There are around 5,000 high streets in the United Kingdom, and almost every city, town and village has one. Traditionally the epicentre of community life, their role has dramatically changed in the last few decades, and as our work, shopping and leisure habits transform, we’re at a vital crossroads to decide on the future of the high street.
Here are five of the most distinctive styles of British high street.
The Shambles in York is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) and is home to many fine examples of medieval architecture, with lots of the buildings dating back to the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Originally a street of butchers’ shops and houses (known as The Great Flesh Shambles), many of the buildings had slaughterhouses at the back. The meat would be hung up outside the shops with the overhanging timber-framed fronts providing much needed shade. Supposedly the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter franchise, much of the street is Listed.
Georgian architecture remains one of the most loved styles in Britain and represents a period of extraordinary social and cultural change in this country, shaping Britain as we know it today. With greater variety in clothes, food and household goods than ever before, shopping became an important cultural activity. The Regency period (1811-20), during which the Prince Regent (later George IV) ruled in place of his father George III, was the pinnacle of Georgian shopping.
Covered arcades and streets dedicated to the linen-drapers, haberdashers and hosiers appeared in towns up and down the country including Bath, Harrogate, Stamford and Woodbridge. Shopping became a more social activity in this time and streets were widened for the comfort of pedestrians, and shop fronts enlarged for their viewing pleasure.
This was the golden era of shopping in Britain as wealth flowed in from the British Empire. However inequality remained high and men were very much in control, particularly wealthy men. Meanwhile, the burgeoning women’s rights movement made it easier for women to strike out on their own. Tea shops and department stores offered respectable spaces for socialising or for plotting how to win the vote.
The focus was very much on the customer: service was impeccable and décor was attractive and comfortable. Department stores had existed much earlier but it was during the Edwardian era that they took off, offering a more modern and comfortable way to shop.
In 1925 the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts took place in Paris, inspiring a shift in the architecture and design of shopping.
New technologies and innovations also changed shopping in-between the two wars: steel framed buildings could be taller, and sheets of plate glass and vitrolite accompanied electric lighting in buildings constructed in modern styles, including: Beaux Arts Classicism, Neo-Georgian, Art Deco, and Tudor Revival. Shops hired in-house architects and designers to create corporate identities and uniform branding for their branches.
Despite the Great Depression, the 1930s also saw the spread of retail giant Woolworths’: venturing to the suburbs, small towns and semi-rural locations where no chain store had been before. It’s much needed low prices attracted shoppers in their droves and it became a regular fixture on the English high street.
In 1957 British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan proudly declared ‘you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country’. After the ravages of war, wages had begun to rise and quality of life improved.
A mass program of public spending saw hundreds of thousands of new houses, towns, high streets and shopping precincts built across the country. Coventry was heavily bombed in the war and almost completely rebuilt in the 50s and 60s: the Upper and Lower Precinct developments were amongst the first city-centre precinct developments in England and inspired a series of successors across the country. It was the second golden age of shopping: renewed public affluence, combined with mass production and new disposable culture triggered yet another boom in British high streets.
Header image: Long Row Central, Nottingham © Historic England DP236627