Search is on for Glasgow shopgirls

YOU don't have to wander very far round the centre of Glasgow to see why the city takes such pride in its shopping.

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Marks & Spencer shopgirls from around 1900. Picture: The M&S Company Archive
Marks & Spencer shopgirls from around 1900. Picture: The M&S Company Archive

The Style Mile is home to everything from extensive malls to upmarket stores and stylish boutiques.

But the city's obsession with shopping goes back much, much further than that.

In bygone years, we flocked each week to such stores as Copland & Lye, Arnott's, Lewis's, and Pettigrew & Stephens.

These names, once so familiar, have long since disappeared.

It is possible, though, that your older relatives would have been customers in one or more of them.

Which is where an independent London-based television production company comes in.

It hopes to hear from any readers of the Evening Times whose grannies - or great-grannies - may have worked in such stores.

The company, called Betty, is making a social history series for BBC Two looking into the fascinating world of the shop girl.

Production work has already begun on the series, and filming is due to begin 'very shortly'.

But it is keen to hear from anyone in Glasgow who might be able to help with its research.

The producer, Rowan Greenaway, said this week: "We are looking for people whose relatives were the original shop girls - from the Victorian era through to the Edwardian era.

"We would very much love to hear all about their experiences.

"If any readers have old photographs, journals, objects, newspaper articles, letters or anything else that can give us a glimpse into the lives of such shopgirls, that would be fantastic."

The history of the city's department stores makes fascinating reading, and has been detailed in such books as Carol Foreman's 2010 book, Glasgow Shops Past and Present.

Of the big names that once dominated the department-store field in Glasgow, only two survive: Watt Brothers on Sauchiehall Street, and Fraser's on Buchanan Street.

The other stores also had distinguished histories.

Lewis's, on Argyle Street, was opened in 1932 on the site of what had been known as 'the Poly' - the Royal Polytechnic Warehouse, a hugely successful enterprise launched by John Anderson.

In 1929, notes Carol Foreman, Anderson's son sold the business to Lewis's, which flattened the building and built 'the largest provincial department store in Britain'.

The Pettigrew & Stephens's store, on Sauchiehall Street, was once home to what Carol describes as 'one of the most diversified and stylish stores in Scotland, with elevators serving every floor.'

All of which acts as a reminder that Glasgow's reputation as a shopping mecca is nothing new.

In fact, as Carol suggests in her book: at one time, it had more department stores 'than any other city in Scotland, or possibly in Britain.'

Down in London, Betty has been making good progress with its work on the three-part series on what it describes as "the true story of life behind the counter."

Entitled Shopgirls, it will examine the lives of the girls who worked behind the counter, from the drapery stores of the 1860s when young women's employment outside the home was taking off, through the tumultuous social upheavals of the Edwardian era.

The story will be brought up to date, relatively speaking, to include the working-class revolution of the 1960s.

The historical series will be presented by Dr Pamela Cox, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex.

It will feature archive and intriguing testimony revealing what life was like working, and in some cases living, inside the shops and departments stores of the time.

The company says it will be an 'engaging and significant story about class, gender, sex and shopping' - told from behind the counter of some of the nation's favourite shops.

Betty has solid experience in programmes that mine the past.

Last year it enjoyed ratings success with a history series, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, for BBC2, which peaked at 2.5million.

Said Dr Cox said: "Researching this new series has been a real revelation. Britain may have been a nation of shopkeepers - but they relied on an army of shopgirls."

Executive producer Annabel Hobley, who also produced Servants: The True Story of Life below Stairs, added: "Shopgirls are exciting, sometimes feisty, historically important figures that were pivotal to the way our consumer society shaped up.

"Shopgirls were at the cutting edge of social change a hundred years ago, and the story of their lives is deeply revealing of how we live, work and shop today."

Martin Davidson, head of commissioning, history and business at the BBC, said: "We were delighted with the success of Servants, which showcased Dr Pamela's Cox's insightful take on Britain's social history.

"Shopgirls will be a fascinating opportunity to examine a remarkable period of transformation through the lives of women who have shaped the world today."

If you do know of anything that would interest the programme-makers, get in touch!

l To contact Betty, email them on at history@betty.co.uk or phone them on 020 7907 0868

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