Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - London Shops, Old and New

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THE shops of ancient London, by which we must be understood to mean the London of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, are described by a city historian as of "ane meane appearance" - consisting of an open shop, at the entrance of which stood the owner or his apprentice, and a "solar,'' or upper chamber above, in which solar, it is more than probable, the proprietor resided with his household. The mercantile guilds, in our day so wealthy and prosperous, were then comparatively in their infancy, and struggling with debt and difficulties. When they became prosperous, the shops of London became splendid ; but even then their magnificence was for a long time confined to a single locality. In the fifteenth century, there was a vast deal of wealth accumulated in the metropolis, but it was engrossed by comparatively few individuals. One of the most wealthy was Geoffrey Boleyn, a mercer in the Old Jewry. He was great-great-grandfather of Queen Elizabeth by her mother's side, and was lord mayor of London in 1457. In his time. the whole of the foreign and wholesale trade was confined to the hands of a few great capitalists; and some of the most illustrious families in the kingdom may trace their origin from men who were at that period London merchants. The oldest shops of which we have any particular account are those of the goldsmiths standing in Cheap, the modern Cheapside, of which the goldsmiths would seem to have had possession from time immemorial. Of these, the most remarkable by far is that which was built by Thomas Wood, [-320-] who was one of the sheriffs of London in the year 1491. Maitland describes it as "the most beautiful frame and front of fair houses and shops that were within the walls of London, or elsewhere in England, commonly called Goldsmiths' Row, betwixt Bread Street end and the Cross in Cheap, but within Bread Street Ward. It contained in number ten dwelling-houses and fourteen shops, all in one frame, uniformly built four stories high, beautified towards the street with the goldsmiths' arms, and the likeness of woodmen, in memory of his (Thomas Wood's) name, riding on monstrous beasts ; all which were cast in lead, richly painted over and gilt. These he gave to the goldsmiths, with stocks of money to be lent to young men having those shops, &c. This said front was again new painted and gilt over in the year 1594, Sir Richard Martin being then mayor, and keeping his mayoralty in one of them."
    The example of Thomas Wood did not want imitators. New shops, worthy to vie with those he had erected arose to complete his plan. As the city increased in wealth, it also increased in splendour. Cheapside, which was then of more than double the breadth it is now, was the scene of all processions and of royal or civic display. It was the centre of the shopocracy, and continued so to be almost up to the time of the great fire, which swept away its glory and magnificence for ever. King Charles I., it appears, took a special interest in the goldsmiths' shops in Cheap, as we learn from the following record of the year 1629:- "At this time, the city greatly abounded in riches and splendour, such as former ages were unacquainted with. Then it was beautiful to behold the glorious appearance of goldsmiths' shops in the south row of Cheapside, which in a continued course reached from the Old Change to Bucklersbury, exclusive of four shops only of other trades in all that space.'' These four shops were an offence to the royal eye, and gave rise to an order from the privy-council, which we abbreviate thus [-321-] "Forasmuch as his majesty hath received information of the unseemliness and deformity appearing in Cheapside, by reason that divers men of mean trades have shops amongst the goldsmiths, which disorder it is his majesty's express pleasure to have reformed . . . . It was accordingly ordered that the two lord chief-justices, with such other judges as they shall think meet to call unto them, shall consider what statutes or laws there are to enforce the goldsmiths to plant themselves for the use of their trade in Cheapside," &c. The citizens, who probably imagined that the king, who had other things to think of, might leave them to manage their shops, took no notice of the order in council, but went on letting their premises to whom they chose. After the lapse of seven years comes another peremptory missive, charging the lord mayor and aldermen with disobedience in not bringing the goldsmiths living dispersed in the city to seat themselves in Cheapside or Lombard Street, and commanding them forthwith to turn out all other tradesmen to make room for the goldsmiths, and to commit such as shall  prove refractory to prison, until they do conform themselves. "And in the meanwhile,'' concludes this strange document, "we are, by his majesty's command, to require and charge you forthwith to cause all such shops as are not goldsmiths, and have been taken or opened either in Cheapside or Lombard Street since our said letters, to be presently shut up, and not be permitted to be opened till further order from this board, &c. - 24 May, 1637."  Fearing this arbitrary order might not be of sufficient force to compel the citizens to obedience, the King followed it up by a thundering decree from the Star-Chamber, which threatens to imprison the aldermen of the wards if they shall neglect to execute his majesty's commands. The magistrates of the city seem to have cared little either for privy-council or Star-Chamber, judging at least from the appearance of a third order addressed to the lord mayor and aldermen, reciting the [-322-] former two, and complaining of the contempt and disrespect with which they had been treated. What effect this last message had upon the corporation does not appear ; whether the "boke-seller, the drugster, the girdler,'' &c., who had dared to mingle with the goldsmiths, and open their shops in spite of his majesty and the Star-Chamber, were compelled to cry peccavi, and beat a retreat, we cannot say, but are inclined to think they kept their ground. The king as at this crisis embroiled with his subjects on the question of ship-money, and the citizens of London were especially sore and rebellious, having been rated at twenty ships, and petitioned in vain to have the number reduced one-half. The affair of the shops vanished before the affair of the ships - and of that, at present, it is not out business to treat.
