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The BBC’s Shopgirls

Based on the BBC television series, Shopgirls is the nostalgic, sweeping true story of the women behind the counters of Britain’s most famous – and not so famous – stores.

As the TV series and this lively book reveal, the story of British shopgirls – and their spirited camaraderie – is one woven deep into the fabric of our history and changes the way we understand our society. We asked the creators of the show and authors of the book, Dr Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley, a few questions whilst on set filming the series and here are their answers:

Dr Pamela Cox (left) and Annabel Hobley (right)

What is Shopgirls about?

Pamela: It’s about three things; it’s about the history of women at work, it’s about the history of shopping, and it’s about the changing face of shopping. It also gives us a sneaky view behind the doors of our favourite stores.

What inspired you to write this book?

Annabel: There’s been quite a lot of working class history of people working in mills and factories- both men and women – but there has been very little on the social history of consumerism and shopping. It’s a very under-explored area, so we thought that this was a great opportunity to delve in to it.

Pamela: Also I think there’s been a lot about the men, the big names, the men behind the big stores, the self-made men; Mr Selfridge, Marks & Spencer, Harrods. The very names of the shops themselves tell the story, it’s as if these guys ran these businesses almost alone. This book is about the workers on the shop floor and how a huge army of shopgirls made the department stores and the chain stores that we know and love today function for the past decade.

How have you conducted your research?

Pamela: The research has taken us in all kinds of directions, from the census to the musicals on stage. For example; we found a musical comedy called The Shopgirl written in the late 19th century. It’s been fascinating to find out why that was written. We’ve looked at store rules and regulations – unbelievable numbers of these were governing shop life in the 19th century.

Annabel: We looked at journals, trade union journals, newspapers of the time, local newspapers; from the Essex Weekly News to the Bayswater Chronicle. We have looked at store records, at staff records and a very small amount of memoirs and diaries; often of people writing about shopgirls and of the big name proprietors and old fashioned drapers. So there’s been a great kind of panoply of different sources.

Pamela: They turn up in the most unexpected places, when you’re least expecting them.

What time span does the book cover?

Annabel: Our book covers the time in the 1850s, when there were very few shopgirls in Britain’s stores, all the way through to the 1970s/1980s with a glance forward to the future.

Pamela: By covering that time period we’re covering an enormous shift in the way that women lived and worked.  So many of our mothers, grandmothers and great aunts will have worked in shops at some time or another. It was one of the biggest employers of women and the story has just not been told. So taking that long sweep allows us to tell this really fascinating mystery.

What is the most fascinating true-life story you have uncovered in your research?

Annabel: Our book is packed with shopgirls throughout the ages. We hear their voices; we get to know their lives. One of the very early ones that we came across, whose story was reported in the Glasgow Herald, was a Glaswegian… a young person who applied to become a shopman in a provisions dealers in Glasgow.

Pamela: Notice she said shopman.

Annabel: No, it’s shopman exactly. And he did pretty well and he apparently, according to the newspaper reports, gave undue satisfaction, or was it due satisfaction?

Pamela: Something like that.

Annabel: Anyway, he was pretty good at his job, but then after a while he was living in lodgings and the lady who took care of the lodgings, the matron, thought something was a bit strange about this young man and indeed it turned out that he was a she! So she was exposed to be a young girl of 16 who was desperate to get into shop work, but at that time there were very few shops that took young women and this provision dealer was certainly not going to have any of it. He didn’t want to have the girl serving behind the counter, so she was dismissed. The thing is that she then went on to disguise herself again, she got away with it a second time, got another job as a he, as a shopboy. And the second time she was exposed she was sent home, and the newspaper reports that they hoped that she would never leave her parental home except under the rightful guise of the daughter Eve.

How do you think the role of shop girls has evolved over time?

Annabel: One thing to say is that there has been the most enormous growth in shopgirls, in female shop assistants, over that period. In the 1850s there weren’t that many, but by the turn of the 20th century, in the 1900s, there were a quarter of a million shopgirls and today there are around 2 million female shop assistants. So it’s a story of growth and within that period there have been tumultuous social changes for working women throughout that period, so it’s a really a very interesting time.

Order your copy of Shopgirls here

Catch up on the series so far on BBC iPlayer

Shopgirls cover

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Windmill is the online home of literary publishers Windmill Books, William Heinemann and Hutchinson. Part of Penguin Random House UK.