Back In Time for the Corner Shop – BBC 2


“Back In Time” is back on form! This was a great start to the new series, as we were shown just how hard Victorian shopkeeping families worked, especially the women who were responsible for turning out all the home-made produce.  Being a customer looked rather enjoyable, though, if only you had the time for it – so much more pleasant than dashing into a shop in your dinner hour and looking frantically at your watch as a disembodied voice tells you that there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area, or staggering round the supermarket after a long day at work and then crawling through the traffic!  It generated very little waste compared to modern food shopping, too. Take your own containers, and only buy as much or as little as you need. And buy it fresh on the day. If only we had the time for all this – as the elder son of the family ruefully pointed out, if people had to wait that long in a shop now, they’d just walk out.  The other snag, in addition to the lack of time, was the lack of choice, but we saw how that changed in the early years of the 20th century, with different foodstuffs being brought in from abroad, and an increase in the availability of tinned food.

Then, as we moved on in time, we heard how it was partly a number of adulterated food scandals which pushed people towards buying pre-packaged, branded foods. That was a very interesting point: it’s easy to think that it was all about convenience, and it wasn’t.  We also saw the problems which shopkeepers faced during the food shortages resulting from the First World War, and the important role they played in sending care packages to the troops.  A circus elephant called Lizzie also featured. So did health tonics, of the sort beloved by matrons in school stories.  So did Dame Kelly Holmes.

And we saw how corner shops became centres of the community, hosting parties for events such as the coronation of Edward VII, and being the focal point for “peace party” celebrations when the First World War finally ended.  And that was where the first episode ended, as well, in 1919.  But there are more to come!

We started off in 1897 – possibly because it was the year of the Diamond Jubilee, and the BBC had found a recipe for Jubilee Pudding. There was some basic background information about how corner shops developed to serve the needs of people living in the housing estates springing up on the edges of rapidly-growing towns and cities, in this case Sheffield. It was pointed out that opening a shop could be a very effective way for a working-class family to boost both their income and their social status. Maybe that’s how my great-grandparents, who opened a sweet shop in the early years of the 20th century, felt 🙂 . It was hard work, though! The mum and the daughter worked particularly hard, baking cakes, making jam and churning butter, whilst the dad and the sons did more of the work within the actual shop, weighing, measuring and pouring everything out, and putting the takings in the cash tin.

Being a customer in 1897 was great! Well, it was if you had plenty of time.  You handed over your list, and sat down for a natter with one of the neighbours whilst the shopkeeper and their assistant got all your stuff ready. I kept thinking that this would be wonderful if you had the time. A lot less relaxing than rushing around and stressing. But, then again, I start feeling trapped and anxious if I have to wait around for ages, so maybe I’d have been better as one of the people who handed their order in and then got it delivered by handcart – or, later on, by horse and cart. Or maybe I wouldn’t get so stressed if I actually had the time to sit and wait!  The time was the big issue, from a modern viewpoint – the family and the customer alike remarked on how long it all took. Self service certainly has the merit of being quicker. Having said which, my grandad used to say that the advent of self -service fruit and veg was one of the worst things that ever happened to him, because my grandma used to inspect every single item before choosing the ones that looked best!

It was also pretty good in that you only bought exactly the quantity you needed. There’s a brilliant scene in Father of the Bride in which Steve Martin’s character has a meltdown in the supermarket, because he wants to buy eight hot dog buns and they only come in packets of twelve.  It’s even worse when you live on your own, believe me!  None of that in 1897. No plastic packets, either. You took your own jug for the milk. Or for the beer – as the programme moved on, the shop got an alcohol licence, an excellent way of boosting takings!  Most other stuff, if it didn’t go straight in your basket, went in brown paper … even the jam, which was rather interesting.  A lot of what the programme showed was, whilst it was fascinating, nothing that a lot of viewers wouldn’t already have known, but I have to say that I’d never seen jam being served in twists of paper before.

Even in 1897, though, there were some pre-packaged items, and some brands – and most of these are now famous old names, such as Fry’s chocolate and Pears soap.  Actually, those two’d already have been famous old names by then: they both date back to the 18th century 🙂 .  Then, as we moved on into Edwardian times, we saw more and more tinned food on the shelves, much of it brought in from across the Empire, enabling people to try different kinds of fruit and vegetables, and meaning that not everything had to be bought fresh.  The idea of buying everything fresh did sound very appealing in some ways, but, again, there was the time factor.  And I get stressed if I don’t have food “in stock” – partly because my grandmas and great-aunts, who never got over rationing, always had food in stock, and partly because I panic in case something runs out and I can’t get to a shop!

The point about the connection between some shopkeepers adulterating food and the growth in the popularity of branded, pre-packaged food was very interesting. “Packaging” has become a dirty word in recent years, because of environmental concerns – which is fair enough, given the horrendous amount of non-biodegradable and often unnecessary plastic packaging around – and even “branding” has acquired negative connotations, associated with big corporations trying to rip people off.  Maybe we sometimes forget how many brands, especially food and drink brands, are much-loved, trusted and well-respected, and have been for over a century, and that there were some very good reasons other than pure convenience for the move towards them in the first place.

