Christmas shopping in Dorchester
Jo Draper takes a walk through yesteryear's Dorchester as seen through the enthusiastic eyes of Llewelyn Powys and traders' adverts through the ages
Published in November ’10
For at least the last forty years we have tended to spread Christmas shopping out over the months of November and December, with very prudent shoppers starting even earlier. When I was first working in museums some forty years ago, I remember a very traditional man working with me who thought it wrong (possibly illegal) to buy a Christmas present before Christmas Eve. His idea seemed to be that you chose the least worst available on that day for your nearest and dearest. He was old-fashioned then, but earlier in the 20th century he would have been normal.
Llewelyn Powys loved Dorchester, and even thought it best in winter, rejoicing: ‘Oh! how happy I have been shopping in this town on the Saturday before Christmas. The thronging crowds afford a liberal education as to the inner being of the county – the eighteenth-century country faces of the farmers, homely and hearty, as they stand in the crowds outside the Antelope, … the face of a farm labourer almost religious in its refinement, glimpsed for a moment as the man passes along the pavement with a sprig of holly in his cap.
‘To be abroad in Dorchester on a Christmas Eve is an experience never to be forgotten,’ he waxed happily, continuing, ‘by half-past three, with the first snow of the year fluttering down, the shops are brightly lighted. The streets offer many a lively scene – the country woman, over-burdened with parcels and with young-eyed children one, two, and three all clinging to the folds of her round skirt; the town girl light of step with a present for true love; the aged upstairs lodger, glad to have been about in the taverns Christmassing; the genial fishwife, my own friend, at her place, with two heaps piled up on her wide wooden tray, the one of silver, the other of gold – for see how her fat fresh herrings shine silver bright, her oranges from Spain like a pyramid of brass!
‘The casual, friendly country people move up and down. Barney Hallet, [the scissors grinder], because of the snow, either shuts tight his door or begins to trundle his house away before him. The gipsy child, born the previous August in a barley field, clasps her brown hands to see the snowflakes, white goose feathers of the softest down. Her mother enfolds her with her shawl and nods to the boy with the mistletoe.’
The Saturday before Christmas was almost as important as Christmas Eve because until the late 1950s Dorchester had two market days – Wednesday (as now) and Saturday. The local papers give a more commercial and less romantic view of Christmas. Admittedly they were prejudiced towards the shops, whose advertisements kept the paper going all year, but equally the inhabitants of the town and villages were looking for rather more than oranges and herrings for Christmas presents.
In 1931 food is largely advertised, with Parsons (on High East Street until recently) advising people to ‘Buy Locally’ and ‘Why not a Handsome British made Canister of Empire Grown Tea’ which they offered from 1s 2d (½lb) to 4s 6d (2lb). Local, British and Empire – not just a Christmas present, but patriotic too. Parsons were also a ‘Noted House for BLUE VINNEY CHEESE’ which was much more local. This was 1932, but Parsons had been offering just the same Christmas goods for years before that.
Prices from the wine and spirit merchants seem very attractive – maybe Smithís ‘Guaranteed full strength port wine’ at 3/4 a bottle wasnít delicate, but Eldridge Pope had 1921 vintage champagne at 4/4 a half-bottle, brandy at from 12/3 to 17s, and Australian wines from 3s to 3s 6d a bottle.
The departmental store of Genge’s also offered clothes. At their competitors, Goulds, ‘Prices and Values are Always Right’ which does suggest perhaps that they were cheaper than Genge’s. Goulds had ‘English Lisle Hose [stockings] … the appearance of silk, but will wear twice as long. Two pairs in a fancy box 6/11’. ‘Art Silk Tea Cosies’ were 1/6¾ and ‘A pair of locknit Knickers and petticoat to match’ was 6/11 the set. ‘Will wash and wear well sets of underwear make a delightful gift’: indeed, but they would not have been listed, never mind illustrated, in the newspaper much earlier – much too risqué. Goulds also offered ‘Coloured Border Supper Cloths’ at six different prices – 1/6½ to 6/11. These do suggest another world – having specific tablecloths for supper now seems plain daft.
Jackmans (High East Street again) offered gloves, shirts, cardigans, pyjamas and inevitably handkerchiefs for men with the slogan, ‘Give him a gift this Christmas which will serve as a constant reminder for many days’ – especially if he didn’t like it. They offered ‘Ties, with or without hankies to match’ which seems very odd since hankies and ties are made from totally different fabrics. Maybe they just toned. Jackmans don’t give prices, but Dawes (South Street) have braces 1/2 to 3/6, ‘smart’ ties 1s to 3/6 and pyjamas 4/11 to £1-1s.
Several firms advertise Christmas cakes and puddings (and even mince pies) ready-made in 1931. This was not new – at Christmas 1874 Howe’s (on the corner of Cornhill and High West Street) had ‘Bridal and Twelfth cakes, mince pies, and the like, in all their richness and deliciousness, set off to perfection in window, and on the shelf’. Howe’s advertised regularly all year, hence the appreciative text in the newspaper columns at Christmas. Twelfth cakes were for Twelfth Night, still important in 1874.
Modern stuff was advertised for Christmas in 1932 – ‘Give something Electrical this Christmas’ was Dalton’s slogan, suggesting as presents irons, kettles, toasters, reading lamps or fires, but no prices. Rogers Music Saloon advertised a ‘record changing Radio-Gramophone’, described as medium price and ‘will play 8 records or one record 8 times without touching the instrument’. It could be demonstrated free in the showroom ‘or in your own home’ and was shockingly expensive – 55 guineas i.e. £57-15s, or four pounds more if paid for in twelve monthly instalments. Rogers had been (and indeed still were) selling music and instruments for years, so that their customers could make their own music. It was sensible of them to move with the times and offer recorded music, but sad too. This Radiogram (as they came to be called) was extravagant, but Napper & Sons had ‘portable gramophones’ from £1-5s – ‘Makes ideal present for the whole family’. They also had ‘the largest stock in town’ of one shilling records. Only few readers of the local paper could possibly have afforded the Radiogram.
All these prices seem very reasonable viewed from today, but the wage for the agricultural labourer in Dorset in 1931 was £1-10s a week, and there were moves to reduce it to £1-8s. The Radio-Gramophone cost almost 9 months wages for a farm labourer and even pyjamas at 4/11 must have been well beyond their budget.
Powys’s romantic ideas about Christmas shopping in Dorchester were true for him, but for most of the inhabitants, and other shoppers from the local villages, the goods advertised by the Dorchester shops were more interesting than the herrings and oranges offered by the fishwife. The local papers give an exclusively commercial view of Christmas in the early 1930s and Powys is a good corrective to that.
1, 5 Dorset County Museum