    By this time London had increased to more than double the size it was when Thomas Wood built his celebrated shops, and that in spite of various enactments which had been passed to prevent the extension of the city beyond what were deemed its natural boundaries - the walls. The shops, in spite of acts of parliament to the contrary, had burgeoned forth of the city towards the Strand in one direction, and towards Holborn in another. As early as the beginning of the first Charles's reign, we find shops and stalls in Westminster Hall. These were in the hands of booksellers, law-stationers, and sempstresses, and the profits (rents?) of them belonged by right of office to the warden of the Fleet. There is an entry in Loud's Diary to the effect that, on Sunday the 20th of February, 1630-1, "the Hall was found on fire by the burning of the little shops or stalls kept therein;'' and we know, from other sources, that this retail traffic was carried on among the lawyers and their clients up, at least, to the commencement of the eighteenth century. So far as we know, the Westminster Hall Bazaar is the first notable example upon record of the system of projecting the elements of commerce into places of public [-323-] resort, which is the most characteristic feature of London retail trade in our day.
    The bickerings between Charles and the citizens on the subject of the goldsmiths' shops were hardly ended, when the king - doubtless for a consideration - gave them a charter, in right of which they were to enjoy certain privileges, and to levy certain fees and tolls. One clause of this charter, which bears date 1638, throws some light upon the matter of shops. It runs thus:- "And further, we do give and grant to the said mayor and commonalty and citizens of the said city and their successors, that it may and shall be lawful to the citizens of the same city, and any of them for the time being, to expose and hang in and over the streets and ways and alleys of the said city, and suburbs of the same, signs and posts of signs affixed to their houses and shops, for the better finding out such citizens' dwellings, shops, arts, and occupations, without impediment, molestation, or interruption of us, our heirs or successors or any officer or minister whatsoever of us, our heirs or successors." In those days the houses of London were but partially or irregularly numbered, and in many districts were not numbered at all. Signs were therefore necessary, as distinguishing marks, and that they were very generally used long before the date of this charter, we have abundant evidence in the imprints of old books, and the allusions of old writers, dramatic and other. It is very possible that they might have become a nuisance from projecting too far into the public way, and that the right of the shopkeepers to maintain them may have been disputed by persons who were or fancied themselves aggrieved. This clause of the charter legalises them, and it is noteworthy that it says nothing as to their size or the rate of projection over the causeway.
    After the great fire, which destroyed nearly the whole of the city north of the Thames, within the walls, the shops [-324-] speedily advanced into the suburbs. We have no record of any particular splendour or magnificence attached to them, but they became infinitely more numerous ; and when the city rose from its ashes, though it monopolised the wholesale trade, it found a formidable rival in general commerce outside the walls. The shops continued to be distinguished by their signs down to a very recent period. We learn from Hogarth's pictures how very plentiful and how bulky they were. In the plate illustrating Hudibras, entitled "The Burning of the Rump," the view is of Fleet Street within Temple Bar, which obstruction appears precisely as it does at present, with the addition of three traitors' heads stuck on the top of it ; and the ponderous signs are seen projecting over the roadway in a manner that would not be tolerated for an hour in modern London. In the opening part of his career, Hogarth painted signs for the shopkeepers, and thought it no discredit that his works should be appropriated to a useful purpose.