But how did circus elephants, health tonics and Dame Kelly Holmes come into it? Well, health tonics were made up – of goodness knows what! – by shopkeepers, and generated vast amounts of revenue. Kelly Holmes was demonstrating Edwardian aerobics in the park! And film coverage from during the First World War showed Lizzie the circus elephant being pressed into service to help with haulage when the working horses (whom, we were told, incidentally, dumped four tonnes of manure per mile per day on the streets of Sheffield!) had been commandeered by the Army.  This was with iron and steel rather than shop deliveries, but Lizzie is apparently quite a legend in Sheffield.

Quite a lot was said about the war years, and my one big historical criticism of this first episode is that it made it sound as if the authorities made no attempts at all to try to alleviate the food shortages during the First World War, when food imports, on which the UK had become dependent, were cut off by submarine warfare.  That isn’t entirely true: rationing was brought in in 1917, and bread was subsidised.  But there certainly wasn’t the large-scale rationing operation that there was during the Second World War, nor was there the Dig For Victory campaign that there was then.  At least lessons were learnt.  We’ll see that in the next episode.

In this one, we saw the family being forced to put up prices, and to make potato bread in place of ordinary bread.  And, rather touchingly, we saw the dad getting quite emotional whilst putting together care packages for those serving in the Armed Forces, many of whom would have been a similar age to his own 20-year-old elder son.  The whole family – mum, dad, two sons and daughter – came across very well.

So -in conclusion (sorry, I do waffle, don’t I?!), I’m pleased to say that, after the BBC spoilt Back in Time for School by politicising it, this series looks to be right back on form, and hopefully it’s going to be as good as Back in Time for Tea was.  No politics or agenda-pushing at all. The programme doesn’t seem to have attracted a lot of attention, though, and I hope the last series hasn’t put people off, because this really was good.  Looking forward to the episodes to come!  I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be rather rushed, because the 1920s, the Depression and the Second World War are all being shoehorned into one episode next week, but we’ll see.  This was a good start, anyway.




12 thoughts on “Back In Time for the Corner Shop – BBC 2

  1. Annabel Smyth

    It makes me feel very old that I remember corner shops! In fact, there were still a couple here when we moved in in 1979. These days, although there are still a few convenience stores, they are mostly part of independent chains.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve got a convenience store, which is part of the “Go Local” chain, but people only pop in for the odd thing, because Tesco is so near. When I was little, we went to Sainsburys (Tesco didn’t open until later), but we had a local shop that people used a lot, and was run by a local family. The owner used to change the best before dates with a black pen and hope that no-one’d notice – everyone did, but I don’t think anyone ever reported him, because he was seen as a local character!


    • It’s a TV series – and it’s reality TV, so a real family’s been dressed up as Victorian shopkeepers, to weigh out the food and make the home-made stuff. Then, next week, it’ll be about the inter-war and Second World War years. And it’s a small, local shop, not a posh department store like The Paradise. So it’s all different. I wish they’d bring The Paradise back, though – I enjoyed it, and there’s nothing on on Sunday nights at the moment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, I want to make it crystal clear I was NOT alive in 1897. BUT… I remember shops being just like that when I was a small child. As the youngest, I was still at home while all the other kids were at school, so my mum used to take me to the shops with her. The grocers – yes, you handed over a list, had a seat and chatted with the neighbours, and then you took home anything you needed urgently in the string bag you brought with you, and later in the day a boy turned up at your house on a bike with a trailer, with all the rest of your shopping in boxes. The butcher’s was incredible – there were whole carcases hanging up along the wall where the customers waited in a queue – yes, you could actually touch them (if you were four!) – and then the butcher actually butchered the cut you wanted in front of you. Mostly I remember the blood, and the sawdust on the floor to soak it up. Oddly, it was one of my favourite places – I can still remember the smell. Haha! Now I’m worried about both my age and my sanity… thanks for the trip down memory lane! I also remember the enthusiastic gardeners following the coal horses in the hopes of some free manure… 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could do without the blood and sawdust 🙂 , but it does all sound a lot more relaxing. I go to Tesco after work on Fridays, by which time I’m already fed up after a day at work and getting stuck in traffic, and they keep cutting staff numbers so there are always queues at the checkout! I suppose there’s online shopping, but it’s not quite as easy as just handing over a list …

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m enjoying this series as well although not as much as ‘Back in Time for Dinner’ and ‘Back in Time for Tea’. I also feel they’ve crammed too many decades into a single programme, especially last night’s programme, covering the interwar period and WW2, which meant the family running the shop and the customers didn’t have the depth of experience they would have had if each programme only covered a decade or so. (I realise that some decades saw little change from the previous, but I can’t help but believe that each had enough interesting material to make an hour’s programme viable.)

    Liked by 1 person

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