We are all so used to being able to shop on a Sunday that it’s easy to forget what a big issue this was until the law was changed in 1994 – but writing about Sadie’s sweetshop reminded me that sweetshop keepers were often among those most strongly opposed to restrictions on Sunday trading. There was a flurry of correspondence about this in the Leicester Daily Mercury in September 1913, when one reader described shopkeepers opening on Sundays as ‘selfish’. A widow with a sweetshop somewhere in Leicester – she didn’t say where – replied to say that her takings were:
‘more on a Sunday than on three weekdays put together. The majority of the people don’t have money to spend in the week, and if they did they often don’t have time to call in their dinner hour to spend it. The greater part of the people like sweets, tobacco, etc. when they have their leisure hours and should not be denied the privilege. I fail to see where the selfishness comes in. Perhaps he would have a different opinion if he had to get a living in a sweetshop, and had to get up ten or a dozen times to take 3d. I believe in everyone pleasing themselves, as we have to be accountable for our own actions’.
Signing himself ‘LIBERTY’, another shopkeeper wrote that, as a Sunday trader, ‘from necessity and not from choice… I am compelled to open my shop of Sunday morning from eight to twelve o’clock, but I am so far from being a Pagan that I can attend my place of worship unconscious of having done anything wrong’. When working men and women got home at midday on a Saturday, he or she continued, ‘they have the house to clean, often the week’s washing to do, children to bath, etc. It does not leave much time for shopping on a Saturday night’. Nor did the ‘sanitary conditions of many of the houses’ allow them to store perishable food for any length of time, especially in warm weather – all of which led to the conclusion that attempts to suppress Sunday trading amounted to ‘interference with the liberty of the subject’.
Most objections to Sunday trading were on religious grounds – ‘the importance of keeping the Sabbath’ – or, as one delegate to a conference of grocers in London in 1913 put it, because ‘Sunday was a national institution that ought to be upheld at all cost’. A petition to the Borough Council in April 1903 from 41 members of the Friar Lane Baptist Church Christian Endeavour Society was just one example of many over the years. This viewed ‘with alarm the extent of Sunday Trading in Leicester… [it] prays the Council to seriously consider the matter and to pass some adequate measure of the immediate suppression of the same’.
Sunday trading was regulated by local bye-laws, but these were so complicated in terms of what could or could not be legally sold that they were very often broken. According to a local journal, The Wyvern,in May 1897:
‘The ice cream men ply their trade vigorously, as though this day were their harvest time: and I verily believe it is. Confectioners, greengrocers, tobacconists etc., are all doing business in these unnecessary luxuries, and in defiance of the law. Why is the law, which makes Sunday trade unlawful, not strictly enforced…? Is it not a disgrace that such a farce represents English law? Do Sunday School teachers never see scholars with a jug, bottle, or some other utensil, coming from, or going to, the public-house? Do they never see them coming out of a tobacco shop, with their cigarettes?… Do not religious bodies know the importance of keeping the Sabbath day as a day of rest? If they do recognise it, why do they not take energetic measures to suppress such bare-faced violation of its sacredness?’.
Not all shopkeepers wanted to open on a Sunday, though. Another letter to the Leicester Daily Mercury in September 1913 from ‘a Churchman and a shopkeeper’ suggested that if one correspondent in favour of Sunday trading ‘kept a fish shop for six days he would find that on the seventh he would require a rest from a physical standpoint. Are shopkeepers out of the pale of workers and thus not to be considered from a humanitarian standpoint?’.
The same question was often asked about shop assistants who would be obliged to work on Sundays – as it was in the debates leading to the Sunday Trading Act in 1994. I’ll leave the last work for the moment to the Federation of Grocers’ Associations, which included butchers, bakers and ‘allied trades’ as well as grocers themselves. In 1913 it organised a conference in London to protest against the growth of Sunday trading on the grounds that it was ‘not necessarily in the public interest; was unfair to the workers employed, and created a greatly increased responsibility upon the public authorities for the administration of laws relating to traders’.