Open All Hours and Other Stories

Sadiya Ahmed with her siblings in their family shop

For more than two centuries, the humble corner shop has been an integral part of communities across Britain. The hugely popular BBC sitcom 'Open All Hours' characterised a nostalgic by-gone era of the British institution and a white indigenous community.

In my role as Lead Researcher in the archives, I found this narrative well-represented in historical documents and archive collections across London. Documents included photographs of shop fronts, ephemera, newspaper cuttings and many history books on the East End from as far back as the early nineteenth century up until the 1960s.

Another less conventional way of documenting this history is present on various Facebook groups and Instagram pages set up by the public. These provide crowded-sourced first-hand testimonies including photographs and stories of local shop buildings, markets, their owners, families and their communities. These online groups/virtual spaces are an incredibly rich source of detailed testimonies and experiences that recount an essential story of the daily and personal lives of the white working-class neighbourhood which, in turn, is vital to the broader social history of the area.

Nevertheless, during the mid-twentieth century when the sitcom first aired on television and considering the time-period of the crowd-sourced memories now on social media and the more contemporary archive collections of the time, communities across Britain were in a period of change.

From the early 1960s through to the late 1990s, the Asian corner shop owner was, and probably still is; the most visible representation of a living memory associated to a retail space or service in Britain. However, archive documents from the mid-twentieth century mention the Asian shopkeeper only in the context of racist attacks in newspaper articles and migration in local area Government reports.

Yagnesh and Narendra's shop on Eltham High Street
Inside display of pick and mix in Yagnesh and Narendra's shop
Yagnesh and Narendra's shop on Eltham High Street

Both references are mostly in the framework of 'the other.' There is no representation of their experiences or contributions to their local communities and changes in affecting the social history in Britain.

During my preliminary research in the archives, the only well-documented migrant community histories I found are that of the Jewish community. I discovered several archival collections which include personal documents, academic research and photographs that detail 'everyday life.'

More recently, the Chinese, Bangladeshi and Somali communities in the area have also begun to document their social history by recording oral history interviews and collecting ephemera and photographs to create contemporary archive collections.

" Through this project, we can begin to readdress the lack of BAME representation in British history by creating contemporary collections of photographs and oral history interviews that over time will become a record of their experiences and historical value."
- Sadiya Ahmed

The Asian owned corner shop story is not only of how migrant communities were established, but also how they have introduced new spices, fruits, vegetables and ingredients that have impacted the British palate and food industry. It has transformed it in the last sixty years and has changed the understanding of different cultures and broader social changes in community, consumerism and business.

Therefore, through this project, we can begin to readdress the lack of BAME representation in British history by creating contemporary collections of photographs and oral history interviews that over time will become a record of their experiences and historical value. It is for these reasons collecting personal testimonies are paramount to the documenting of our collective social history.

Exterior Short of Yagnesh and Narendra's shop

Corner Shop Stories 

Corner Shop Stories is a research and public engagement project that seeks to support the telling of this story. Through this project we aim to preserve intangible heritage, connect you to lesser known migration stories and prompt a reassessment of the value placed on corner shops.