Visit our new exhibition – Our Retail Past

Chesham has a rich shopping history, with trading in the market square dating back to 1257. This is why we chose to explore this theme for our latest exhibition ‘Our Retail Past’ now on display in Chesham library and the Elgiva theatre.

Our historic high street has been at the heart of Chesham life and it is so interesting to see how this has changed over time. The topic of the high street and shopping is as relevant today as it ever has been. With the ease and availability of online shopping and the pandemic changing our shopping habits further, high street stores have faced many challenges.

However, Chesham’s town centre is often bustling on market days and we have a wide range of services on offer – even if we aren’t shopping. There are numerous coffee shops and restaurants, nail bars, barbers, salons and the post office. We are also lucky to have such a strong presence of independent businesses, which makes Chesham a unique and enjoyable shopping destination. This is reminiscent of the past, when independent, locally run businesses were common place – rather than national chains. It seems that many ways in which we used to shop are becoming more favourable – not only shopping locally but more sustainably using less plastic and limiting waste.

Shops and services then and now

We began by thinking about the types of shops and services that would have existed 100 years ago and how that compares to our high street today. Residents of Chesham would have done all their shopping here in the past, being able to buy every essential product without leaving the town.

Small towns were much more self-sufficient. There would have been more specialised shops such as a greengrocers, a butcher, a bakers, a bootmaker and a tailors for instance. Many of these we still have here today. The process of buying food would have included weighing out and paying for the amount that you needed – less pre-packaged goods. Regular customers would have an account book with transactions and payments recorded. Many shops also offered local delivery. There were lots of family run businesses that stayed in the family for numerous generations and it was common for the shopkeepers and their families to live on the premises.

In our exhibition we talk about long running Chesham businesses such as Darvell’s bakery – which has been part of Chesham’s history for over 100 years, Brandon’s – the popular department store and the site of JPS which has housed various stationers over the past 100 years. Our research team have looked at some of our existing shop buildings and provided a history of the businesses that have run from those premises – you can read about this in our online collection.

Visit our exhibition in Chesham library and the Elgiva

To showcase our wealth of shopping history in Chesham, we wanted to display objects from our collection that would give a taste of what shopping and trading in Chesham in the last century would have looked like.

We have some brilliant and nostalgic items such as a paper bag from Belsham’s bakery in Waterside, a milk bottle from a local dairy, a sign from the old Brandon’s department store, a wooden coat hanger and model van from Chesham Co-Operative Society.

There are also some objects that are not so familiar today – such as account books, handwritten receipts, a shop bell from Palmer’s grocers and some beautiful wooden butter moulds. 

Display of some shop items from Chesham Museum's collection, including paper bag and wooden coat hanger.

To bring our facts to life we have selected some great photographs from our archive which show our high street and local shops through time – it’s fascinating to see those buildings that are so familiar to us and think about their many uses over time.

In the Elgiva theatre display we also feature some photographs from the collection of the Chesham Society, which they have kindly let us use for the exhibition. 

We have some brilliant and nostalgic items such as a paper bag from Belsham's bakery in Waterside, a milk bottle from a local dairy, a sign from the old Brandon’s department store, a wooden coat hanger and model van from Chesham Co-Operative Society.

To find out more and to see these wonderful items visit our display in the library. The photographs and information boards are also showing at the Elgiva theatre.

I’m sure many of you will remember the old shops featured in the exhibition and we hope it will bring back happy memories! We would love to hear those memories of Chesham shops past and present. Your reminisces may be used for future exhibitions, on our website or in future publications. Which shops did you like and why? Which do you miss? Get in touch with us through our website or social media channels.

By Charlotte Harrison

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