabbler.co.uk/2011/11/the-slang-guide-to-london-holywell-street/

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