The other week the eminent social historian Asa Briggs died. Despite my not being an historian this was a name I knew. I came across his work when I wanted to look at aspects of the social history of the UK over the last century or so.
But then, in a Guardian obituary, it was mentioned that he had been asked, and had accepted, to write a centenary history of Marks and Spencer and I remembered the book that he had authored in 1984.
Before turning to that book and Marks and Spencer however, one other aspect of his obituary caught my eye.
When I did my undergraduate degree at Cambridge in the 1970s, various senior members of Colleges and University staff, some much older than others, came across my path. Being young, naïve and impatient (never!), I did not pay much attention to them or their own histories. It is only later, as the secrets of Bletchley and the Enigma story became more public, and especially having visited there a couple of years ago, that I realised many of them had been part of that history. Whilst I did not know him, Asa Briggs was one of these Bletchley staff.
Modern day retailing is of course full of data, encryption and very clever systems and people. It is a far remove from the origins of Marks and Spencer and much of the story Asa Briggs tells in his centenary history.
I must admit that it is not the book I immediately think of when I consider the history of Marks and Spencer. Instead I turn to Goronwy Rees and to the recent Chislett 125 Years volume. On management, I look to K K Tse and on the recent history I have used Judi Bevan on the ‘decline’ and ‘rise’ of the company in the 1990s/2000s. There are of course others and lots of articles, including some of my own, as Marks and Spencer is a much studied business. Asa Briggs doesn’t get much of a look in, possibly because of the style of the book, being visually more ‘coffee-table’ than ‘academic’; and possibly as it is caught between two eras – the corporate rise and the more recent challenges.
Re-reading it though over the last week, I did find myself warming more to it. It is well illustrated and the choice of photographs and illustrations does evoke the stores and the high streets through which Marks and Spencer prospered. The text is very readable and focuses on themes as opposed to a chronological history. It is not academic in the full sense, but is well informed and informative. It is worth re-reading.
Asa Briggs’ acknowledgements at the start of the volume state ‘I hope the publication of my book will lead to the unearthing of information which has been lost. There is no finality about the writing of history’. He also comments on p11 about ‘(digging deep) into the fragmentary but always richly rewarding Marks and Spencer archives’.
It is therefore perhaps apposite that in recent years Marks and Spencer have moved their archive into a new purpose built building at the University of Leeds and have recently completed an online digitisation process for their corporate literature post 1926. If only other retailers were so positive and proactive about their corporate history! I saw some of the M&S physical material a few years ago, and remain keen to continue my explorations in due course. As we have demonstrated via Sanders Bros, history is indeed fragmentary but its study can be richly rewarding.
Bevan J (2007) The Rise and Fall of Marks and Spencer… and how it Rose Again. ISBN 1 861978 98 7
Briggs A (1984) Marks and Spencer 1884-1984. ISBN 0 906320 05 4
Chislett H (2009) Marks in Time: 125 Years of Marks and Spencer. ISBN 0 297858734
Rees G (1969) St Michael: History of Marks and Spencer. ISBN 0 297177 63 X
Tse KK (1985) Marks and Spencer: anatomy of Britain’s most efficiently managed company. ISBN 0 080302 12 2