From 1849 until December 1973 there was a Barrow’s store in Bull Street, Birmingham. Initially it was a tea and coffee warehouse, taken over in 1849 by Richard Cadbury Barrow from John Cadbury.
Originally it was a dwelling-place as well as a shop; there was a garden behind until the Improvement Scheme of the 1870s when the new Corporation Street was built through the centre of Birmingham, breaking through Bull Street midway. From then on the store was on the corner of Corporation Street and Bull Street. The first ‘restaurant’ in the store was opened in 1905, with more cafes were added later.
This picture of the store is taken from the 1926 Christmas List. Barrow’s published a ‘Christmas List’ each year; Archives and Heritage hold a collection of these running from 1920 to 1964. These show something of the customs and expectations of their period. The 1920 catalogue refers several times to conditions imposed by the First World War. The page advertising cheese specifies ‘really fine Cheese’; Barrow’s regretted that they had been unable to obtain the ‘Finest Cheddar and Cheshire Cheese’ during Food Control – rationing – in the later years of the war.
There is a piece about margarine on page 21, assuring customers of its quality, stating that it had become a very important article of food ‘owing to the curtailed supply of Butter occasioned by the disturbed state of the butter-producing countries.’
In the Second World War the 1941 catalogue does not carry the usual long list of foods for purchase, but has several paragraphs about rationing:
‘Many of the specialities for which we were famous are no longer obtainable, but we make it our job to see that all our registered customers… get fair shares of anything that’s going, and it’s no use grumbling at us or the Ministry of Food when you can’t get all you want… The only sensible thing is to make the most of all the food you get, cook it carefully and enjoy eating it…’
The catalogue for 1941 shown here is thinner than the others, but is very attractively designed.
During the 1920s the store had prospered, and expanded into a vacant site on the Bull Street side. The 1928 cover of the Christmas list does not reflect Christmas, showing instead the new shopping hall. This illustration, although cartoon style, shows modern fashions. Clearly the customers are affluent; the three closest to the viewer all wear furs. The store-owners were also concerned for the well-being of their staff as well as of their profits. Like the Cadburys to whom they were related, they were Quakers.
Most Christmas catalogues mention that the store will be closed for several days so that the staff can go home and spend time with their family; customers are asked to do their shopping in good time. In the 1931 catalogue a section for ‘practical presents’ is inserted, this also betrays the Barrow family’s concern for the welfare of poorer people.
In their new showroom is featured ‘A nursery furnished with goods made by British country craftsmen and designed by the Rural Industries Bureau’. Some of the goods were made in parts of Britain where there was much unemployment; in the section ‘Beautiful Weaving’ there are scarves of silk or wool ‘made by British country craftsmen… costing from 10s 6d to 25s…’ There are also ‘very fine quilts… made in the mining villages of Durham and South Wales.’
Many presents listed are fairly practical, even presents for children. The 1928 list advertises ‘Biscuits for the Children’ in attractive containers which may serve as toys after Christmas. The 1941 catalogue, at a time when people were being urged to ‘dig for victory’ offers Sutton’s Seeds. One luxury item, crackers, do appear every year as an important feature of Christmas, so offer the possibility of comparing prices during the period.
In 1920 they cost from ’1 /4 to 35/-.’ By 1928 there was a bigger price range; ‘from 9d to 45 /-.’ Even in the 1941 catalogue, with references to all kinds of rationing, ‘There are charming little Miniature Crackers from 1s and 3d to 4s a box, and full sized Crackers from 1s 8d to 30s a box. We even have them in Air Force blue with silver wings.’
In 1961 the prices ranged from ‘Miniature Crackers at 2/- to lavish boxes at £2 / 10/-.’ * However in 1964 crackers were no longer on offer, sadly the store closed three days before Christmas in December 1973.
*All prices are in pre-decimal currency; a pound was worth 20 shillings – represented by ‘s’, a shilling was worth 12 pence – represented by ‘d’.
Illustrations and quotations taken from catalogues in the collection: Barrows Stores Limited, Box 4, Christmas Ephemera, B/73 – B/80 held in Archives and Heritage, Birmingham Central Library.