Posted by on 20 March 2014 in General

high street southhamptonNever mind eggs, milk and bread. The typical Victorian shopping basket might contain leeches, moustache grease, and a pint of blood.

These findings from Ancestry were assembled from hundreds of retail trade directories from the Victorian era. Researchers identified the most common retailers and reconstructed our ancestors’ shopping habits—with some surprising findings.

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The audit of records covers a period (1820-1893) when the ‘high street’ was in its infancy and shops were extremely specialised.

Specialist shops and the items they sold ranged from feather merchants and corn chandlers to drysalters and bone traders. Some of the more unusual and now long-gone merchants include Japanners (selling lacquer for furniture), animal hide traders, and snuffers, who dealt exclusively in the conical metal cups used to snuff out candles.

Other ‘extinct’ stores include:

  • Gun merchants — These shops were found on many a Victorian high street, as pistols could be carried in public without a licence until 1870. The sale of firearms wasn’t regulated until 1903, with the introduction of the Pistols Act.
  • Tripe dressers — The stomach of animals, known as tripe, was a delicacy in the Victorian era, with its popularity spurring some butchers to deal exclusively in the tasty offal.
  • Leech merchants — Sellers of these blood-sucking worms could be found in many a city when doctors recommended them to filter and remove ‘bad blood’ and with it disease.

Such specialism contrasts starkly with today, where supermarkets and shopping centres lead the way. Yet these supermarkets actually began their lives in the Victorian period and can be found in city directories. Marks & Spencer began its life as a market stall in Leeds in 1884, and the first Sainsbury’s opened in London in 1869 selling fresh foods.

The directories include other independent retailers that you would find in today’s typical town centre: green grocers, bakers, butchers. Some of the items they sold, however, you’d be hard pressed to find on modern premises. For example:

  • Butchers would often sell pints of animal blood, as it was thought to help combat tuberculosis if drunk once a week.
  • Arsenic could be purchased from chemists (to kill off rats and mice of course), along with moustache grease to keep facial hair looking fine.
  • Your optician wouldn’t be as likely to offer the same array of monocles, barometers, or opera glasses they did in the 19th century.

Other things haven’ changed much. Alcohol was a common item on the Victorian shopping list. While ales, porters, and beers were more likely to be purchased and consumed in public houses, spirit merchants were commonplace, their best selling product being gin, which was synonymous with Victorian drinking culture.

The Victorians were also just as obsessed with fashion as we are today—the most common stores on the Victorian high street dealt in clothing.

Milliners (hat designers) were among the most prevalent stores. No gentleman would be without his top hat, which led to ancillary stores that sold chemicals, dyes, and ribbons to decorate and maintain them. Wire cravat stiffeners were another popular purchase for Victorian men, whilst woman invested in plumes from exotic birds to liven up their headwear.

Other common retailers identified in the research include:

  • Wax merchants — With light bulbs not commonplace until the early 20th century, wax candles were the item of choice for lighting a home. Wax merchants could be found on most Victorian high streets, but wax products were also sold in grocers.
  • Corn chandlers — Pets were hugely popular in Victorian times, and these stores sold a huge selection of animal grains and feed.
  • Confectioners — The traditional sweet shop became a regular sight during the Victorian period, offering classics such as pear drops, liquorice, and pralines.

Miriam Silverman, UK Content Manager, from Ancestry comments: “Our ancestors will certainly have headed to the high street to pick up their shopping essentials.

“Simply cross-reference the address of your ancestors in one of the many Victorian trade directories and you can find out some of the unusual shops they may have frequented or even worked at.”

The most popular stores of the Victorian high street

1. milliners & dressmakers

2. boot & shoe shops

3. book sellers

4. butchers

5. wine & spirit merchants

6. fruiterers & greengrocers

7. corn chandlers (corn, wheat, flour)

8. watch & clock makers

9. confectioners

10. opticians

And some more unusual retailers…

coal & coke merchants

gun stores

Japanners (selling popular dark lacquer for furniture)

feather merchants

curiosity dealers (‘fancy’ goods such as gloves, ornaments & inkstands)

galloon salesmen (decorative woven trims)

die sinkers (medals & coins)

herring merchants

tripe dressers (animal intestines)

leech importers


Find out how your ancestors made their living—or spent it.