Chapter 7

A Nation of Shopkeepers

It was Napoleon who disparagingly referred to Britain as "a nation of shopkeepers" but in the same era Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) and Samuel Adams of Philadelphia used the epithet more positively. The truth was that, as we have seen from the growth of Birmingham, Britain had become the world's chief trading nation. During the reign of Queen Victoria the increased production of goods, both industrial and domestic, and the consequent spending power of the workers and manufacturers resulted in the rise of the consumer society.

In a growing town like Redditch there was money to be spent and an increasing variety of goods to be bought, and so enterprising shopkeepers set up businesses to meet the demand. Evesham Street and Alcester Street were the first main shopping streets, though it was many years before they were predominately commercial areas - for a long time shops and services intermingled with the dwellings both of the needleworkers and the more affluent manufacturers. Many family businesses served the populace of Redditch for decades; some well into the 20th century and a few names recognisable at the start of the 21st century.

We can trace the growing affluence of Redditch through the Trade Directories which have been preserved. In the years before mass production there was often little difference between the manufacturer and the retailer - the baker made bread and sold it from his premises, usually his home. Other tradesman / craftsman such as the saddler, dressmaker and smith (blacksmith and tinsmith) made goods to order, rather than making a selection of goods for display. In these trades the word "shop" would tend to mean "workshop". (Ref 1) gives further information about the retail trade.

Initially "shopping" for most people meant obtaining the necessities of life and was certainly not a leisure activity, but mass-production changed this and the Victorian era saw the rise of the middle and lower classes as consumers. As we have seen, Redditch grew very rapidly, and there were soon plenty of needleworkers with money to spend; during the 1830s we see the first evidence of retailers displaying goods to tempt the passers-by.

There appear to be no Trades Directories for Redditch which have survived from the 1830s, but the firm of Hollingtons claimed to date from that period (as did Webbs the bakers, but without any real evidence to substantiate this). Evesham Street was becoming the main commercial centre, although the shops were interspersed with dwellings, not just of workers, but also of manufacturers. Other dealers and tradesmen were found in Alcester Street and Chapel Green (though at this date there is no distinction between "East" and "West"). (Ref 2) Pigots Trades Directory for 1841 gives details of the shops in Evesham Street.

The oldest establishment to survive into the 20th century seems to be Huins the shoe merchant, which claimed to have been founded in 1796, although it is not listed in the Worcestershire directories for the 1820s. (Ref 3)

Hollingtons the drapers was well known over very many years. The centenary edition of The Redditch Indicator (1959) looks back over a century of commerce and reports on the firm (without disclosing the source of this information) (Ref 4)

Another establishment concerned with setting up home was the firm of Cranmore Simmons, whose premises were on the opposite side of Evesham Street to Huins. (Ref 5)

This advert is fromThe Needlemakers Almanack 1907 (click to enlarge)

Hodges the stationers established in 1861 were situated next to Huins, at number 1 Evesham Street and remained until 1961 as a popular publisher of postcards of Redditch. They also sold toys, games, sports goods, fountain pens, dressing cases, handbags and fancy goods. In 1923 their advertising slogan was "Try Hodges first".

There were several tailors and outfitters in the town. Broughs were established at 11 Evesham Street in about 1890, and by 1935 the incumbent Mr Brough, a skilful tailor, was offering a splendid variety of gentlemen's and youth's hosiery, hats, caps, gloves, scarves, shirts, collars, ties and underclothing.

Haines at number 38 and 40 Evesham Street were founded in 1885, and Mr Haines cut all garments himself.

From The Needlemakers Almanack 1896 (click to enlarge)

Heaphys were not in Evesham Street but in neighbouring New Street (prior to that in Walford Street), and dated from the late 1860s. (Ref 6)

Jones, silk mercers, costumiers and milliners claimed to date from the 1840s and had premises at numbers 12 and 14 Evesham Street. The report of 1935 states that it was popular among the most desirable circles of patronage and that the ladies of Redditch need go no further for the latest London and Parisian fashions. This seems a little over-enthusiastic as Redditch was never renowned for its fashion sense.

Other well-established businesses were Moules the chemists at 28 Evesham Street, which later specialised in photographic products, as well as developing and printing of film, and John Dyer and Sons, ironmongers of Alcester Street, founded in 1878,

from The Needlemakers Almanack 1895 (click to enlarge)

The accolade for the longest-lasting business must go to Humphries boot and shoe shop. Founded in 1862 it traded from 15 Evesham Street until the New Town project redeveloped the town centre. In the 21st century the shop is to be found near to its original site, in the new Evesham Walk.

Of course there were many other shops and services which came and went during the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as London the grocer (31 Evesham Street) and Perks the tobacconist (23 Evesham Street).
All these business families knew each other very well over several generations, and often intermarried. These are some of the family connections that have been found - (Ref 7)

As well as shops there were also many public houses in Redditch, and one of them, The Red Lion, has connections with the Webb family. The story of James Webb and his sister Eliza Jane (who married William Guise) gives some us further details of life in Victorian Redditch at a time when these pubs and businesses were flourishing. This once again illustrates how closely Redditch families were associated, both by marriage and through business (Ref 8) as the town grew and prospered during Victoria's reign.