    Notwithstanding that the English have been so long a nation of shopkeepers, it was reserved for the living generation to make the grandest discoveries in the science of shopkeeping. If the reader would know in what these discoveries consist, let him contrast the present appearance of Oxford Street, Holborn, the Strand, or Cheapside, or any other frequented thoroughfare, with what it was at the termination of the last war, before the invention of gas, or the improvements in the manufacture of plate-glass which rendered it available for the shopkeepers purpose. And, to make the contrast more effective, let the comparison be made after sunset on a winter-day. The gloomy street in which a few blinking oil-lamps just sufficed to render the darkness visible - the narrow shop-window, with its panes of bulging glass, twenty inches by twelve, lighted by a couple of tallow candles or an argand-lamp - the shop-door closed to keep out the cold air; and the one, or perhaps two, guardians of [-325-] the counter comfortably ensconced in the room beyond, waiting the information of the bell which rings a loud peal when a customer enters - such was the aspect of many a business thoroughfare in the year when Waterloo was fought. Now, the departure of the day is the herald of a light such as the sun never darts into the nooks and crannies of traffic : broad streams of gas flash like meteors into every corner of the wealth-crammed mart - from which, it may be but one invisible wall of solid crystal separates the passenger, who might easily walk through it but for the burnished metal-guard which meets him breast high. If he enters to purchase, he is met at the door by a master of the ceremonies, who escorts him to the precise spot where what he seeks awaits him in the charge of a sort of genius of the lamp, one of a numerous band, whose sole purpose in life it is to gratify his wishes. He walks over rich carpets, in which his feet sink as though upon a meadow-sward ; and he may contemplate his portrait at full length in half-a-dozen mirrors, while that pair of gentlemen's kids at 2s. 10d. is being swaddled in tissue paper, and that remnant of charge in the vulgar metal of which coal-scuttles are made, and the very existence of which the immortal Brummell felt bound to ignore, is being decently interred in a sort of vellum sarcophagus ere it is presented to his acceptance.
    Fifty years ago, by far the greater portion of the retail-shops in London were small establishments easily manageable by one person. The proprietor in most cases was his own manager, and attended personally behind the counter to the wants of his customers. The race of shopmen were hardly one-fourth as numerous as they are at present - and the early-closing movement had not been heard of, because late-shopping, except on Saturday nights, was not a prevailing practice. Great as is the alteration which has taken place in the size and aspect of our shops, perhaps the metamorphosis which has also taken place, or rather which is now in [-326-] course of development, in the system of doing business, is greater. The distinction between the wholesale traders and retailers, formerly so strongly marked, and, by the commercial by-laws of the citizens of London once erected into an impassable barrier, is in our day fast disappearing. We have in fact, now, in almost every business street in London, examples of retail-trades carried on, so to speak, by wholesale. The snug shop under the control of its single proprietor - for whom John Gilpin may serve as a prototype - is transformed into a monster establishment, which has disembowelled a dozen houses to make room for its stock - which, backed by the combined funds and responsibilities of several capitalists, does away with middlemen of every class - buys its raw material in the foreign markets, or its wrought stuffs from the home manufacture, at a discount for ready money - gives no credit, and takes none - and doing business upon a margin of profit calculated to afford a living remuneration under the old-fashioned process, goes on increasing in wealth, and year by year extending in magnitude. The small trader suffers wofully by this monopolising system, and finds himself compelled to retire from the field and sink to a lower status, or, linking himself with others in the same predicament, to attempt the same game, the success of which in other hands has threatened his ruin. The end to which all this is tending, would appear to be the abolition of that class who are exclusively wholesale dealers, or, in other words, the middlemen who stand between the producer and the shopkeeper. While the process which is to bring about this change is going forward, those engaged in it, it is easy to see, must make large gains, because they realise the profit both of the wholesale and retail seller; but when the transition state is over, and the change accomplished, the same competition which will have swept the smaller traders from the stage, will bring the larger ones down to precisely the same position in which the smaller ones stand at present. [-327-] Then, and not till then, will the public leap the full benefit of the commercial revolution now in progress, and which, judging from appearances, is destined to end in the substitution of a system under which the purchaser will have to pay but one profit, instead of the present system which mulcts him in two.
    The rent of shops in London was never so high as it is at the present time. Within the last few years they have risen upon the average 10 per cent., and in many districts three times that amount. Speculation in shop-leases is a favourite species of excitement with a certain class of jobbers. The plan is to lend money at a usurious interest upon the lease of a tradesman in difficulties ; if he recovers his position and pays off the loan, it is not a bad stroke of business ; but if he fails, and goes into the Gazette, it is a better one, as the lease is sure to be bought at a good profit by some one in the same line of business, who, on the strength of the bankrupts connection added to his own, hopes to do better. A tradesman who has a lease can always raise money upon it and there are a prodigious number of leases at all times in the hands of the money-lenders. Sometimes it comes to pass at the failure of a baker, butcher, or provision-dealer, that the lease of his shop forms the sum-total of the assets of the bankrupt, and even that, it may be, is mortgaged for its full value. We have known a smart tradesman sell his lease for a few hundreds, who at the same time had really no lease to sell. He managed it in this way having found a purchaser, and received a deposit upon the bargain, he went to his landlord, of whom he had hitherto been a yearly tenant, and demanded a lease, on the ground that he was contemplating certain expensive improvements in the premises which of course he could not venture to undertake unless he possessed the assurance which a lease would give him, that he would not be deprived of the advantage of them. On the faith of this imaginary project, the landlord gave him a lease [-328-]  renewable at the expiration of seven years, for seven or fourteen more - which lease he transferred to his customer the day after he got it. It is usual in London to hire houses and shops with an agreement for a lease, which the tenant can have executed at his own expense if after a trial he finds it worth his while. It is as well to remember, however, that such an agreement is not always found to be binding upon a landlords heirs at anyrate, we have known a young tradesman ruined by being turned out of his shop after he had spent 1,000 in alterations and fittings to suit his purpose - relying upon a written agreement for a lease which he held from his landlord, who died suddenly, and left him to the mercy of a stranger who wanted the premises for his own business.
