© 2017 The Harpenden Society

The disappearance of Jessops camera shop from and the doubts over HMV on the St Albans shopping front were further reminders in the new year of the fragility of High Street trading. 'Twas ever thus. In relatively brief historical time the High Street has undergone many transformations and there are more around the street corner.

Originally the site of the 'work-shop' where craftsmen and tradesmen made and sold their wares, one catches glimpses of the early High Street in visits with Jane Austen's Emma to the 'busiest part of Highbury...when her eyes fell only on the butcher's tray...and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread' or with Miss Matty and Miss Jenkyns to Mrs Johnson's dress and fabrics shop in Cranford. It was the so-called 'Retailing Revolution', a spin off from the Industrial Revolution, that, through improved methods of transport and of preservation, for instance, canning and through large-scale manufacturing processes, saw an end to the reliance on merely localised trading. It was the dawn of a national retail network, with national brands such as William Hartley's jam or Henry Tate's sugar. By 1936 three-quarters of British meals consisted of processed foodstuffs. In literary terms, one might think of the flourishing Baines store in Bursley, focus of Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives Tale – or, because there was ever frailty on the high street, Mr Polly's bankrupt drapery in Fishbourne.

Curiously, there were about the same number of shops in Britain – some 500,000 – in 1950 as there were in 1900, but the ratio of multiples and chains began to change, especially with the advent of the supermarket, with Premier Supermarkets opening the first British one in Streatham in 1951. Slowly, many smaller shopkeepers were dislodged. However, the so-called 'independent' retailers need to recall that, utilising current Harpenden instances, when in 1860 the ten year old Jesse Boot helped his widowed mother run her herbal medicine shop in Nottingham...or when William Henry Smith joined the family news-vending shop in Little Grosvenor Street, London in 1846...or when James Sainsbury and his wife Mary Ann opened their grocery at 173 Drury Lane in 1869...or when Michael Marks asked Tom Spencer to partner him in 1894 with his Penny Bazaar in Leeds...they were all 'independent' retailers, too. Let that be an encouraging thought.

High Street  History

Spring  2013 Newsletter

With the expansion of on-line trading and social changes such as the immense growth of eating out and take-away feeding (as short a time ago as 1980 this did not figure at all on the General Household Expenditure surveys; now it is a significantly high figure) the high street continues to undergo change. Harpenden's high street area bears rich witness to this trend. Many of the suggestions about how the high street should meet these challenges involve a community element and, with the coming use of the old Argos site for the public library and youth services, Harpenden has taken an emphatic step in that direction. Nationally, experts are proposing, often basing their suggestions on pioneer exercises up and down the country, ideas such as more niche shops, 'click and collect' depots, childcare and creches, outlets for medical provision and the care of older people, socialising areas, music and art venues, bureaux for public advice and assistance and much else, not forgetting a general appeal to refurbish and deploy the upper stories of shops for modernised residential use. Jamie Oliver's 'Ministry of Food' kitchens, offering cookery classes from Rotherham to Stratford, is one colourful example, but much depends on local authorities and community groups finding compromise solutions over costs and support.

Happily, such a blend of localised and socialised activity, alongside the presence of a few multiple giants as well as a goodly range of smaller shops, would bring back something of the communal colour to the Harpenden High Street in the 21st century that characterised Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford of nearly 200 years ago.

We are pleased to announce that no less than eleven of Harpenden's thirteen primary schools have registered to participate in The Society's schools competition, the results of which will, we trust, be on show at The Society's CELEBRATION 2013 on Thursday 11 April at the Harpenden House Hotel at 7.30 pm.

The question raised for the children is: 'What do  I Like about Harpenden' – and the answer is invited in many guises: pictorial, creative writing, drama, music and singing, photographic, with individual or group entries equally welcome. The competition has been planned by three members of The Society's Education and Leisure Working Group, Vicky Evans, Eric Midwinter and Ron Taylor, the last of whom, The Society's Publicity Officer, has worked zealously to persuade the schools to join the artistic fray.

The competition has the dual purposes of attempting to open the minds of the pupils to a sense of civic awareness and of finding a practical way of engaging The Society with the town's excellent schools.The schools who have agreed to involve themselves in the competition are:


Early indications from the participating schools suggest real enthusiasm and a diverse range of content from the children including music, drama and photography.

Closing date for entries is March 15th 2013,

What do I like about Harpenden’ - Our Schools Competition

Photo above. Putterill Bros Circa 1929/3, High Street Harpenden, Courtesy of John Cooper