We’ve had arsenic in the wallpaper, infernos in bedrooms, amputation by factory machines and now it’s death and disease behind the shop counter. The well of ghoulish Victorian horrors in both the workplace and home seems bottomless; not a season goes by on TV without an enthusiastic historian marching around period terraces in order to tell us about it.
The latest incarnation of the genre comes from 44-year old Dr Pamela Cox, whose three-part series Shopgirls recounts the perils and hardships encountered by the female forebears of The Paradise and Mr Selfridge.
Of course, it starts a bit earlier than either of those. The novel idea of putting ladies behind shop counters arose in the 1850s. Before then women weren’t considered able to sell goods. Weigh apples? Measure cloth? Give change? You must be crazy. Yet with the giant factories of the Industrial Revolution demanding more and more heavy labour, the invention of the department store, plus a large number of unmarried women needing income, an intrepid female army was slowly but surely created to service the high street. And there was a parallel group: a growing number of middle-class female customers. As Dr Cox puts it, the journey of the shopgirl (as she was then known) is one from invisible helper to the “beating heart” of shopping. By 1860, just ten years later, there were thousands of women working in shops.
Why did they faint behind the counter, then? According to Dr Cox, this was because, in the early days, shopgirls weren’t allowed to sit down. I know. Imagine that going down with the “If it’s not on the rails, we ain’t got it” style of modern-day shop assisting. Well, it wasn’t like that in the 1850s. These women were trained to help you at all times.
Admittedly the status of a shopgirl has changed somewhat since she was first invented. In Victorian and Edwardian days, being able to work independently and earn your own money was very liberating for a young woman. Nowadays, it’s not quite so special.
“Well, it’s a very varied sector,” says Dr Cox, who has two children, a daughter aged 12 and a ten-year-old son. “From Fortnum’s down to... Lidl. And perhaps the real work of a shopgirl is invisible – selling well is a skill, but you have to make it look effortless. So it’s not valued as much as other work might be.” In this arena, when Selfridges, Jenners and the Burlington Arcade were newcomers, Dr Cox is a learned, if somewhat solemn, guide. Through her, we learn about a new world of kid gloves, tape measures and in some cases a side serving of prostitution (giving a startling new resonance to the notion of “living above the shop”).
A social historian at Essex University, Dr Cox first appeared on TV in 2012 fronting a series called Servants: The True Story of Life below Stairs. In that instance, her USP was that her great-grandparents had both been in service. So this time, was she able to draw on the experiences of any forebears who had worked behind the till?
“No, but I once worked in a shop, actually. At Sainsbury’s,” she tells me. She doesn’t much sound like a former shopgirl, I say. “No, it was during my university holidays from Cambridge,” she admits.
Yet, as the draw of dramas such as Mr Selfridge and The Paradise shows, the history of commerce on the high street is an important one. It is something Dr Cox feels that we, the inhabitants of what Napoleon mockingly termed “a nation of shopkeepers”, have only just started to analyse. “It’s about the historisation of shopping.” Ironically, she thinks that the advent of computers and PayPal has done much to make us value the good old shop far more.
“Now that internet shopping means we don’t actually need to go out to the shops, we have started to re-examine why shops mean so much to us, and why we still choose to go shopping.”
Perhaps we don’t value the shop assistants of this world any more because the very term “shopgirl” is so, well, problematic. In fact, I’m quite surprised that it’s being used as the title, given the fact that the BBC edited the word “girl” out of a documentary only last month.
“Well, we use the word shopgirl very deliberately in the series,” Dr Cox explains. “It was a term that made its first appearance in the mid-19th century in newspaper columns, books and songs. It was always faintly disparaging. But the shopgirl was a phenomenon, which is why we use the term.”
Rather unfortunately, so does the genial Simon Berry, proprietor of the eponymous wine merchant in St James’s Street, Piccadilly. Berry Bros, which has been around for hundreds of years, apparently only started employing women a decade or so ago. “Now we have loads of girls,” cries Berry with evident pleasure, and perhaps not in a historical context.
Did Dr Cox not notice this? I would have thought her well-educated toes might have curled up on hearing such terminology.
“Oh yes, I noticed it! I’m a flag-waving feminist historian,” she cries. “Of course I noticed it.” So why did you keep it in the programme? Keeping it in sounds like approval. “Well, he can speak for himself, you know. I let it go. I like to leave things for people to... pick up as they will. I think it’s very clear how he comes across.”
There is a pause. “But he was very lovely, and he was very game to let us into his shop.”
We then venture into the hoary old discussion about the attractiveness of the female historian, which by now is a rather crowded sub-sector of the world of TV history. “Looks are always secondary,” she insists. “I remember coming back from doing the first Servants series with two bags. A bag of clothes, and a bigger bag of research, which weighed me down more. And I think that is the right balance.”
As we chat, sitting in the canteen of Essex University's Colchester campus, an undergraduate comes up to Dr Cox and gleefully identifies her as someone she has seen on television. “I’ve just quoted you in my exam!” says the student.
Dr Cox goes bright red, and doesn’t quite know what to say. Perhaps she has yet to absorb the fact that television encourages familiarity a bit more than the lecture theatre does. Is she ready to become a celebrity? “I wouldn’t particularly like to be one, and I don’t think of myself as one, at all,” she says. “I hadn’t been chasing television. It sort of happened. Servants was something of a surprise to me. My primary job is as an academic.”
Nevertheless, here she is on TV with her second series. Much to Dr Cox’s discomfort, I take her through a roster of programmes she might now be approached to appear on. Celebrity Big Brother? Laughter, and a shake of the head. Celebrity Bake Off? Ditto. The Jungle? Are you joking? All right, how about Celebrity Mastermind? “Possibly.”
Ah. You can take the television historian out of university...
Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2