    If the London shopkeeper groans beneath a heavy rent and heavy taxes, and has to submit to a catalogue of minor expenses of which the provincial dealer knows little or nothing, he has also one great and compensating advantage, which can be reaped to the same extent on no other spot, and which lies at the foundation of his ultimate prosperity. This is found in the continuous current of ready cash that flows over his counter. Credit, which in many small towns is the rule of the majority of commercial transactions, is in London the rare exception. Of a hundred faces that stand at his counter in the course of a day, it is likely that the shopkeeper in a frequented thoroughfare is hardly familiar with one or knows them but as occasional customers whom he may see two or three times in the course of a season and if he is wise, he cultivates no intimacies, as they might lead to a demand for credit. An immense proportion of his patrons are of a migratory species - here to-day and gone to-morrow - visitors, who come to see and to purchase, and withdraw to be seen no more. Credit is rarely asked for, and still more rarely given ; and hence it follows that bad debts, which in country towns are frequently the ruin of small dealers, affect [-329-]  the London shopkeeper hut very little. This advantage, without doubt, is appreciated at its full value, and underlies the furious competition for shops well situated, which has raised their rents to such abnormal amounts. It has another consequence, too, in the temptation it holds out to gangs of unprincipled men, who infest some of the main channels of commerce with specious establishments, which are actually nothing more than dens of infamy; where, under the pretence of unheard-of bargains, the public, and the sex in particular, are bamboozled and bullied out of their cash; and where, if a lady happens to lay her muff on the counter, she may chance to see it cut into strips and barefacedly hung in the window for sale. These banditti have been exposed again and again in the public prints, and several of their gangs have become so notorious, as to be compelled for a time to retire into obscurity but a change of name, or a, change of locality, or both, suffices to start them again. Towsery, from the West, transforms himself into Chowsery in the East and when he is blown there, may figure again as Blowsery in the north, or Mowsery in the south, carrying the same ruffianly gang of robbers with him wherever he goes. Unfortunately, the law has no hold upon these villains, unless an assault can be proved, which in some instances has been done ; and ladies who go forth on shopping expeditions have need to do so under protection, or else first take the trouble to ascertain whither their love of a bargain is likely to lead them. In the old times, when the shopkeepers of one guild were mostly congregated in one district, and each one acted under the eyes of his brethren, there was at least nothing of this sort : the regulations which kept up prices and prevented competition, at least kept down knavery and prevented robbery. The catch-penny, catch-booby system of trade is altogether of modern growth, and is one of the evils to be guarded against, which lies arisen out of an extension of trade not possible under the old-fashioned restrictions.
    [-330-] The shop-windows of London have long formed the city's principal attraction to strangers and visitors. Picture-galleries and museums present no points of interest that can compete with them in the estimation of the mass of our fellow-creatures. They are, in fact, open volumes, which he who runs may read, and the tale they tell is one of wonder and of wealth, of courage and daring, of hardship and perseverance, of danger, and difficulty and success. Whatever art has to glory in, or science to boast of; the shop-window exhibits to the admiration of mankind. To figure there is the climax of the most arduous labours and the highest emprise. It is for the shopkeeper that the navigator ploughs the seas, the traveller braves the African Desert, the Mexican labours in the mine, the swart Indian dives for pearls in the ocean depths. It is for him that the steam-engine pants, the lightning carries messages, and the sun paints pictures. He stands before the face of the world - the exponent of the worlds worth, of all that it has done and can do, of all that it has and is. He is the index of a nations industry, enterprise, and progress - the honoured and the honourable depository of the last and best creations of the divinest faculties with which God has endowed his human race. To be a nation of shopkeepers, then, is no dishonour, because it is to be a nation pre-eminent above all others in the possession and appreciation of all that man was formed to produce and to enjoy.