Jane Austens letters contain very many references to shopping. Most of her shopping was done by buying from travelling salesmen, shopping in small country villages and in Bath. The best shopping however was to be found in London, a city which she visited many times.
During Jane Austens time London was not only the largest city in England, it was the largest city in Europe and therefore the civilised world. The shops of London were also more numerous and more luxurious than anywhere else. They were the showcases of the country, with people that Napoleon had described as a nation of shopkeepers. The main shopping districts of London were described in the 1803 edition of The Picture of London as: two sets of streets, running nearly parallel, almost from the Eastern extremity of the town to the Western, forming (with the exception of a very few houses), a line of shops. One, lying to the South, nearer the river, extends from Mile End to Parliament Street ... The other, to the North, reaches from Shoreditch Church almost to the end of Oxford Street...1
In 1786 Sophie von la Roche described Oxford Street in the fashionable
West End as:
a street taking half an hour to cover from end to end, with
double rows of brightly shining lamps ... and the pavement, inlaid with flag-stones, can
stand six people deep and allows one to gaze at the splendidly lit shop fronts in comfort.
First one passes a watchmakers, then a silk or fan store, now a silversmiths,
a china or glass shop. The spirit booths are particularly tempting, for the English are in
any case fond of strong drink. Here crystal flasks of every shape and form are exhibited:
each one has a light behind it which makes all the different coloured spirits
The East End was the older, less fashionable part of town the part the Gardiners lived in, in Pride and Prejudice. It contained the traditional trade and commercial part of London. The City of London, the docks and commercial areas such as Cheapside and Gracechurch Street had all existed from medieval times or earlier and were all in the eastern part of town. In Letters from England, Robert Southey described Cheapside: There were not many passers in the by-streets; but when I reached Cheapside the crowd completely astonished me. On each side of the way were two uninterrupted streams of people, one going east, the other west...Nobody was loitering to look at the beautiful things in the shop windows; none were stopping to converse, every one was in haste, yet no one in a hurry; the quickest possible step seemed to be the natural pace.
If possible, I was still more astonished at the opulence and splendour of the shops: drapers, stationers, confectioners, pastry-cooks, seal-cutters, silver-smiths, book-sellers, print-sellers, hosiers, fruiterers, china-sellers, one close to another, without intermission, a shop to every house, street after street, and mile after mile; the articles themselves so beautiful, and so beautifully arranged, that if they who passed by me had had leisure to observe any thing, they might have known me to be foreigner by the frequent stands which I made to admire them. Nothing which I had seen in the country had prepared me for such a display of splendour.3
Both Southey and a genuine visitor to Regency England, Louis Simond, commented on the division of London into east and west: The trade of London is carried on in the east part of the town, called, par excellence, the City. The west is inhabited by people of fashion, or those who wish to appear such; and the line of demarcation, north and south, runs through Soho Square. To have a right to emigrate from east to west, it is requisite to have at least £3000 sterling a-year; should you have less, or at least spend less, you might find yourself slighted; and £6000 a-year would be safer. Many, indeed, have a much narrower income, who were born there; but city emigrants have not the same privileges.4
Most of Jane Austens shopping was done around Covent Garden, Leicester Square and the Strand. While not in the most fashionable areas, the shops here were genteel and respectable. Unfortunately for us Jane Austen only describes what she buys. Sophie von la Roche has left us with an idea of the inside of the shops:
It is almost impossible to express how well everything is organised in London, every article is made more attractive to the eye than in Paris or in any other town, We especially noticed a cunning device for showing womens materials. Whether they are silks, chintzes or muslins, they hang down in folds behind the fine high windows so that the effect of this or that material, as it would be in the ordinary folds of a womans dress, can be studied. Amongst the muslins all colours are on view, and so one can judge how the frock would look in company with its fellows 5
The idea of displaying goods attractively and so that they can be clearly seen was an 18th century innovation. Josiah Wedgwood set up his showrooms with tables on which he laid out entire dinner sets as they would be for a meal, and displayed vases and other wares in ways that showed people how to decorate their homes. As he wrote to a business associate:
Inside the shops, most of the shop assistants were men. Southey gives the reason for this as:
|Harding, Howell & Co., 1810. A fashionable drapers shop at 89 Pall Mall, 17961820. Reproduced in London: A Social History by Roy Porter.||
The fashionable, seasonable, crowds of London kept fairly late hours. Louis Simond described their day as:
On her visits to London Jane Austen usually did not have the time to indulge in leisurely forays to the shops. A typical days shopping for her is detailed in letter 88 dated 16 September 1813. On the day she is writing of, she visits Grafton House early, goes back to Henrys house for breakfast, then out shopping to Crook & Besfords, Isaac Newtons, and Remingtons before a visit to the dentist, after which it is off to Wedgwoods and then to Birchalls, a music seller.
