Few mourn as the great English Sunday dies: Thousands of high-street stores take advantage of trading law liberalisation as traditionalist arguments fail to sway shoppers

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The Independent Online
THE traditional English Sunday, dating back nearly 2,000 years and chiefly celebrated by those who have forgotten what it was like, yesterday passed into history, largely unmourned by a society which now finds solace in shopping rather than singing hymns.

For thousands of stores it was Sunday opening as usual.

The difference was that, for the first time, they were trading without risk of being taken to court.

Despite the Sunday Trading Act, which came into force on Friday, the impact on business was limited. The most significant new entrants to the Sunday market were stores operated by Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, both of which fought against Sunday opening, plus the big out-of-town centres like Lakeside in Thurrock, Essex, and the Metro Centre on Tyneside - the latter owned by the Church Commissioners and previously one of the most committed of Sunday closers.

The repeal of the 1950 Shops Act, which survived 26 previous attempts at reform, was the culmination of a process which, in the past half-century, has seen the almost total secularisation of the Sabbath.

According to Michael Schluter, director of the Keep Sunday Special campaign, people will wake up in two or three years' time and ask themselves: 'Whatever happened to our Sundays?' They may well reply: 'Gone for good - and no regrets.' For despite the eulogies of Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, - 'a time of relative peace and calm, a family day, a day for visiting friends and relatives', and others on the great English Sunday - many of those who endured it felt rather differently.

Here is Jimmy Porter, in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger: 'God, how I hate Sundays. It's always depressing, always the same. Reading the papers, drinking the tea, ironing.' A few years later, at the end of the Fifties, came another Sunday-hater, Tony Hancock: 'Nowhere to go, nothing to do, just sitting here waiting for the next lot of grub to come up.' Peace, calm and family togetherness were too often part of a package which included a vast lunch, a visit to the great aunt and an enforced hour in the pews or at Sunday school. For the baby-boomers of the Fifties and Sixties, caught like no generation before on the border between austerity and affluence, the price of togetherness was high.

Ray Galton, who was 28 when he co-wrote Hancock's A Sunday Afternoon at Home sketch with Alan Simpson, says it came from the heart. 'It wasn't all gloom and despondency in those days - I remember being thrilled to bits by the Festival of Britain - but I just thought the lack of pleasure and enjoyment was absolutely mad. When you look back on the restrictions of the 1940s and 1950s, they were totally unbelievable.'

Since the 1950s the restrictions have been progressively lifted, usually through canny circumvention of ancient law - charging for programmes at cricket or football matches, for instance, rather than entry, since the latter could constitute a disorderly house under the 1781 Sunday Observance Act.

Sport led the way: mass Sunday league football was followed by Wimbledon, Test matches, golf tournaments.

Theatres, cinemas and licensing laws were liberalised. In the 1970s Sunday markets boomed; now Sunday car-boot sales draw a million people. Pubs may soon be open throughout Sunday under new government proposals. Next year will see the start of Sunday horse racing and betting.

Behind the demise of the English Sunday, however, is the passing of a much larger entity - what used to be called Christendom. The first law requiring Sunday Observance was imposed by the Emperor Constantine in 321, soon after he had made Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion. With an interlude for the Dark Ages, Sabbath restrictions have been with us ever since.

Grousing about the Sabbath has an equally long history.

Even in the post-Puritan atmosphere of Restoration London, a German visitor to St James's Park in 1710 could still complain: 'Not only is all play forbidden and public houses closed but few even of the boats and hackney coaches may ply. Our hostess would not even allow the strangers to play the viol di Gamba or the flute, lest she be punished.'

Who killed off the Christian Sunday? Among the culprits are working women, fragmenting families, growing car ownership and weakening religious belief. But probably its biggest enemy was business which, since the late 1970s, has seen the Sunday trading laws as an anachronistic obstacle to growth and organised probably the largest exercise in civil disobedience in history.

The outcome does not please many of the original sabbatarian malcontents. Mr Galton said yesterday: 'I don't think we have achieved what we wanted. Sport and entertainment should be part of Sunday. So should food and drink. But I don't like to see shops or department stores open. I think the weekend should be something to look forward to. I still think Sunday should be special.'

(Photographs omitted)