Sensory and emotional histories of the high street
The provincial high street is an established town or city centre retail street distinguished by its high status, heavy footfall and pivotal relation to other parts of the city, traditionally being an important thoroughfare. For some people, the high street was experienced through an occasional shopping trip into or ‘up’ town. For others it was a social space or an integral part of their daily transit. This introduction brings to life people’s experience of the high street during the middle decades of the 20th century, a period of significant change that still affects us today.
We examine this historic experience through the themes of urban material knowledge, identity, and sensory and emotional engagement, using sources that highlight both collective and individual accounts. Our research focuses on digital sources, particularly social media, to access user testimonies of this space. These memories can be corroborated with films and photographs which reveal the rich materiality and activity of these streets. Throughout we use ‘high street’ as shorthand for prestigious central retail spaces of British towns and cities.
The user-understanding of the high street was built up through spending time in this space and developing a unique personal geography of it. Although traffic wardens and police, and material objects such as railings, crossings, bus stops and temporary signs directed crowds and mobility, people developed their own systems of negotiating the space through personal usage. Many families had highly organised and ritualised methods of negotiating the high street. Denise McHugh was brought up to go shopping in town; likewise Jean Basketts, growing up in post-war Coventry, recalls shopping in town with her mother every Saturday, visiting certain shops, from the age of six up to when she had her first child. The detailed spatial understanding built up by repeated activities was a practical advantage in the efficient navigation of the high-street area, helping users to meet the demands of work or transport. Marcia, catching the last bus for Kirkbandrews at 10.30, took a ‘shortcut… from the town hall to the Ribble bus station through the narrow streets of derelict houses that are now the Lanes Shopping Centre.’
Others remember negotiating the hazardous spatial complexity of their high-street area. David Sykes describes in the 1960s ‘cycling through the Bull Ring [Grimsby] at a heck of a pace having picked up speed coming down Deansgate Bridge, then having to brake hard to negotiate the chicane into Victoria Street.’ Similar strategies were applied to material topography, such as learning the knack of crossing the tram lines that intersected at Leicester’s Clocktower or knowing the best doorway to kip in while on night duty. Knowledge of the interior built environment of the high street also facilitated mobility and comfort: ‘when you walked to the back of the store you turned left and went up steps, crossed the floor and then out at the back door... it was a great short cut to the buses, especially on a wet day’.
With such detailed personal geographies, users could find high-street change difficult. Wartime memories frequently and understandably focused on both personal and collective loss; bombing obliterated familiar streets and landmarks, replacing people’s material knowledge with new, unwelcome objects such as rubble and fences. Urban redevelopment also removed material, spatial knowledge and familiarity as much as reconstruction had. As we would expect, specific buildings were missed, such as Sheffield’s Fish Market, and changes to the street plan also disrupted people’s routines and sense of place. As we saw above, Marcia’s shortcut was replaced by a shopping centre, a similar fate for other short cuts such as Leicester’s Bread Street and Nottingham’s Dury Lane, which was Annette Beatties’ route from school to her bus terminus.
As well as planned development, increasing car ownership drove high street change in the post-war period. Congested high streets caused the 1960 Minister for Transport to claim that ‘civilised’ town centres were under threat, and he identified off-road parking and pedestrianisation as solutions. Films reveal unwitting evidence of the user experiences of these busy and cluttered streetscapes: the push-button crossings, railings to direct and protect passengers from traffic, and kiosks, bins and occasional benches. These material interventions all contributed to the visual richness, and the feeling and experience of being ‘in town’. Small and detailed interactions with urban materiality were remembered with affection long after: ‘I remember it [the Bell Hotel] well. I have one of the brass door handles from it (sic)’.
The collective experience of the high street was recalled as space for shared habits and routines. Repeated encounters with visual landmarks that were allocated informal functions reinforced a distinctive collective sense of belonging to a place. Chat forums show that town centres had one or two such significant spots, recognised and agreed on even decades later. In Brighton, outside the electricity showroom ‘was a favourite meeting place’ for all generations due to the bus stops. Statues, clocks, steps, shopfronts and familiar landmarks featured most prominently as meeting points for established habits and new relationships. ‘The corner where the toilets are/were was a favourite meeting spot when you were on a date… it was… meet you under the clock at 8 o’clock.’ For the young, outdoor spaces provided a vital free social arena; courtship and social rituals took place in collectively identified places. The ‘Bunny run’ was ‘down the Burges, across into Hales Street, up Trinity Street, and then you’re back up Broadgate… the boys used to walk one way and the girls the other [laugh]’.
