Women business owners of Eldon Street

As part of the Eldon Street High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) we have been working to uncover some of the hidden and untold stories of Eldon Street and the Victorian Arcade. These include many stories of women business owners who have shaped the street over the past 250 years. Working with local artist Gemma Whelan, animators Monkie Ltd., and a group of Barnsley young carers, we have created a new animation showcasing some of those untold stories, which will be launched for International Women’s Day 2022. Our Heritage Action Zone officer, Dr Tegwen Roberts, tells us more.

It is often assumed that, in the Victorian and early Edwardian periods, women entrepreneurs and business owners were relatively rare. Until the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1870 and 1882, a married woman could not own or inherit property in her own right, as anything she owned automatically passed to her husband. Even after the law changed, societal norms tended to assume that women (particularly middle-class women) would stop work once they married and focus on motherhood and homemaking. Historians have also tended to perpetuate the myth that businesses run by women at this time were small, semi-invisible, and limited to specific trades, often relying on word of mouth to promote their businesses. However, more recent research is starting to show that many Victorian and Edwardian women set up and ran successful businesses, particularly in urban areas, although their stories have largely remained untold.  

We got the opportunity to research this for Eldon Street when the HSHAZ supported a series of student placements with Sheffield University in 2020. History MA student Hannah Harrison undertook excellent research with the support of Barnsley Archives, looking into the stories of women business owners on Eldon Street in the period 1870-1920. We have since continued this research with the help of brilliant archives volunteers who have found numerous women business owners on Eldon Street and the Victorian Arcade from the 1860s onwards, including pub landladies, confectioners, café owners, drapers, stationers, tobacconists and more.

Women business owners are not always easy to trace in this period, as they rarely advertised under their full names. Some historians have suggested that women business owners often relied more on word of mouth and repeat custom due to the way some parts of society viewed women entrepreneurs. However, we found a number of useful sources, including a Corporation rent book (1890-1911) and electoral registers, along with some lucky chance finds – like Elizabeth Smith’s enamel sign (which was spotted by a member of staff on the wall of a local antiques centre!) that have shed a fascinating light on the important role women business owners played in the life of Eldon Street and the Victorian Arcade in the period 1870-1920.

Annie and Eliza Haigh

Sisters Annie and Eliza Haigh were part of a family of drapery-business owners on Eldon Street in the 1890s. William Hague started his first business on Barnsley Market in the 1860s and by 1869 had a shop on Eldon Street. By the 1890s the business was advertised as William Hague and Co. and had expanded into a number of ground and first floor units in the new Public Hall (now The Civic, Barnsley).

William married Emily and they had three daughters, Eliza, Annie and Alice. In the 1891 census Eliza (21) is recorded as a milliner, and Annie (19) as a shop assistant. However, the Corporation rent book from 1890 lists Annie and Eliza ‘linen drapers’ as the tenants at 36 Eldon Street, responsible for rent payments, suggesting that they had a direct role in the business. An article about William Hague and Co. from the Barnsley Annual in 1897 mentions that William’s ‘wife and daughters were […] greatly improving their cash business in fancy drapery’ (interestingly the women are only referred to in terms of their relationship to William) but then goes on to talk about ‘William’s’ shops at 34, 36 and 38 Eldon Street without any reference to either his daughters, or his wife. The article also mentions that the success of William’s first business was ‘by the aid of his wife’ but does not name her, or elaborate on her contribution. This seems to be reflective of a time in which the success and influence of women entrepreneurs in family businesses was often overshadowed by the role of husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. 

