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Norman Robson learnt about the food retail trade from a young age, having helped out in his family’s grocery shop as a boy in the 1930s. Norman went on to train as food technologist and to work for Marks and Spencer. Here, he remembers his family’s grocery shop.


Norman Robson
Born 1922

“I should tell you that I was born into a food retailing family, which in retrospect I suppose, was a greater influence on my life than I thought at the time. My maternal grandfather had opened, just before the war, the First World War, a grocer’s shop, also in Enfield, and it was the sort of shop which in later years I learned to call a carriage trade grocer’s. I was introduced to the business of retailing food as it was done in those days from that sort of shop. I mean biscuits arrived loose in biscuit tins, of which there was an enormous array, all with coloured labels on the side, and you had to know where the different tins were, and you’d take them out by hand and put them in a bag and weigh them. Ham of course was cooked behind the shop and sliced on the bone by hand. Butter was served from a big slab and you cut it up, and you used these wonderful wooden things which had decorations on and impressed, embossed in the surface of the butter pretty pictures of flowers and stripes and things of that sort. Tea was weighed out in quarter pounds and half pounds, sugar was weighed out in pounds and two pounds and so on and packed in bags which had ‘T W Mills’ printed on them, pre-printed.
I was allowed to help myself to broken biscuits – because of course with everything being handled and tins being what they are, a proportion of the stock was broken and it was not permitted to pack broken biscuits in a bag to give to a customer. So all the broken biscuits, as they were discovered if you opened a tin and said ‘oh that one’s broken’, you’d take it and put it in the broken biscuit tin. Now, two things could happen to broken biscuits. Number one was I could pinch them, number two was they were bagged up and sold as broken biscuits to those members of the public who couldn’t afford to buy decent ones, if you know what I mean. I mean, people on low income with lots of kids would buy that sort of thing, so we had people from all sorts of social backgrounds who came in. The fact that the posh people had their goods delivered in the horse and cart, as I call it, was only one aspect of the business.”




Small shops

Food shopping during the 1800s reflected Victorian Britain’s stratified society. The traditional role of a middle-class woman was to run her household as efficiently as possible, managing the servants and the household budget. In wealthy households, the cook or housekeeper was in charge of day-to-day food shopping, with the baker and the butcher delivering goods to the servants’ entrance. The urban poor bought their food at street markets, from street-sellers and from chandlers.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, as servants became a thing of the past, the middle classes shopped daily for themselves at local shops such as green grocers or butchers. This was a leisurely process which involved being waited on by shop-keepers, and often being offered both a credit system and a delivery service.


Supermarkets, which took off in Britain from the 1950s onwards, offered a very different type of food shopping experience. To start with, customers helped themselves rather than being served, using see-through wire baskets or trolleys to limit shop-lifting. Due to similar concerns, today’s supermarket customers are constantly under surveillance from close-circuit television. As their name suggests, supermarkets offered a broader shopping experience, allowing customers to purchase meat, vegetables, and household goods all conveniently under one roof. Thus consumers no longer have to visit more than one shop to buy all their groceries.

Today’s small shops

The rise of the supermarket and of out-of-town shopping centres has corresponded with the decline of small independent shops. The state of our nation’s high streets has caused concern about the effect on local communities and economies. Very few of today’s high streets include the kinds of food shops that would have been absolutely standard even a few decades ago: a butcher, a greengrocer, a fishmonger or a bakery. Between 1997 and 2002, specialist food shops such as bakers closed at the rate of fifty per week. On current trends of closure, the Manchester School of Management has predicted that by 2050 there might not be a single independent food store left in the UK. Whereas high-street chains can afford substantial rents, small, independent food shops struggle greatly. Many of the small food shops that continue to survive do so because they have carved out a niche for themselves. So, for example, a butcher that offers well-hung, traceable, organic and free-range meat or a fishmonger selling expertly filleted, sparkling fresh fish. Some people actively choose to support small, local businesses like these, appreciating the expertise and knowledge of the staff and the friendliness of shopping somewhere where your face and name is known.





British Library (2016) British Food. Available at: (Accessed: 20 April 2016).