Industries, activities, transport types and built environments moulded distinctive sensory terrains in high streets which produced unique place experiences. Against this backdrop, users experienced brief but intense sights, smells and sounds attached to precise locations, many of which could be recalled clearly much later. Visual symbols were crucial to high street usage, spatial knowledge and place belonging. As well as built forms like landmarks, more ephemeral material culture, such as store signage, local bus liveries and other recognisable local colours, helped people to orient themselves and feel at home. The memories of colourful visual encounters contributed to an enduring, detailed understanding where users knew their high streets so well they could recall consecutive iterations. ‘Before it was a Chinese restaurant it was the Coffee Pot. As teenagers in the late 50s and early 60s we used to all go there to listen to the jukebox… Betsy’s used to be Underwoods hardware store, there was also Pritchard’s sweet shop’. In testimonies of the high street, visual memories are linked to other sensory experiences which could evoke powerful reminiscences.
The high street was characterised by a soundscape of traffic and people: clanging trams, vehicles, brakes, horns and building work all produced complaints from post-war shoppers. Phyllis from Coventry summed it up in 1966: ‘after a couple of hours’ shopping in the city, with the everlasting traffic noise, the never-ceasing song… of the pneumatic drill, and so-called music blaring forth from radio and TV shops, I come home exhausted and sit down with a cup of tea and a couple of tablets’. New technologies such as tannoys, transistor radios and televisions all seeped into the high street. Both pre- and post-war investigations found that one of the noisiest aspects of the high street was its people; the high footfall and busy activity created continual sound. What people actually heard, however, tended to be noises that had a personal significance or annoyance to them. Positive high street memories of sound focus on jukeboxes, shop music, clock chimes and noises such as Birmingham’s starlings: ‘coming out of the Odeon cinema on New Street at dusk, the sky seemed black with starlings, the noise of them was wonderful!’. High-street users valued sounds which were informative, such as clock chimes or factory whistles, enjoyable or novel. Different acoustic communities formed as people sought quiet department stores and cafes, while teenagers were attracted to jukeboxes and pop music. These collective experiences created and reflected a strong place identity: ‘it was Beechams’ clock going off all the time. You couldn’t forget the time in St Helens’.
Aromas that hung about the town centre created a sense of place and belonging. Certain smells are mentioned repeatedly in relation to memories of prestigious central streets, particularly those of baking bread and roasting coffee beans. Fargate, Sheffield, in the 1930s had a ‘fragrant haze of roasting coffee’ coming from Davy’s cafe, a smell still familiar in the 1950s. Likewise, in Burton upon Trent there was a ‘fresh coffee smell that used to percolate into the high street from the shop near the market’. Other smells which added to the distinctive experience of the high street were of fast-food stalls, and pet and decorating shops. While the smell from bakeries and grocers generated positive memories, responses to roasting coffee were more mixed. The smell coming from Watt’s cafe on Bank Street in 1960s Carlisle was ‘delicious’ to Joan Parker working in the Halifax Building Society but was disliked by several others as children. As Mary explains, ‘as a child I hated going past, couldn’t stand the smell’. Likewise the smell of Sheffield’s brewery created both the desire to vomit and ‘beautiful wafting smells of beer brewing’. These place-specific aromas could be present for decades, so that individuals often became habituated to them, their familiar presence only missed or noted when returning home.
On the high street people experienced innovation, which could inspire both excitement and anxiety, two emotions that were also enhanced by reconstruction or redevelopment. Material innovations, such as pedestrianisation, covered shopping centres and subways, could generate excitement, such as Sheffield’s ‘hole in the road’ underpass. This was ‘the last word in luxury, it had underfloor heating, access to all the major city centre stores. One could sit in the hole and see the blue sky and sunshine, and people used to go there in droves’. The high street was also the place to experience emerging technologies: ‘Going to town as a kid… Mom and my sister walk round the Bull Ring, go in all those big department stores, the excitement… I remember a cabinet that had four TVs, a large one above three small ones in a line underneath’.
The younger generations particularly experienced the high street as a place for fun and excitement, using these spaces for childhood play and pleasure. ‘The centre of the city was a kids’ playground with the lifts and excalators [sic] in Lewises being the most fun’. For Ray Haywood, the thrill of the lighted shop windows spilling on to the street at night in the late 1950s and early 1960s was ‘pure magic to an eight year old… Almost as good as Christmas lights.’ For teenagers the high street offered new, potentially sophisticated, experiences linked to consumerism and fashion. ‘The first Wimpys was on the other side of Woollies. Thought we were dead posh sitting with our Frothy Coffee and the occasional burger. This was around 1963.’
For Kenny Wilson, the pinball machines in Green Bowler coffee bar on Churchgate, Leicester, were a ‘big draw’ and the cafe had a ‘superb jukebox containing all the latest hits’. This cafe was the meeting place for mods, and high streets attracted teenagers seeking freedom, modernity and a social space to spend time outside the home. ‘All the big record shops had listening booths… which was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.’ For those moving into adulthood, the city centre was frequently associated with meeting one’s future spouse. Colin Crossley met his wife in Debenhams in 1965, and Leonard Dapier met ‘a young lady at Leas clock in 1966 and still together now’. Important life events were linked to the high street and to precise spots. Clive got engaged to his wife outside Collingwoods, a jewellery shop in Middlesbrough. While this was a personal experience, Collingwoods was remembered collectively as the place to buy an engagement ring.
