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History of the charity shop to be explored in special online event


The history of the humble charity shop, a normal feature on the British high street, is being explored by a University of Wolverhampton academic in an online event during the Being Human Festival.

Senior Lecturer of History Dr George Gosling has been researching the history of charity shops

He said: “Very little has been written about the history of charity shops, even though it’s such a key part of British culture and such a visible feature of the British high street.

“Over the past year, I’ve been researching this area in preparation for a book that I’m writing, and the archives run by charities have been absolutely vital.

“Dr Georgina Brewis of University College London (UCL) has been working on a project funded by the British Academy, which has been looking at the importance of charities maintaining an accessible archive. Running and maintaining an archive can involve quite a bit of work, but it is important.

“We’d decided to do a joint exhibition for the British Academy’s Summer Showcase where we were going to have an interactive, vintage charity shop set-up which attendees could go in and explore.”

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, the showcase was cancelled, but Dr Gosling and Dr Brewis decided to still host the exhibit, but in a different format which could be used during the online humanities festival Being Human.

During their online session, which takes place on Wednesday November 18, 6:30 pm - 7:30 pm, the two academics will be interviewed by fashion journalist Lauren Bravo as they take a virtual tour of the historic charity shop.  

As part of the project, members of the public are being encouraged to answer three questions which relate to their memories of charity shops. These can be found in a Social History Society blog post.

It is hoped the physical exhibition will be able to be run next year.

As part of the run up to the event, Dr Gosling will be speaking on BBC Radio 3’s show Free Thinking at 10pm on Tuesday 10 November, which will be available on the BBC website following broadcast.

Interestingly, Wolverhampton has a strong link to the topic as it had one of the earlier shops which raised money for charity.

Dr Gosling added: “In Wolverhampton, in 1899, the Wolverhampton Society for the Blind had a shop which sold crafts created by blind people.

“Charity shops were more than just a means of raising funds, they also provided jobs for those with disabilities, who would create the products which were then sold.

“My interest for the history charity shops was sparked when my wife got a job running one. As a charity historian I wondered, why I hadn’t ever read a book on the history of charity shops. I soon found out it was because very little of this history has been written.

“I believe it’s important that we’re aware of this history because we’re all familiar with charity shops and yet few of us know anything about how they came about. They have a longer a more varied history than we usually imagine.

“We often hear complaints that there are too many charity shops around today and that’s been the case since the 1960s. The difference then was that back then local traders and bigger retails often co-operated with charity shops and helped them get set up. That might mean a local joiner helping to fit out the new shop or Sainsbury’s or Marks and Spencer giving materials or even giving over some of their unused space for use by a local charity.

“Charity shops are only such a big part of the British high street because people shop at them. Unlike some of those in the past, they simply wouldn’t be there if they weren’t a successful method of fundraising.” 

Places to attend the virtual event ‘Shopping for a cause?’ can be booked online via the British Academy website.


For more information please contact the Corporate Communications Team.

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