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Retail has never existed in a vacuum. This is the central premise of a new edited collection being published by Bristol University Press – Retail and Community: Business, Charity and the End of Empire. To coincide with its publication, this seminar will see its editors reflect on four of its core themes.

First, retail as an aspect of modernity lends itself to a particular narrative. This is one whereby the rise of department stores, chains, supermarkets, out-of-town shopping centres and online selling is a continual process of uprooting from community life. The case studies presented in the book indicate that the process was not so simple. These range from the social relationships tailors and womenswear retailers had with their customers in the Midlands early in the twentieth century, to the postcolonial community dynamics of the corner shop by its end, and the role of local retailers in supporting communities through extended periods of industrial action. Collectively they show that the ways retailers engaged with their social contexts was far from unaltered by the changes of the modern era, yet neither were they entirely swept away.

Second, a recurring focus of the book is on the history of charity retail, which has often been seen through the prism of the exceptional case of Oxfam and understood by contemporary researchers as a pre-history to a retailing phenomenon taking off in the 1980s. From Victorian charity bazaars, through the numerous trading initiatives of the Salvation Army and disability charities to 1940s wartime gift shops, a longer and more varied history is considered in this book. Instead of framing these as a precursor of today’s charity shops, we ask what their inclusion would mean for the history of modern retail.

Third, the premise that retail is socially embedded does not narrow but rather widens our lens, recognising that even the most local stories played out in this period against global – most notably colonial – backdrops. Chapters explore different connections between the local and the global, including the local-to-local cultural transmission evident in exotically-themed markets, the neo-imperial project to export the Oxford charity shop tradition to a former colony and the ways in which access to and experience of retail spaces was racialised for post-war Commonwealth migrants to Britain, both as owners and employees. In doing so, the book aims to demonstrate the potency of retail to explore historical connections between the local and the global in contemporary British history.

Finally, the editors reflect on the collection as an interdisciplinary project and one that was shaped by the experience of a global pandemic. Retail and community and their interconnections were suspended, disrupted and reconfigured in a process that is still ongoing and unstable. Rather than attempting to integrate or accommodate COVID 19 within existing frameworks and periodisations for the history of retail in Britain, we open up for discussion the potential value of ‘practice’ as a concept that has proved useful and malleable in a wide range of disciplines. Its very openness is its strength, giving interdisciplinary research a lens through which to view and explore the ways in which different practices – social practices, working and professional practices, charitable and gifting practices, buying and consumption practices – layer and enmesh in and between specific contexts.

George Gosling is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of the 2017 book Payment and Philanthropy in British Healthcare, 1918–1948 and a series of journal articles on the history of the voluntary sector in modern Britain. More recently his work has focused on the various ways British charities have engaged in retailing since the eighteenth century.

Alix R. Green is Reader in History at the University of Essex. A historian of contemporary Britain, her particular interests lie in politics and political culture and the uses of history and historical records. Since her 2016 book, History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government, she has been focusing on collaborative research with archivists, mobilising historical collections in operational businesses and organisations.


All welcome – This event is free, but booking is required.
Please note that bookings for this event will close 24 hours in advance, to allow the convenors to distribute the meeting link.