For many citizens the high street provoked feelings of anxiety or alienation: new immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, gay citizens and the economically deprived were anxious, marginalised or threatened in this urban space. Immigrant communities tended to shop in neighbourhoods which provisioned their cultural and language needs, making rare visits to the high street, where they experienced racism. Custom, culture, security and design caused women of all backgrounds problems in this space. For south Asian Muslim women in 1960s Bradford ‘it was only men who usually go in the shop’; white Birmingham mothers found their movement in Birmingham’s Bull Ring restricted by their prams.
At night poor lighting and empty streets created fear in pedestrians, particularly women. Individual anxieties and collective feelings of alienation, loss and nostalgia focused on the high street as redevelopment or economic change impacted familiar haunts. Commonplace aspects of townscapes, shops and buildings sometimes disappeared decades before their loss was discussed and mourned as rendering local high streets unrecognisable. ‘Used to work in Bernies [Bradford] in the early 70s. Moved down to London, came back a couple of years ago and did not recognise the centre’.
Evidence from high street users show intense and lasting relationships with this important urban space. Their experience of shops, buildings and streetscapes was often defined by function and life stage, but was rich, sensory, emotional and recalled carefully. From frothy coffees and door handles, to love and war, high streets were significant spaces in people’s lives which added to the sense of place and the comfort of belonging. The high street was more than the sum of its buildings.
- 1 Modernising the City: experiences of post-war reconstruction (2000) Leverhulme-funded project led by Phil Hubbard and Keith Lilley, interviews by Lucy Faire
- 2 Kell, Marcia, Memory of Carlisle, francisfrith.com
- 3 Memory of Grimsby, francisfrith.com
- 4 Harrison, Ian, Memories of Middlesbrough, Facebook; Hinchliffe, Peter, Exeter Memories, http://exetermemories.co.uk
- 5 Tony, J, St Helens Connect, www.sthelens-connect.net/forums/
- 6 Nottingham Hidden History Team; Cooper, Vicky, Leicester Memories, Facebook
- 7 the_motownman, Leicesterforum.co.uk
- 8 Kenneth Ross, www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/topics/technology/electricity/electricity
- 9 Harrison, Ian, Memories of Middlesbrough, Facebook
- 10 Modernising the City
- 11 McLeod, Margaret, Town Centre Memories, www. ourwelwyngardencity.org.uk/
- 12 Phyllis Woodman (1966) ‘Awful din’, Sunday Telegraph, 24 July
- 13 BrummyPaul’, Birmingham History Forum, https:// birminghamhistory.co.uk/forum/
- 14 St Helen Connect, www.sthelens-connect.net/
- 15 Cunningham, George (1994) By George: my childhood in Sheffield, Hallamshire Press, Sheffield
- 16 Mail, John, Memories of Burton upon Trent, Facebook
- 17 Old Photos of Carlisle and Surrounding Areas, Facebook
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- 20 Sheffield Forum
- 21 Ensor, Robert, Birmingham History Forum
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- 23 Rob Haywood (karoo.net)
- 24 Pettler, Margaret, Memories of Middlesbrough, Facebook
- 25 Knapp, Shaun (2019), Mods: two city connection, DB publishing
- 26 Knapp
- 27 Dapier, Leonard, Leicester Memories, Facebook; Crossley, Colin, Memories of Middlesbrough, Facebook
- 28 Memories of Middlesbrough, Facebook
- 29 Quoted in Wills, Clair (2017) Lovers and Strangers: an immigrant history of post-war Britain, Penguin, London; Adams, D (2011) ‘Everyday experiences of the modern city: remembering the post-war reconstruction of Birmingham’, Planning Perspectives, 1:26
- 30 Schmuki, B. (2012) ‘If I Walked on my Own at Night I Stuck to Well-lit Areas’: gendered spaces and urban transport in 20th century Britain, Research in Transportation Economics, 34:1
- 31 Irvine-Whitehead, Maureen, Leicester Memories, Facebook
- 32 Chamielec, Stef, Old Photos of Bradford, Facebook
This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 171, published in March 2022. It was written by Lucy Faire, a director of the Leicester Vaughan College, an honorary fellow at the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, and teacher of history at the Open University, and Denise McHugh, an associate lecturer and honorary research fellow in history at the Open University. They are the authors of Twelve Shades of Grey: encountering urban colour in the street in British provincial towns, c1945–1970 and The Everyday Usage of City-Centre Streets: urban behaviour in provincial Britain, c1930–1970.
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