When Shop Workers in Orkney Fought For Early Closing

Open all hours, or almost so, in Kirkwall as shoppers can make purchases in the big supermarkets far into the night.

But there was a time when shop workers and traders had to campaign for a reduction in opening times. The UK Early Closing Association was formed in the 1840s. The movement campaigned for more control on the number of hours for shop workers and to abolish Sunday trading.

The Hat Shop by Henry Tonks (1862 – 1937) Photo credit: Birmingham Museums Trust

The traders of Orkney were also part of this movement and in 1871 the drapers and clothiers of the town all agreed to close their places of business on Saturdays at 2pm. They asked for public support by getting shopping done earlier in the day.

This was a long running campaign. As far back as the 1860s J. Smith & Co of Broad Street Kirkwall, which sold a huge variety of goods in their drapery store, tried to implement early closing.

Unfortunately not all traders took part in the movement for better conditions for both themselves and their employees. Some who had licensed premises refused to participate and the campaign was almost entirely led by those who worked in clothing and drapery.

There were some better conditions won by those traders such as the drapers and butchers, but others felt left out and another campaign was started for a half day closing one day a week by grocers and general merchants. It was suggested that a Wednesday would be good as a half day for Kirkwall’s traders – if they could all stick together. The steamer did not arrive on a Wednesday and it was felt to be a slower kind of a day anyway for trade.

There were several pieces of legislation passed in the UK Parliament throughout this period to try and improve the hours and conditions of shop workers:

  • The Shop Hours Act 1892
  • The Shop Hours Act 1893
  • The Shop Hours Act 1895
  • The Seats for Shop Assistants Act 1899 
  • The Shop Hours Act 1904

In 1911 the Shops Act was passed which gave a half day a week off for shop staff – coming into force on 1st May 1912.

Although many businesses throughout Scotland closed for a half day on a Wednesday, some in Kirkwall chose a Saturday, and in Stromness, a Thursday.

The Orkney Herald May 8th 1912

“We the undersigned tailors of Kirkwall, have agreed to close our places of business on Saturday afternoons at 1 o’clock.


On Wednesday, 1st May, and every following Wednesday, the chemists shops in Kirkwall will be closed at 1.30pm, opening again from 7.30 to 9pm.

  • D M WRIGHT Chemist, Albert Street
  • STEWART & HEDDLE, Chemist, Albert Street


The weekly half holiday under this Act has been arranged as follows –

The Drapers and Tailors (with four exceptions, which are closing on Thursday) have arranged to close their shops on Saturdays at 1pm.

All other shops have arranged to close on Thursdays at 1pm.”

It took decades of campaigning for shop workers to gain this small concession to their working conditions, something to bear in mind now we have left the EU and with that the protections that gave to workers rights.

Kirkwall town centre today

Fiona Grahame

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