On 12 January 2023 social media was awash with blogs and posts – including ones published by respected bodies like the British Library and Historic England – celebrating the opening of ‘the first British supermarket’ on 12 January 1948 at Manor Park in East London. National newspapers recycle this claim on an annual basis.
The London Co-operative Society actually opened its self-service store at Manor Park in autumn 1951. This was a new shop – like the earlier Pimlico branch – furnished with turnstiles, a long central gondola, a refrigerated cabinet for fats rations (packaged for one, two, three or four people) and two checkouts equipped with Addo machines.
Contemporary co-op reports confirm that the branch opened by the London Co-operative Society on Monday 12 January 1948 was located in Green Street, Upton Park. Admittedly, this is not very far from Manor Park. And both have ‘Park’ in the name. Confusion is understandable. Still, it seems a shame that on 12 January every year Manor Park should steal Upton Park’s thunder.
I have yet to discover when Upton Park got confused with Manor Park in the first place – one of the earliest instances I’ve found is a book called The Chronology of British History, published in 1992, possibly following The Book of Firsts of 1982.
So, let’s put all of this into a broader historical context.
The London Co-operative Society spearheaded the resumption of self-service retailing in the British Isles in the 1940s. It converted a small part of its Romford store to self-service in 1942. Several other conversions followed, including branches in Barkingside and West Hounslow. Interiors were usually divided into a counter-service section for rationed goods and a self-service section for unrationed goods. The format was sometimes referred to as ‘semi self-service’ or ‘the hybrid system’.
Upton Park was the first new branch to operate entirely on a self-service basis. It was very small, however, with just one checkout. Hardly a ‘supermarket’. At the same time, Barkingside and West Hounslow were altered to operate a complete self-service system. If any of these stores qualified as a ‘supermarket’ in 1948, it was Barkingside, which occupied 2,000 sq. ft.
Manor Park is not the only co-operative store for which spurious claims of primacy have been made. In 1978 a plaque was installed on the façade of the Portsea Island Co-operative Society store at 147 Albert Road, Southsea. This complete self-service conversion opened in March or April 1948, some months after Upton Park, Barkingside and West Hounslow. Nevertheless, the plaque proclaimed this to be: ‘the first self service shop in Great Britain’. When the building was reconstructed earlier this century the plaque was not reinstated: maybe someone had realised their error.
As for the ‘first self-service shop’ in Great Britain, this was probably David Greig’s Turnpike Lane branch of 1923. The ‘first supermarket’ – well, several different examples might be suggested, depending on how the term is defined. In the 1950s and 1960s the basic definition of ‘supermarket’ was a self-service store of 2,000 sq. ft. or more, selling food and household goods, and having at least three checkouts.
The notion that Manor Park was Britain’s first supermarket is so deeply embedded in the world wide web and lists of ‘firsts’ that I doubt this blogpost will dispel the myth. But don’t be surprised if I fire off irritable tweets when it pops up in my timeline again, on 12 January 2024!
Main Sources: A. E. Hammond, Self-Service Trading, 1950; Co-operative News 17 Jan 1948; 27 Dec 1978; Self-Service 1:1, Dec 1951; J. Birchall, Co-op: The People’s Business, 1994.
Research and text copyright K. Morrison. Images of store interiors from Hammond 1950 and Self-Service 1951.