Past Talks

A History of Shopping in Bicester

Date: 17th June 2013
Speaker: Pete Chivers

The Meeting was held at The Clifton Centre, Bicester. Sixty members and eleven guests were present at the meeting. Bob Hessian introduced the speaker, Pete Chivers, who related his subject to the forthcoming opening of the new Bicester town centre and the effect it would have on retail opportunities in the town. The history of retail opportunity in the town often reflected national trends.

Little shopping was necessary when the town was founded in Saxon times as people were self-sufficient and grew and made what they needed. Shopping opportunities developed during the medieval period when a market was established. Stalls were located in the present Market Square. The development of Bicester Priory gave a large boost to the local economy. The stalls became more permanent fixtures and shops and workshops began to appear. A Market Charter was granted in 1239. Fairs were held from 1252 when the feast of St Edburg was celebrated annually.

The rural nature of the surrounding countryside saw livestock markets develop based mainly in Sheep Street. This situation continued until a purpose built market was opened in Victoria Road in 1910. The Sheep Market at King’s End was a major event in the area for many centuries.

Some of the first medieval shops developed in the Island Block between the Market Square and Market Hill. The Shambles building was constructed in the C17th on the site of the present Market Square car park. Sheep Street grew in importance with refreshment premises and shops developing from C18th.

Bicester has enjoyed seven ages of shopping that reflect national trends:

  • Victorian (1870 – 1901): Retailing was based on craft skills. Shopkeepers were expected to produce many of their wares although consumer choice was enhanced by goods produced as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Edwardian (1901 – 1917): The ‘Golden Age of Shopping’ fuelled by the Edwardian love of luxury, elegance and extravagance. The ‘High Street’ developed with shops for the middle and wealthier classes. Cheaper alternatives were located on the outskirts.
  • Interwar (1918 – 1939): Retailers took the initiative to adopt new ideas. The delivery of goods became common place. There was a pride in display and good service. Many traditional family firms were established during the period.
  • World War II (1939 – 1945): Retail opportunities adapted to the crisis of shortages, rationing, ‘make do and mend’ and ‘dig for victory’. Shops offered advice on how to manage best through the period.
  • Post War (1945 – 1969): Despite shortages after the war there was optimism about the future. Building projects were initiated to repair wartime damage. Department stores evolved in the town and there was a change to ‘self-service’ shopping in food shops especially. New cultural and fashion influences were introduced. The motor car became an item that most households could afford.
  • 1970s – 1980s: Supermarkets began to dominate the High Street. Smaller shops found it hard to compete with the larger retailers. Take Away meals, D.I.Y., Music and Fashion shops reflected the increasing wealth felt by the population. Shopping precincts were introduced into the town.
  • 1990s to the present: Sheep Street became traffic free. The High Street declined during the global depression, a trend heightened with the growth of ‘out of town’ and internet shopping. Limited parking and traffic congestion added to the problem faced in the town centre. Bicester Village opened and attracted over four million visitors a year. Charity shops and estate agent shops were common additions to the town centre scene. The closure of many established businesses meant less consumer choice and residents travelled to other local towns where there was more retail choice for their shopping.


Despite the relative decline in the retail outlook in the town, new investment with the Sainsbury’s development, new shops moving into the town centre and improved transport access have sparked a regeneration of the town centre thus leading to an optimism that the situation is improving. The largest retail revolution in town centre’s history is about to take place. It will be of interest to see how this impacts on the future of the town and on retailing in particular.

Pete concluded his talk by answering questions about the retail history of the town. The Meeting closed at 9.14 p.m.