In the early Victorian period shops described as fancy repositories might sell a very wide range of merchandise, offered for the most part to middle-class women and above. The goods covered the expressive arts and crafts, personal items, stationery and trinkets. Business owners included both genders, people having a wide social background as well as varied practical skills and training. The first such business noted at Bournemouth may have belonged to a woman whose family had an established artisan craft.
Fancy repositories: an Aladdin’s cave of merchandise
Newspaper advertisements offer an insight in the range of products sold by this business category. These covered the expressive arts and crafts, personal products, and items for the most part bought as gifts. Expressive arts might include painting, but, for the most part, they consisted of needlework and knitting. These shops responded to the swell of enthusiasm for Berlin wool. The advertisements provide exhaustive lists of such items. At Cheltenham 1847, Mr Piotrowski offered ‘an extensive Assortment of Embroideries, Patterns, Berlin Wools, Silks, Canvass, Trimmings, Crochet, Netted and Knitted Goods’. In 1851, Mrs Leach, Southampton, advertised ‘A great choice of PATTERNS for Berlin, Tapestry, and Crotchet Work; Parisian Head-dresses, Armlets, and Kid Gloves; Silk Braid and all kinds of Trimmings; and Hair Nets in Gold, Silver, Chenille, Braid, Silk, and Mohair.’ The shop owners aimed to fill ladies’ working tables. Fancy repositories often advertised at Christmas.
Others offered products for use as gifts as well as broader services. Henry Castell in Portsmouth listed his items: ‘Dressing Cases, Leather Goods, Papier Mache, Glass, and a variety of Foreign Articles. Jewellery of the Best and Newest Make’ (1851). These might also include personal products both hard and soft: jewellery, brushes and combs; toilet water, perfume. Stock could also include items as gifts for men, for example, dressing cases. In some cases, fancy shops might sell bed linen suitable for children as well as toys and puzzles. The Mees, at Bath, displayed their awareness that business might come from nourishing the habit. They offered training ‘in every design of foreign needlework and knitting’. Mrs Collings, who ran a fancy repository and ornamental hair warehouse, a Southampton business, had private rooms for hair cutting.
Fancy repositories offered important roles to women
The Mees, Cornelia and Charles, appeared to have taken separate roles within their fancy business at Bath. Charles, described by the census as a German or Berlin wool dealer, appears to have acted as an entrepreneur. An 1839 advertisement referred to his having bought a haberdashery business in London. Another advertisement described him as in ‘constant communication’ with ‘Continental Houses’. He may even have acquired his wife as part of a business transaction. An advertisement listed the business as Austin’s Showrooms and Warehouse. It described Mrs Mee as the late Miss Austin, the company perhaps belonging once to her father Thomas Austin, a Bath haberdasher. Cornelia Mee appeared in the advertisements to have a specific role in the business: looking after the shop, having specific product knowledge and dealing with the customers, most female no doubt.
Overall, females appeared to have had prominent roles in fancy repositories. In some cases, the directory listings did not reveal the owner’s gender, for example, the splendid ‘Civet Cat’ at Brighton or Brown & De Normanville in Cheltenham. Of the almost fifty fancy businesses contained in the spa and watering-places sample about a fifth had corporate names. For the rest, males outnumbered females as owners or managers only by two to one, a noticeable proportion within the business world dominated by men. Since the products targeted female customers, it seems plausible that Cornelia Mee’s example may have occurred often in such businesses, even those listed as male enterprises. Perhaps many of the male owners performed nothing more than titular roles, far less active than Charles Mee.
Fancy repositories might differ in their product emphasis
John Eccleston appeared as a jeweller in the 1851 Census, though listed by the Blackpool directory in fancy goods. The two businesses belonging to the Silvani family in Brighton perhaps emphasised jewellery, Joseph described as such in the 1851 Census. Elsewhere in Brighton, those listed as having fancy repositories included a wide range of occupations: two more jewellers, a basket maker, a brush maker, a toy dealer, a foreign dealer (so described in a probate record). In Tunbridge Wells, Theophilus Field, while described as a fancy goods dealer, had a speciality in tea, whereas, in the same town, Henry Nye’s stock perhaps consisted for the most part of books and stationery. The 1841 Census for Torquay described Edward Croydon as a stationer, although listed by the directory as having a Berlin warehouse. A similar variety of occupations appeared for Bath fancy dealers: toys, books, embroidery, millinery.
