Georgina Brewis, University College London and George Gosling, University of Wolverhampton
On 18 November 2020 we are running a virtual tour of charity shop history as part of the Being Human Festival of the Humanities. Chaired by journalist and author of How to Break up with Fast Fashion Lauren Bravo, the event will walk viewers through 150 years of charity shop history. Originally planned as an immersive exhibition as part of the British Academy Summer Showcase, we’ve had to adapt the adapt the format for these locked-down times.
Charity shops are a familiar sight on high streets today, with over 11,000 across the UK. Most of us have shopped in or donated to them and they enjoy a great deal of support from the British public. At the same time, however, controversy over charity shops is nothing new. As far back as the 1960s, there has been discussion in the press about whether there are too many charity shops. Most people have a clear idea a charity shop’s ‘proper role’ might be: a volunteer-run shop that raises money through selling donated second-hand goods. Their history, however, is much more varied.
Understanding the history of charity-run shops gives us a different perspective on today’s charity shops. George Gosling’s research shows that, while charity shops in the form we know them date back to the Second World War including the first Oxfam shop in Oxford, charity-run shops before that could take on quite different forms. These often embodied one aspect of what has today been crystalised in our popular understanding of the charity shop. They might have been fundraising ventures but run by paid staff and selling purpose-made branded goods, including the stores run by the Salvation Army. Others might see volunteers sell second-hand goods cheap but with little if any ambition of turning a profit. Most common a century ago would have been those shops linked to disability charities, such as St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK), which sold craft goods as part of what were essentially job creation schemes and which were usually considered a financial success if they broke even.
The virtual tour is hosted by the British Academy because it emerges from the Academy Research Project (ARP) ‘Archiving the Mixed Economy of Welfare’ directed by Georgina Brewis. The project seeks to raise awareness of the vulnerability of charity archives, which lack the legal protection given to government records and can be less- well-resourced than other private archives. Yet, voluntary sector records are vital assets, essential for researchers – and the wider public – to understand the significance of voluntary organisations to society, past and present. Charities often preserve the histories of marginalised and vulnerable communities whose voices can go unheard, while for voluntary organisations themselves, opening archives is key to building trust and improving accountability to beneficiaries, donors, and local communities.
We hope that by shedding new light on the familiar charity shop we can raise awareness of the significance of voluntary action to British history, and the importance of preserving the archives and objects we need to write these histories.
To help us run this virtual event, we have three questions we’d like to ask:
- What is your earliest memory of a charity shop?
- What is your best charity shop buy?
- What are your memories of charity shopping?
You can post answers by leaving a reply below or via social media using the event hashtags #shoppingforacause and #beinghuman2020.
You can hear George and Georgina talk about this project as part of an episode of the BBC Radio 3 show Free Thinking ‘What we cherish and what we give away’ (aired 10 November 2020 and available online here).