Women Business Owners of Eldon Street

14th April 2022

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.

To find out more about what was discovered about the individual business owners, visit the blog here

Women Business Owners of Eldon Street