Shopping for a Cause: What are your memories of charity shopping?

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.

Reproduced courtesy of Oxfam. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Oxfam DON/1/3

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:

  1. What is your earliest memory of a charity shop?
  2. What is your best charity shop buy?
  3. 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 register to attend this free online event hosted by the British Academy here.

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).

4 responses to “Shopping for a Cause: What are your memories of charity shopping?

  1. Charity shops were considered treasure houses in my childhood, and being good at spotting good things was a really enviable skill.. My earliest memory is Oxfam, in Coulsdon, Surrey, ( 1968) and I found a beautiful hand printing set that I still use.
    My Best Buy was a leather card holder. Since then I have always kept bank cards separate from cash and I just love it’s smallness, usefulness, and sift leather. I’ve mended it with gaffer tape.
    I loved shopping for my son when he was small, searching out good quality stuff, but knowing it was such a good way to shop as he grew so fast so new and expensive was pointless

  2. I would visit the charity shops in Clacton every Friday in the 1970s.The little old ladies would keep things for me as they knew my tastes, nothing was ever over a pound .
    I bought a 1930s suit for a pound with Oxford bags , double breasted waistcoat and a single button very fitted waist . I wore it for ages but recently sold it for £400.
    Sadly now , with the advent of the internet , everyone is an expert and bargains are harder to find , but they are still there , if you just keep searching !

  3. I was a student in the early 70s in Reading. There was a really good Oxfam shop. At that time, each hall of residence organised an annual ‘formal’, a dinner & dance with an actual dress code. Females had to wear long. I bought a long dress for the occasion from Oxfam – it was a slinky material, white with a maroon swirly print, and cost 10 pence. I loved it.
    I am a huge fan of charity shops and love to browse. In recent years I have been a volunteer at a local one (cancer research charity). One thing I like about them is they are generally very friendly places. Volunteers working in the shop are almost always local to the area and so we see our neighbours popping in as customers.

  4. I worked as a research assistant on a project interviewing shoppers and volunteers about charity shopping in the nineties: see ‘Second Hand Cultures’ (Gregson and Lowe) – this was my dream job (I listed the cost of my clothes in my interview with them – wearing my Best Buy Jaeger grey wool trousers – £3!). Have always charity shopped – through necessity as a child with my Mum, then for pleasure now with my teenage daughter who looks for vintage items (some of my own clothes have been deemed this…) who now – pre Lockdown- shops with my mum, it’s what we do when we get together! I also loved working in a charity shop – great for those who wanted to wear non-gendered clothes, because you weren’t forced into the ‘ladies’ or ‘gents’ dept – my happiest memory is two young men who tried on all the wedding dresses we’d got from a bankrupt wedding shop! My parents ran a junk/antique shop in the 1970s and would also scour charity shops for crockery etc that they could mark up. It’s sort of the charitable cause, I guess, but more about getting a bargain, or contributing to ‘slow fashion’, feeling like you’ve not succumbed to the High Street consumerism, and a sort of pride, for my daughter, in knowing what’s valuable vintage in a bargain bucket of jumpers. I love that it is a place you’ll find hipsters, goths, young mums, collectors of random objects, antique dealers and old ladies looking for paperbacks. It’s all about having the eye! There’s an EP called ‘Charityshopping’ celebrating the hipster aspect to bargain rummaging, and I have a copy of a great book from the 1950s (I think) about what to look for in junk shops. Happy to pass on details! Good luck with your research.

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