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Photo 1: The Shambles, York (courtesy. Jon Wiseby)

Historic Shops – A Key Element of Future Regeneration


Shops, and their myriad of frontages, are a ubiquitous part of the British High Street. There is a famous phrase incorrectly attributed to Napoleon about England being “a nation of shopkeepers”. While the phrase was most likely used for the first time by the French revolutionary Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, in a mocking speech to the National Convention in 1794, when he said “let Pitt then boast of his victory to his nation of shopkeepers”[1], it demonstrates the long commercial and mercantile history of the nation.

This article is a short overview of the general history of Britain’s shops and some standard elements of their design. It follows with an examination of where shops (and changes to these) can result in a somewhat adverse appreciation of the high street, before providing some early guidance for those starting out on regeneration and development works.    

The History of British Shops

The retail businesses we see now typically emerged from open street markets with temporary stalls. From the Middle Ages onwards such activities became more formalised, with plots of land around the marketplace purchased by traders and craftsmen who constructed houses. These sites usually had open fronts to the ground floor, from which goods were sold or trades purveyed.

As trade developed, many workshops began to be moved to the rear of the building or the upper floors. The Shambles in York (Photo 1) and streets of Salisbury, which are two of a relatively small number of such surviving examples in the country, provide an idea of how such early commercial development would have looked. Goods would have typically been displayed on shelves projecting into the street, with these being secured by wooden shutters at night.

historic shops common architectural elementsBy the beginning of the 17th century shops in the larger towns were beginning to erect shopfronts, with the open area above the stall being enclosed by a glazed screen, windows and doors. Thus, the form of the ‘modern’ shopfront was created – the stall riser beneath the stall (or cill), the window, the door, and the fascia above these. When examined as a group it can typically be seen that, regardless of the period of construction, a traditional shopfront nearly always incorporates the 4 key elements (pictured).

The Challenges with Historic Streetscapes

A well-kept and uncluttered high street, with strong design elements running through a number of shops and associated buildings, can contribute significantly to the appreciation of an area’s history, and act as an attractive location that is welcoming of businesses and visitors alike. However, in many high streets of Britain economic changes and inappropriate planning / occupancy decisions have led to negative impacts on the historic building stock, which in turn reduces the visual and economic appeal of a shop / high street. 

Some of the more common issues in relation to use of historic shops can include:

Large backlit signs: which can obscure the original shop front detailing

Metal Roller Shutters: often seen as an essential security feature they can, in an historic built environment context, be detracting. Furthermore, their housing in a large box (often associated with the backlit facia sign mentioned above) becomes a bulky addition that is often inappropriate on an historic shop front

Historic shop front unsympathetic coloursUnsympathetic Materials, Colour Schemes & Excess Signage: such factors can detract from the original design intent of the building. In addition, masking any blemishes or deterioration to the historic fabric is unlikely to be a sustainable solution, with the condition of the original shop front continuing to deteriorate behind the new panelling;

Lack of Maintenance / Underuse of Upper Floors: this can give an area a run-down appearance. A lack of maintenance can be exacerbated when the owner of the building and the person operating the business in the shops below are not the same, or where several businesses operate from a single larger historic building. Furthermore, varied quality and form of maintenance works undertaken at different times and in differing styles can result in a dissonance of colours, signage and detailing


The Rows in Chester (courtesy. Jim Daly)

Using Historic Shops Within Modern Redevelopment Works

The success of ‘destination’ retail and life-style ventures in historic settings, such as Altrincham Market in Greater Manchester and the Rows in Chester (Photo 5), or Grey Street in Newcastle, are clear indications that distinctive places attract people and provide an antidote to the ubiquitous and somewhat carbon-copy out of town shopping malls that become prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

Where a developer is considering undertaking regeneration works, it would pay them to not only consider what new build options may be progressed, but to also consider any opportunities available to incorporate the historic character of an area, including utilising those historic shops and parts of the current high street that could play a key part in providing a link to the past of an area, allowing for the best of the historic elements to be preserved into the future as a focal point to the continuing story of this nation of shopkeepers.  

Considering a redevelopment project? Below are some early and high-level steps to take when planning your project with heritage buildings, hopefully some of the points below could prove useful: 

  • Engage a professional Heritage Consultant, like AB Heritage, early to help identify key heritage designations in and around your area of proposed works, which can help inform on potential opportunities and constraints to future planning works;

  • Have your Heritage Consultant undertake the necessary assessments (such as Historic Building Recording or Heritage Statements to establish ‘what you’ve got’, which can help influence a sympathetic and appropriate approach to redevelopment and refurbishment proposals, and guide the decision making of the Local Authority during future planning applications; and

  • Working with your appointed Heritage Consultant, provide early briefs to the design team that look to avoid the potential issues raised (in the section above) regarding inappropriate design works.

Author, Elli Winterburn, is a senior heritage consultant for AB Heritage Limited, a Registered Archaeological Organisation with The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the professional body who oversees industry standards for heritage works in the UK.

AB Heritage consultants have been helping clients achieve successful heritage solutions for developments across the UK for over a decade, with works ranging from the smallest plots of land to major infrastructure projects, covering built heritage and archaeological works. For more information on AB Heritage please see our website: www.abheritage.co.uk

[1] Wikipedia. (2021). Nation of shopkeepers. [online] Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nation_of_shopkeepers#cite_note-1:  [Accessed 27 Sep. 2021

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