Illustration of a market full of seasonal produce from Thomas Kibble Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1837). British Library

Christmas season left Victorian shop workers ‘more dead than alive’

Many of our festive traditions – from exchanging cards and pulling crackers to decorating trees – were popularised by the Victorians. Nowadays, rose-tinted images of 19th-century Christmas often dominate nostalgic advertising campaigns (see 2018’s Curry’s-PC World offering), but it was also a time of rampant consumerism, which saw the expansion of shopping as a feature of the festive period. Industrialisation created a new middle class with disposable income and enabled the mass production of gifts and decorations. The introduction of gas and electric lighting extended opening hours, which allowed consumers to shop late into the evenings.

With changes in the retail industry came considerable anxiety that shop assistants were overworked and underpaid. Shop workers, philanthropists, social reformers and medical practitioners agitated to improve working conditions. Working days were long; it wasn’t until 1886 that the number of hours per week was limited to 74, and even then only for under-18s. Unpaid overtime was common, facilitated by the fact that many shop assistants lived on site. There were worries that long periods standing led to aches, pains and varicose veins and endangered the reproductive health of women shop assistants. These pressures and anxieties intensified during the Christmas period.

In Death and Disease Behind the Counter (1884), campaigning barrister Thomas Sutherst sought to raise awareness about the plight of shop assistants. His book gathered together personal stories from shop workers, with many detailing the pressures of Christmas.

Albert, a draper’s buyer in Mile End, described how a typical working day during the festive period would last 14, 15 or 16 hours. A grocer’s assistant in Islington, Melmoth Thomas, explained that he worked until “1, 2, 3, and even 4 o’ clock in the morning (without extra pay), perhaps three nights a week”. This extra work, he said, started as early as November.

William, a Brixton-based grocer in south London, reported that on Christmas Eve he worked from 7am until midnight. He then caught an early morning train to spend Christmas Day with his friends, feeling “more dead than alive”. A grocer’s clerk in Peckham, Alfred George, similarly complained of unpaid overtime stretching into the early hours. Under this “system of slavery”, he was left “totally unfit to enjoy the most festive and jovial season of the year”.

Charles, a draper on Oxford Street, in London, told how one of his friends – a grocer – had “his health completely ruined” due to “severe work during the Christmas trade”. The friend died and the cause of death was attributed, according to Charles, “wholly to overwork” by the attending doctor.

Common themes across the stories are long working days (often running into the early hours of the morning), the extended run up to Christmas and the inability to enjoy the festivities because of overwork and exhaustion. Many also told of the long-term impact on shop workers’ health. It’s likely Sutherst chose the most extreme examples to arouse public sympathy – and it’s difficult to determine to what extent he crafted the stories himself. But such images of the overworked shop assistant were common in the period.

Cry of the shop assistant

An anonymous pamphlet called Behind the Counter (1888) – featuring “sketches” penned by a shop assistant – dedicated a whole section to the pressures of the festive period (the pamphlet has not been digitised, but can be consulted at the British Library or Bodleian Libraries). The writer commented that “a shop assistant’s Christmas is enjoyed only in the anticipation”, since at the very moment he should be ready to “exercise his recreative faculties”, he instead “feels that the strain of the previous weeks […] has affected both body and mind”. In this state, many were driven to “intoxicating drinks”.

The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by painter John Callcott Horsley in 1843.

A key voice in the campaign to improve the working conditions in shops was the medical journal The Lancet. In a piece entitled “The Cry of the Shop Assistant” from December 1896, it warned that the usual pressures facing retail workers were about to magnify. At Christmas, it explained: “life in the shop becomes one continuous round of toil”. The article shared the familiar story of shop assistants leaving town on Christmas Eve by midnight trains, reaching home “with mental and bodily powers exhausted”.

In “Christmas Shopping and Public Health”, published in December 1900, the journal appealed to its readers to consider how they – as consumers – could help alleviate the stresses and strains facing retail workers. Pleading readers to think “not only of themselves and their purchases”, it reasoned that:

It will not cost more to buy earlier in the day and somewhat sooner in the season, but it will distribute more evenly the work that has to be done […] and thus will mitigate the unhappy and unhealthy strain that weighs so heavily on shop assistants at Christmas time.

The Lancet article championed the idea of the conscientious consumer, encouraging readers to change their shopping habits so as to benefit workers – though it recognised that not everyone could shop during the day due to work.

Recent decades have seen a boom in ethical consumerism, whereby people try to reduce their impact on workers and the planet. There are also campaigns to support independent shops and the high street, against the rise of Internet retail. Meanwhile there are legitimate concerns about the conditions of the warehouse workers and delivery drivers who cope with the avalanche of online shopping orders during the Christmas season. So, while sustainable shopping might seem like a modern invention, the concerns about Christmas consumerism are nothing new.