Something we are not able to tell from her letters is whether Jane Austen went on her shopping trips cashed up or whether she bought on credit. When she visited London with her brother, Edward, he not infrequently gave her a present of £5, expended at favourite shops. Credit was very common during the Georgian era and was frequently given months and sometimes years at a time. Very little coinage was minted during the reigns of the Georges II and III and by the end of the 18th century the coins of previous reigns had worn thin, which was of concern to traders who valued the weight of the silver in the coin rather than its face value. Bank of England bank notes were available but until the 1790s the smallest note issued was £5, added to which many people did not trust the official bank. Private banks printed their own notes, often in smaller denominations of £1 and £2 and sometimes into shillings, but these could usually only be used locally.
From the letters it is apparent that the Austens bought some of their groceries on credit. On their journeys through London and Kent they frequently stopped at Guildford where they visited Mr Heringtons shop. There are several references in the letters to trying to pay his bills. On 20 May 1813 her party stopped at Guildford and she paid an earlier bill at Mr Heringtons and bought more goods from him on credit. Four days later she enclosed Mr Heringtons new bill in a letter to Cassandra. In March 1814 she intended to pay a bill of Mr Heringtons on her way through Guildford but she stayed at Cobham instead. One hopes she was trying to pay a later bill, not the one incurred 10 months earlier.9
Cash purchases were known when shopping in person but paying in cash was not the usual practice for people shopping by post or by proxy. As late as 1813 Jane Austen is writing: Harriot, in a Letter to Fanny today, enquires whether they sell Cloths for Pelisses at Bedford House & if they do, will be very much obliged to you to desire them to send her down Patterns, with the Width & Prices they may go from Charing Cross almost any day in the week but if it is a ready money house it will not do, for the Bru of feu the Archbishop* says she cannot pay for it immediately. Fanny & I suspect they do not deal in the Article.10
She makes no comment as to whether or not Bedford House extends credit; only that she thinks they dont deal in cloth. Flint & Palmer on London Bridge is the first known fixed-price, cash-sale shop to be established. Robert Owen described it as: a house established, and I believe the first, to sell at small profit and for ready money only Not much time was allowed for bargaining, a price being fixed for everything and, compared with other houses, cheap. If any demur was made or much hesitation, the article asked for was withdrawn, and as the shop was generally full from morning till late in the evening, another customer was attended to.11
For Jane Austen, London shopping was not a recreational activity. It was hard work. If she was with her brother Edward she sometimes had a carriage at her disposal to take her to different parts of London but when she did not she had to walk on Londons hard cobblestones. Added to which, not only did she have to watch her own money but she also had to bargain and shop carefully for Cassandra, her mother, Martha Lloyd and others. While almost everything you could imagine could be bought in London Jane Austen did not have unlimited resources to partake fully of the delights and luxuries of the shops in which she had to spend so much of her time.
1 Adburgham, Alison, Shops and Shopping: 1800 1914.
George Allen & Unwin, London, 1964, p 5
29 January 2004