Michelle Matthews (Independent Scholar)
The industrial revolution has typically been characterised as separating home from work. Yet as the BBC drama ‘The Paradise’ shows, home and work merged in the department store with shop assistants often living over the shop as part of their employment term. Fondly known as ‘Living in’, this practice played a crucial role in the recruitment of staff in a number of professions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the department store it functioned as a means to keep wage costs down by providing accommodation and food for those employed. L. T. Clarke, a trade union member, proclaimed in the periodical Shop Assistant in 1901 that the practice of living in was a ‘fruitful source of tyranny and sin.’ Yet this is only half the picture. For many shop assistants, the practice of living in enabled them to feel at home. In this blog I will consider the working conditions and practice of living in at Morgan’s Department Store in Cardiff.
David Morgan began his enterprise in Cardiff in 1879. Morgan’s Department Store began initially as drapers and grew into the forefathers of the modern day department store by expanding the range of goods sold as well as their premises. It remains major retail outlet in the Welsh capital. It’s arcades still function as they would have over 150 years ago, linking the main commercial areas of Cardiff. The store continues to be an independent retailer with the living in accommodation above functioning as luxury city apartments overlooking The Hayes.
Shop Assistants not only sold a certain vision of domesticity, they also recreated a homely environment above the department store in their living quarters. For Morgan and Co. this included providing shop assistants with a bedroom, communal sitting room and designated leisure areas which, as Aubery Morgan noted in his study, included a club room, library and a popular billiards room. A journalist of the Christian Commonwealth nonetheless described Morgan’s employees’ bedrooms as ‘bare and cheerless, without covering to the floors, and the walls are coloured, not papered’. They were not necessarily experienced this way by the shop assistants themselves. Looking back in 1973, Miss Harnamen, who worked for Morgan and Co., recollected how she was able to convert her ‘bedroom…into a kitchen with a gas stove, sink, saucepan and frying pan. In the evenings the assistants were allowed to use this for cooking items of food we purchased… it was a great treat.’
Nevertheless, many late Victorian journalists and social commentators were wary of the living-in system. In particular, they questioned the domestic arrangements of young women living away from home and above the shop. Spencer Jones, for instance, argued in 1907 that ‘no shop girl at any rate under the living in system has any opportunity of cultivating domestic virtues.’ Likewise, the journalist of the Christian Commonwealth reported in 1913 that: ‘I find it impossible to resist the conclusion that the perils to womanhood inherent in shop life cannot be overemphasised. It is not merely that the women live under conditions which deny them the enjoyment of the ordinary amenities and refinement of life: they have hourly to wage a battle against a variety of circumstances which conspire to rob them of their self-respect and power of self-determination.’ Despite Aubery Morgan suggesting that the drapery trade ‘offered a much more genteel atmosphere;’ a number of publications outlined the evils of female employment on the shop floor. The Girls Own Paper called for an end to the cruel and hard rules of the ‘helpless’ girl serving and obeying and noted that shop girls working long hours.
Figure One: ‘Seats for Shop Assistants; or There’s a Good Time Coming’, Western Mail (1899).
This point was reinforced by the campaign for Seats for Assistants. The Seats for Assistants campaign, and the consequential legislation which came into effect in 1900, further demonstrated the concern for the health of shop assistants, especially women. The January 1900 issue of The Shop Assistant noted that seats had to be provided ‘in all rooms of a shop… and where female assistants are employed for the retailing of goods to the public…such seats shall be in proportion of not less than one seat to every three female assistants employed in each room.’ David Morgan’s son, John, anticipated the Seats for Assistants Act by inventing a seat for the exclusive use of shops assistants in the store, prior to the legislation: ‘the seat, which is out of sight and under the counter, is brought into position by merely pressing a button or saying “Abracadabra” or something using satire to comment on the issue of seat for shop assistants. Even though Morgan’s shop assistants were able to sit down others were not so fortunate as the Western Mail implied in their 1899 cartoon entitled ‘Seats for Shop Assistants; or There’s a Good Time Coming’. The hardships shop assistants faced can be seen by the three, enlarged and swollen pairs of feet. Directly underneath these feet is a fast forward to the ‘good time coming’ which shows three normal sized feet and three well cared for pairs of shoes. The impact, although clearly comical, also has subtle undertones of the Act returning a physical femininity to the owners of the first and third pair of feet by making them smaller, heeled and daintier in appearance.
Despite objections to the living-in system there was more than one area that critics did appear to agree on and that was the idea that the living in system enabled companies to keep an eye on the sexual morals of their female employees. As John Lawrie suggested, ‘on the grounds of morality alone, there can be no doubt about it being the best system’ reflecting fears that young women living away from home were defenceless against the outside world and temptations of the public sphere. An ‘Old Union Member’ echoed Lawries sentiments in a letter to the South Wales Daily News, suggesting ‘if living out was compulsory their parents would not be so eager to send them to drapery establishments, nor supply them with pocket money during the time that is required before they are able to earn a living wage.’
Figure Two: ‘The Delights of “Living In”, Shop Assistant (1901)
Like their feet, the morals of shop assistants could also be the source of great humour. Although Miss Harnamen noted ‘the discipline and control was very severe,’ propaganda released in the national Shop Assistant publication suggested that fun was still to be had. Released in the March issue of 1901, the image above entitled ‘The Delights of Living In’ suggests that living above shop did not prevent courtships or work based relationship from forming, or as the subtitle suggested ‘how the Morals and Affections of the “Young People” are safeguarded’. The cartoon depicts the men (Adams) and women (Eves) waiting to kiss their partner on ‘neutral’ territory. In doing so they are able avoid ‘instant dismissal by order’ as neither sex is found in the others quarters, and are not therefore breaking house rules. Yet the intimacy of the courting couple is public and watched by the presence of others. Moreover, the declaration, ‘Here! Buck up Old Chap’, suggests that ‘love-making’ was fleeting. Living above shop can be seen as a transitional phase. It allowed the late Victorian shop girl a level of freedom as Morgan noted ‘for young women, not yet prepared to take the ultimate step into marriage, the drapers shop provided an opportunity to escape the drudgery of home.’
Michelle Matthews graduated this year with a BA in English & History at Swansea University, and is now completing a PGCE in Secondary English at Cardiff Metropolitan. Her interests include Victorian history, pretty shoes and large book cases, her twitter homage to these interests, and more, can be found @Chelle_Matthews.
1. Clarke, L.T., The Shop Assistant, February 1901, Vol. 5, No. 56. p.149
2. Morgan, A., David Morgan Life and Times (Newport, 1977) p.139
3. Quoted in Morgan, A., David Morgan Life and Times (Newport, 1977) p.175
4. Spencer Jones, T., The Moral Side of Living In, Shop Assistant Publishing LTD London 1907 p.10
5. ‘The Great Unrest Among Modern Women, XII. The Shop Assistant’ Christian Commonwealth, December 17th 1913
6. The Shop Assistant, January 1900, Vol. 4, No. 43, p.1
7. ‘Seats for Shop Assistants or, there’s a good time coming’ Western Mail, (Cardiff, Wales) December 1899.
8. Lawrie, J., quoted in Spencer Jones, T., The Moral Side of Living In, Shop Assistant Publishing Co. LTD (London, 1907).
9. South Wales Daily News, 13th December 1913
10. Morgan, A. David Morgan, the life and times, (Newport;1977)