In our modern shopping age with stores open ever longer hours each day, I was recently reminded of a slower age, when stores were not just closed on Sundays, but also had a half-day closing each week.

Typically on a Wednesday, the half-day closing was not just a tradition, but was in fact required by law, and regulated by the local council.

The Shop Hours Act 1904 had already given local councils the power to require a single half-day closing, but only when two-thirds of the local retailers agreed to the proposal.

As a result, although a lot of shops were now somewhat haphazardly closing for half a day, the Shops Act 1912 came into force in May of that year, and for the first time, shop staff were entitled to a half-day off work, bringing their average working week down to 5½ days.

Although the local authority could impose the half-day on its area, generally the stores clubbed together to ensure that all of them closed on the same day — in order to preserve their businesses from competition.

What was seen as a move for the benefit of the shop staff, was more probably designed to help shoppers be sure when shops would be closed. Not all shops had to close though – and exemptions applied to those that sold perishable food, medicines or newspapers. And curiously, aircraft supplies.

Each council could also set its own exemptions, and The Times of 3rd May noted that City of London had chosen to exempt umbrella dealers from the half-day closing act. How stereotypical can you get!

The act was modified a few times, but essentially remained in force until repealed in 1994.

The 1912 Act also imposed restrictions on when shops could close late, and it would seem that for many shops, closing at 7pm was commonplace, with a late closing a 8pm one day per week.

I have struggled to find out when the tradition of retail stores closing at 5:30pm, in line with many offices became commonplace, although a 6pm closing time certainly came into effect during WW2 and politicians seem to have struggled to overturn that.

Although repealed as a law in 1994, shops in smaller towns have still continued with the practice of closing for half a day per week, in defiance of modern trends towards ever longer working hours.

But the trend is dying out – just last year the Derbyshire town of Ilkeston decided to stop closing on Wednesday afternoon, although a lot of small towns appear to maintain their half-day closing traditions.

In a world that is becoming more homogenous, with the same services available all the time and the same foods available all year round, there is something curiously charming about the notion of half-day closing in the middle of the week, and the tradition that large shops are still closed on Sunday mornings.

Yes its a nuisance, as I sometimes remembered after a long walk to the local hardware store only to remember it would be closed.

But I wouldn’t mind that — occasionally.

Incidentally, one of the older shop acts was Shop Hours Regulation Act 1886, which limited the hours worked by children to a mere 74 hours per week. The lazy sods!

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11 Comments

  1. Jessica

    I always thought Wednesday was washing day, it was the only day you could hang washing out , another by law….. Thank god for Tumbly Driers!

  2. ASLEF shrugged

    Monday was washing day in our house and Thursday was half day closing in Dagenham, Barking , Romford, etc. I remember the amazement when the first 7-Eleven opened in the early 80s (or was it the late 70s). 13 hours!!!! and on a Sunday!!!!!

  3. Do longer hours for shops have something to do with more women getting into work and more households being unable to shop early in the day?

  4. nigel_e11

    When I started working in a local shop in 1968 we closed Thursday half-day but unlike many other shops we did not close for lunch. Unbelievably, even the food shops closed for lunch in those days! The chemist still does today! We stayed open ‘late’, 6pm rather than 5.30pm, to catch the workers returning home from the City. Those were the days when they finished work at 5pm! And of course, very little could be sold on a Sunday – the newsagent covered up the stock that could not be sold. We managed though!

  5. Leytonstoner

    I used to be a ‘Saturday Boy’ at John Lewis Oxford Street in the early 70′s. It seems so strange but back then the store was only open between 9 and 1 on Saturdays. Despite the shorter hours it still paid much more than working as a shelf-filler at my local Tesco’s all day on a Saturday.

  6. Annabel

    In France, most shops – even some smaller supermarkets – close for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, and those independent shops that open on Sundays have to stay closed on Mondays instead. I notice, though, over the last couple of years the French are beginning to rebel against this. More and more middle-sized supermarkets are open on Sunday mornings, and during a trip last year we had lunch in a bakery-cum-restaurant which explained, in a notice on the door, that it was open 7 days a week, but to conform with local by-laws would not bake or sell bread on a Thursday. Given the range of fresh cakes on sale, though, the bakers were still hard at work!

    And when the French get a chance to shop in the big supermarkets on a Sunday, as they do in the run-up to Christmas, they most certainly take advantage of it – the supermarkets are packed!

    Most of the supermarkets close at 8:00 or 9:00 pm, though – do ours really need to stay open until 10:00 pm or even 24/7?

  7. MartinO'London

    Many shops in the West End only opened on Saturday morning, and yes, that went on up until the early-70′s. I used to work in Chappels in Bond Street and I can remember the road was like a ghost-town on Sat. afternoons. Oxford Street, otoh, had already embraced staying open all day Saturday, except, as Leytonstoner says above, John Lewis.

  8. gdavies

    I live next to Portobello Road market and to my astonishment the street stallholders (but not the shops) still pack up and go home on Thursday afternoon. I thought it must be the last remnant of early closing day in London. Do any other street markets in London do it?
    The absence of stalls on Thursday afternoons also baffles all the tourists (though various souvenir tat merchants are taking over what useful local shops were left between the new coffee shops and posh shoe shops); all they they are left with to do is pester the locals (e.g. me) about the locations for the film Notting Hill – yes, still, all these years after it came out.

  9. Annabel

    Brixton Market, such as it is, still closes on Wednesday afternoons. And Walthamstow Market doesn’t open at all on Mondays.

  10. Laura

    I live in Ilkeston and even now nearly half of the shops in the town centre still close on Wednesday afternoon, so the practice is still going strong.

  11. Richard

    In my rural home town in Scotland they still do close half-day Wednesday. It’s usually a tradition maintained by smaller independent and family run shops. Also Wednesday is the open-air market day. There was never any restrictions to Sunday trading in Scotland.

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