If you visit Victorian England right at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, a look inside one of the luxurious department stores or draper’s emporiums is highly recommended. From the 1880s, shopping had become a leisure pursuit for the wealthy and the largest drapery stores, especially in London, employed hundreds of staff to cater to the needs of their clientele.

By 1900, female shop assistants, or ‘shopgirls’, had become extremely important to the success of the draper’s emporiums, not least because most of the customers were women. The best establishments often had upwards of 250 young ladies working for them; it was their job to dress the windows of their departments and deal with the customers when they came in.   

When Mrs Belloc-Lowndes wrote her article on ‘London’s Drapers’ for Living London (1901), she commented that:

“The best-looking young lady assistants are generally to be found in the millinery department; for human nature being what it is, many a middle-aged plain customer will the more willingly invest in a hat when she has seen it gracefully poised above the pretty face of the young lady who has been told to attend to her wants.”

‘A cash desk’ from Living London (1901)

If a customer had an account and was known to the assistant, the amount of her purchase was simply debited to her; otherwise, she was asked to pay ready cash or to pay on delivery. This was taken advantage of by some ladies and “one type of customer whom the experienced saleswoman can detect almost at a glance” would order a great number of things to be paid for on delivery and then instruct her parlourmaid or butler to refuse the parcels when they arrived the same evening or the next morning.

The busiest times of day were from 12 to 1 o’clock and from 3 to 5 o’clock which meant that meals for the shop assistants in the larger emporiums had to be staggered with five different times. Half an hour was allowed for dinner and twenty minutes for tea. It was more difficult to find time for meals when the bi-annual sales weeks just after Christmas and at midsummer were taking place.

‘Sale Day at Peter Robinson’s’ from Living London (1901)

At the end of the working day, the young lady shop assistants had the whole evening for leisure, unlike, for instance, domestic servants. They also had Saturday afternoons from two o’clock. However, according to Mrs Belloc-Lowndes, in the largest drapery emporiums, they were “not allowed to go out from Saturday to Monday unless they can show a letter from their parents authorising them to do so, and stating where they are going.” They were, however, provided with pleasant sitting-rooms and plenty of books and games. 

‘A Workroom in a Draper’s’ from Living London (1901)

Unseen by the public, women also toiled in the workroom which was a very busy department of a drapery emporium. Before the 1870s, ladies preferred to buy their materials and have them made up at home or by their own dressmakers. By 1900, the sale of made-up goods was the largest and most profitable side of the drapery business. It was important to be able to alter bodices and skirts to fit the figure of every customer.   

From the cash desk and shopfloor through to the workroom, women were vital to the success of the large drapery establishments. Take the opportunity to do some shopping in Victorian England and watch these talented females at work!


Last week, the Victorian Silver Arcade in Leicester was finally re-opened after years of restoration. Shopping arcades across Victorian Britain were built to a similar design with an open central archway and two floors, although unusually the Silver Arcade had four storeys. The buildings were extremely decorative inside with lavish use of lighting, glass and high quality materials. The aim was to attract upper-class customers with plenty of money to spend. 

Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade is an excellent example. Opened to the public on 28 September 1876, it was built over the tunnel of the Great Western Railway running from Monmouth Street to Temple Row. On 2 December, the Illustrated London News reported on the new building:

“The shops, of which there are forty-two on the ground floor and forty-two on the balcony, are mostly let, and almost every trade will be represented. Some London firms have taken shops here. The fronts are ebony and gold, and have been made by Mr F Sage, of Gray’s-inn-road, London. The arcade is 400ft. long and commodiously wide and is 40 ft. high. The dome is 75ft. from the top to the floor.”  

Here is a view of the exterior of the Great Western Arcade:

The New Great Western Arcade, Birmingham (Illustrated London News, 2 December 1876)

As you can see, carriages frequently transported wealthy customers to the arcade. They could instruct their coachmen to drop them off outside and to return within a specified amount of time. 

Inside, no expense was spared to impress the shoppers, particularly with the lighting scheme:

“The galleries are illuminated by forty-four four-light candelabra, making 176 lights in all. Beneath are forty-four three-light hanging pendants, or chandeliers, whilst in the centre of the building, immediately under the dome, is suspended a colossal chandelier, 14 ft. high and 8 ft. in diameter, comprising two tiers of lights, the upper one consisting of eighteen jets and the lower one twenty-four. Thus the body of the arcade is lighted by 350 gas jets, the whole of which are enclosed in opal globes, shedding a mellow light on the building. When the 600 lights are lit the effect is magnificent.”

 Here’s a view of the interior, which gives a good illustration of the lights and the dome above:

The New Great Western Arcade, Birmingham (Illustrated London News, 2 December 1876)

I wonder if the gas bill was as colossal as the chandeliers!