Advert for W. Haigh and Co. fancy drapers and milliners, Eldon Street Barnsley (under the Public Hall). Includes an engraving of three shops with 'Haigh' written above the doors.
Advert from the Barnsley Annual 1897 for W. Haigh and Co. showing an illustration of the shops at 34-38 Eldon Street

Ann Porter

Ann Porter was the founder of A. Porter’s and sons, one of Barnsley’s first department stores catering specifically to women. Rather than inheriting a family business, Ann is unusual in that she set up her business after her husband, Benjamin Porter – a gas maker, died in the 1870s. By the 1881 census, Ann (who had five children) is recorded as a widow with a shop on Sheffield Road. She moved the business to larger premises at 58 Eldon Street (now Leslie Francis hairdressers) in 1896. Porter’s offered ‘Everything a lady wears and most thing for the home at cheaper prices than can be found elsewhere’. Porter’s continued until 1936 and the 1911 census suggests it was a family affair, with two of Ann’s sons and their older children all involved in the business.

Ann’s story shows the sorts of social and economic opportunities there were for widows during this period. For some women it was a necessity, but for others it was an opportunity to set up business freely and independently in a way that married women were often unable to do. Another notable thing about Porter’s is that, although Ann did not use her full name, their advertising was bold and ambitious, with regular adverts in the local papers, challenging the idea that women business owners were not prominent, or keen to draw attention to themselves, at this time.

Letter head for A Porter and Sons with an engraving of their building on Eldon Street and a list of departments down the side. Listed departments are drapery, dresses, mantles, millinery, costumes, dressmaking, linens, flannels, hosiery etc, trimmings, silks, fancy goods, glass, china etc. Luncheons on Wednesdays, close Thursdays 1 o clock.
Illustration of A Porters and Sons from a company letterhead in 1900

Elizabeth Smith

Elizabeth Smith ran an umbrella and leather shop at 62 Eldon Street from 1911 to 1935. She came to our attention when a member of the Barnsley Museums team spotted an enamel sign for the business on the wall of a local antiques centre. A delve into the electoral registers for the 1910s showed that Smith’s was the business name for Elizabeth Smith’s umbrella shop.

Again, like Ann Porter, Elizabeth didn’t use her full name in her advertising, but she did advertise regularly in the Barnsley Chronicle, offering ‘Ladies and Gents umbrellas at reasonable prices’ along with ‘Ladies leather and silk beaded handbags in great variety’. This again suggests that women business owners on Eldon Street were not reliant on word of mouth, as has sometimes been assumed, but were actively and publicly promoting their businesses, although perhaps with an element of pragmatism about prejudice in society at the time.

White enamel sign on a brick wall that says Smiths 62, Eldon Street (under the Empire) umbrella and walking stick re-covers and repairs, fancy leather goods, Barnsley. It has a picture of an umbrella in the middle.
Historic enamel sign for Elizabeth Smiths’s Umbrella and Fancy Leather Goods shop – a chance survival

Sharing the stories

These are just a small selection of the women business owners we have found so far and the work is still ongoing. Alongside the research, we have been looking for creative ways to share some of these amazing untold stories. We have been working with local writer and artist Gemma Whelan and animators Monkie Ltd. to produce a short animation, imagining what it would have been like to walk along Eldon Street in the 1900s and talk to some of the women behind the shop facades. The voices were recorded by a group of Barnardo’s young carers from Barnsley, who are working with Gemma as part of the Next Big Thing project to support young ambassadors for creativity in Barnsley. It was their first time in a recording studio and they did an amazing job!

The animation was released on International Women’s Day (March 8) 2022. You can watch it here via the Barnsley Museums YouTube channel. There is also an audio-described version of the film produced in collaboration with VocalEyes.

Women business owners of Eldon Street animation created as part of the Eldon Street HSHAZ

Over the next few months, we will be publishing more blogs about some of the stories we have found, as well as some of the amazing women business owners who are still at the heart of Eldon Street and the Victorian Arcade. Watch this space, and follow us on social media @EldonHAZ on twitter and Barnsley Museums on Facebook for more updates.

If you have any other stories, or photographs, of women business owners on Eldon Street or the Victorian Arcade, from any period, we would love to hear from you. Get in touch on e-mail EldonStreetHAZ@barnsley.gov.uk or via twitter @EldonHAZ. 

Part of the Eldon Street High Street Heritage Action Zone.

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