IT GREW to become one of the UK’s best-loved and biggest retailers, but had the humblest of beginnings on a Leeds market stall.
Now Marks & Spencer has harked back to its Victorian roots by returning to where it all began, Kirkgate Market, for one night only.
With the help of actors portraying characters from the company’s 130-year history, Marks in Time Live: After Hours re-enacted the beginnings of Marks & Spencer, including playing music once sold from Michael Marks’s Penny Bazaar market stall.
The event was made possible after staff at the M&S Company Archive, which is based at the University of Leeds, worked with students to delve further into the company’s history as part of the Museums at Night festival, which runs until Saturday at museums, galleries and heritage sites across the country.
M&S Company Archive’s education and outreach officer Helen Chatterton said the festival offered the opportunity to bring Marks & Spencer’s rich history to life. She said: “The business was very humble to begin with, simply a table offering household goods, but it grew to the penny bazaars on high streets across the country, and eventually to what we have today. We’re very proud of our heritage here in Leeds.”
The archive worked with students to produce scripts for characters from the history of the company, who last night performed, in full costume, for visitors. Among those portrayed were Michael Marks himself, a Polish refugee who founded the market stall in 1884 with the slogan ‘don’t ask the price, it’s a penny’; Esther Brown, one of the first female assistants on the penny bazaars in the 1890s; and Russian heiress Flora Solomon, who pioneered staff welfare.
The event took place around the Marks & Spencer Heritage Stall, which opened beside the M&S clock in the market in 2013. A pop-up vintage tea room provided refreshments.
“The idea was to take visitors back in time, and bring the ghosts of the characters from our history to life,” said Mrs Chatterton.
While Marks in Time Live was a one-off event, the archive, inside the university’s Michael Marks building, is open on weekdays from 10am to 5pm. It contains more than 70,000 items from the retailer’s past, and charts the company’s progress from the first buttons sold in Kirkgate Market to becoming an leading international retailer.
The exhibition also highlights the product innovation and business growth that have established M&S as the famous British retailer we know today, such as the establishment of its own research laboratory to pioneer new fabrics in 1934.
Mrs Chatterton said: “The exhibition has recently been refreshed to put on show things like the sheet music we used as part of Marks in Time Live, very early children’s books that we sold in the 1930s, and information on how we were involved in the rationing of clothes during the Second World War. We think it is so important to celebrate both our history and the links we have with Leeds.”
The M&S Company Archive has recently been shortlisted in the nationwide Connect! competition, run by Culture 24, organisers of Museums at Night, which gives cultural organisations the chance to work with a contemporary artist at an evening event, to take place in October. Voting is open until tomorrow at www.museumsatnight.org.uk/alinah-azadeh.
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