Leeds nostalgia: Hunt for former M&S workers

Marks & Spencer Company Archive
Marks & Spencer Company Archive
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Documentary makers from the BBC are headed to Leeds in the next few weeks and they are on the lookout for former Marks & Spencer ‘shop girls’.

Production company Betty will be filming as part of a three-part social history series to be broadcast on BBC2 later this year.

Executive producer Annabel Hobley, who also produced Servants: the True Story of Life below Stairs, said: “Shopgirls are exciting, sometimes feisty, historically important figures that were pivotal to the way our consumer society shaped up. Shopgirls were at the cutting edge of social change a hundred years ago, and the story of their lives is deeply revealing of how we live, work and shop today.”

Martin Davidson, head of commissioning, history and business at the BBC, said: “We were delighted with the success of Servants, which showcased Dr Pamela’s Cox’s insightful take on Britain’s social history. Shopgirls will be a fascinating opportunity to examine a remarkable period of transformation through the lives of women who have shaped the world today.”

Shopgirls will examine the lives of the girls who worked behind the counter from the drapery stores of the 1860s when young women’s employment outside the home was taking off, through the Edwardian era’s tumultuous social upheavals all the way to the working class revolution of the 1960s and the shock of the 1971 bombing of Biba, a London department store which was attacked by a group calling itself The Angry Brigade.

The historical series, presented by Dr Pamela Cox, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex, will feature archive and testimony revealing what life was like working, and in some cases living, inside the shops and departments stores of the time.

Dr Pamela Cox said: “Researching this new series has been a real revelation. Britain may have been a nation of shopkeepers - but they relied on an army of shopgirls.”

A spokeswoman for the show said: “Were you or your relation a shop girl at Marks & Spencer? If so we’d love to hear from you. Betty TV is making a social history series for BBC2 looking into the fascinating world of the shop girl. We’re looking for women who worked at Marks & Spencer from the 1920s-1950s.

“Perhaps you were a staff Manageress, or enjoyed the welfare improvements in the 1930s and 1940s. We would love to hear all about your experiences; do you have photographs, newspaper articles, letters or anything else that can give us a glimpse into your time working at Marks & Spencer?

“It is an engaging and significant story about class, gender, sex and shopping – told from behind the counter of some of the nation’s favourite shops.”

Marks & Spencer was founded in 1884 when Michael Marks met Thomas Spencer and started a penny bazaar. Marks famously borrowed £5 from his former employer to fund the penny bazaar and at the time did not speak much English but he was helped in this by Spencer’s second wife.

Together, Marks the entrepreneur and Spencer an excellent book-keeper, they went on to forge a business empire which today takes in more than 800 stores in such far-flung locations as Bermuda, India and South Korea.

In 2009 the company, which has long been a byword for quality and dependability, marked its 125th anniversary with a series of exhibitions across the country, including in Leeds, where it showcased some of its own archive material, including old pictures and other objects.

In 1998, the company became the first British retailer to make a pre-tax profit of over £1 billion.

If you worked at Marks & Spencer and want to get in touch with the BBC team, contact them on email: history@betty.co.uk or phone 0207 907 0863, or contact times.past@ypn.co.uk and we will pass on your details.

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