These differences, occurring over different categories across a range of towns, provoke interest. They may have reflected a balance towards one or two categories within a fancy repository. The term might cover so many products, that for one store to stock all seems doubtful. The difference might also have signified occupational changes amongst the principals. A more plausible explanation perhaps lies in comparing the uses made of the census and trade directories. Whereas the public had no access to census listings, they did consult directories. Fancy repositories would have appealed to a wider range of customers than a shop dedicated to a single product range. Such a positioning would have enabled a jeweller or a bookseller to compete in a larger market. It also offered flexibility in range stocking according to seasonal change or developments in customer interest.
Fancy repositories: exotic businesses, exotic people
Advertisements at times bristled with excitement as a fancy repository’s owner reported a return from London, replete with new stock. Others, for example, the Mees, imported from Continental markets, not least Berlin. In some cases, also, the owners had originated from outside England. The Silvani brothers came from Lombardy. John Eccleston’s wife had the maiden name of Pagani. Louis Chaffin, who had a Bath business perhaps specialising in books, came from France. Another fancy business in Bath belonged to Rosalie Bode, whose mother, according to the census, came from ‘foreign parts’. A foreign flavour perhaps corresponded with the sense of sophistication associated with some spas. Visitors may also have had experienced Continental trips.
Fancy repository owners enjoyed success in differing measures. Edward Croydon, for example, by his sixties could describe his income as coming no longer from books but interest. His probate record listed him as a gentleman and his estate worth over £30,000. Joseph Silvani left an even larger estate. Elizabeth Souch, a spinster, who lived with siblings, by her sixties had stopped trading toys for owning houses. William Murray’s will referred to his three properties in Brighton. No probate record has emerged for Charles Mee, but, by 1861, they had moved business to London, living in Hanover Square. Others left estates but still amounts worth four figures. Probate records have not surfaced for some, perhaps indicative of less success.
Fancy repositories come to Bournemouth
George Fox may have tested the fancy market by 1851, when, in addition to stationery, he dealt in minerals and fossils. Perhaps a new wife, acquired in 1850, had caused him to forsake his position in charge of The Tregonwell Arms for a more respectable trade. He had run the inn for most of the 1840s. By 1855, however, his interests changed again, for he had taken on the agency for the London Union Assurance company as well as continuing to sell stamps and note paper. Little has emerged so far to look in depth at his social background and connections. He may have left souvenirs and trinkets because competition had arrived in the form of Anne Poole’s fancy repository. A single lady, she had established her business sometime in the period between 1851 and 1855.
Anne Poole may equate with the person listed in records as Sarah Anne Poole. This family did come from Poole. Eliza Poole, Sarah Anne’s mother, seems to have had a head for business. As far back as 1830 she appeared in the Poole directory as a straw-hat maker, continuing the same activity in the 1839 directory. The 1841 Census listed no occupation for her, but the next two measurements recorded her as a maker of straw-hats. The hats appeared to have done well for the family. She involved her children, including Sarah Anne, in their production. By 1861, she had even caused her husband, once a boot and shoemaker, to join in her straw-hat business.
Both the 1851 and 1861 census listings included Sarah Anne Poole as a straw-hat maker, recorded as living in Poole. If the same person as Bournemouth’s fancy repository owner (1855), then perhaps the business did not have a sufficient market. The next appearance of such a business occurred by 1867. Perhaps, only around twenty years old, she found things too much. Perhaps her mother may have taken premises on a short lease for the season in order to test the market. Straw-hats would have featured as a large part of their stock, for which insufficient demand may have existed at the time. Her personal life may have caught up with Sarah Anne Poole, for, in 1861, she married. Her husband, a railway porter, took her away to raise a family in Exeter.
Anna Poole’s fancy repository, introduced at early Victorian Bournemouth, suggests that interest for such products may have existed at this stage, but not a large enough demand. She appears not to have continued the business, fancy repositories not returning to Bournemouth until the late 1860s.
For an idea of how such a shop might look, see here.
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