Category Archives: History

Charity Shops

At some point 88% of us have bought something from a charity shop, according to the Charity Retail Association (CRA). In 2020 we spent £746 million in them[1], with the average spend per transaction reaching £6.53 in the summer of 2022. There are around 10,200, occupying 3.26% of the UK’s retail units, staffed by some 26,800 full time employees and over 186,000 volunteers[2]. The high street in Frimley, where I live, has four of them, two, curiously, supporting the same institution.

Known as thrift shops in the States and oppies, short for opportunity shops, in Australia and New Zealand, charity shops seem to be more prevalent in Anglophone countries. Elsewhere, the sale of what the CRA call their “unique range of goods” is transacted in the open, for example at the French brocante (flea market), vide-grenier (a car boot sale), or municipal braderie (a festival combining a flea market)[3].

British charity shops have fought hard to dispel the image of being an “instructive inventory of the passé”, as Mary McCarthy described one in The Group (1954), a repository of outmoded trends and fashions infused with the faint aroma of mothballs. Nevertheless, over 90% of their turnover still comes from the sale of goods donated by well-wishers, who, if British Income Tax payers, can boost the retail value of their donations by a further 25% through the Government’s Gift Aid Scheme. Saving around 339,000 tonnes of textiles from disposal, they not only help a good cause but also make a small but valuable contribution to securing the planet’s future.

While shelves and racks still contain single-purpose kitchen appliances, clothing bought on a whim, and ornaments last seen on a grandparent’s dresser, a developing trend is to sell “bought-in goods”, discontinued lines from major retailers. All new and sold at discounted prices, in summer 2022 they made up around 7.3% of their total turnover.

Concerted efforts to ameliorate the conditions of the poor began in earnest in the 18th century. A “poor rate” levied on parish householders, as well as establishing workhouses, helped those able to work but whose wages were too low to support their families by giving them “relief in aid of wages” in the form of money, food, and clothing. Funds were also collected at balls, concerts, and charitable art exhibitions, wealthy philanthropists bequeathed substantial sums to charitable purposes, and single purpose charities such as The Foundling Hospital (1739) and the Marine Society (1756) were established to give unfortunate children a better start in life.

By the 19th century the charity bazaar or “fancy fair” became a popular way to raise funds, receiving royal imprimatur in 1833 when Queen Adelaide, William IV’s wife, attended the “Grand Fancy Fair and Bazaar” in London. Soon London was hosting more than a thousand charity functions a year and the idea spread throughout the country.

Bazaars were often grand affairs, offering entertainment in the form of puppet shows, fortune telling, plays and music, as well as selling a wide range of goods. They were often themed, with elaborate décor, actors dressed in costumes, and refreshments suitable for the occasion. Offering a rare opportunity for the sexes to mingle freely, patrons would dress in their Sunday best.

They were not universally popular. Religious leaders criticised the materialism and false piety charity bazaars encouraged, while the Cornhill Magazine complained in 1861 that women manning the stalls used feminine “coaxing” and “insinuating” to persuade the public to part with their money.