The staff of Cape’s, the department store in Oxford, not only worked on the premises, but also lived there.
Once they were done serving customers, often until 10 p.m., they headed to their accommodation – upstairs.
There was little escape from work for employees of the St Ebbe Street store.
In addition, the management imposed strict rules, whether they were on duty or not.
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Reader Stephen Jones, of Green Ridges, Headington, reminded us of the well-known store.
He sent a booklet about his story compiled by Richard Foster, director of the Oxford City and County Museum, a year after it closed in 1972.
Cape’s offered a wide range of inexpensive drapery, haberdashery, furniture, footwear and clothing.
He was known for stocking, or being able to obtain, bric-a-brac that few other stores would offer.
In its time it had branches in Little Clarendon Street, Walton Street, Windmill Road in Headington and Cowley Road.
Some say Faithful Cape started the business in 1867, although there is no record of its existence until 1877.
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Under Cape, who was in charge until 1889, and his successors, Daniel Bailey and the Lewis family, the business grew from a small drapery shop to a large department store. Instead of relying on passing trade, he tried to attract buyers by increasing advertising, special displays and sales. A famous image was of a donkey parading through the streets of the city, carrying a sign saying, “I’m not going to the Cape Town sale, but I’m a donkey.”
In 1907 Cape’s employed 120 people, 47 of whom lived, most of them in the St Ebbe store. They paid £25 a year for the privilege – £11 for bed and breakfast, £10 for dinner and £4 for tea.
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The “residents”, mostly single, were cared for by a housekeeper.
To sleep outside, they had to get written permission from management and give it to the housekeeper, who would report any breaches of discipline.
In stores, the rules were also strict. Unnecessary conversations between assistants were prohibited, and eating sweets while serving a customer could lead to instant dismissal.
In 1913, “as a result of very disagreeable circumstances which have recently arisen,” a little blue book entitled “Rules for Assistants” was published.
The staff had code words to warn them of the approach of the managers, who all had offices in the workshop.
There was also a dress code – women had to wear black dresses, shoes and stockings and men dark suits with black jackets and striped trousers.
The opening hours were from 9am to 8pm on weekdays (early closing on Thursdays at 4pm) and on Saturdays the store remained open until 10pm.
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However, despite the strict regime, the company was generally seen as a caring employer and one that promoted assistants who worked hard or showed promise.
He also ran swimming, football and cricket clubs for employees and organized annual parties and outings.
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