Michelle Higgs re­veals the high lev­els of skill and sheer hard work that was re­quired to be a suc­cess­ful butcher

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From me­dieval times, there was a de­fined area for butch­ers in towns called the ‘sham­bles’ or the ‘ butch­ers’ row’. This could be a place where meat was sold on mar­ket stalls, but it was also where butch­ers lived and worked with slaugh­ter­houses be­hind their prop­er­ties.

Un­der the win­dows were large ledges for dis­play­ing meat out­side while the streets had spe­cially made chan­nels in which of­fal and blood could be washed away.

If your an­ces­tor was a butcher, you can be sure that he was highly skilled, en­tre­pre­neur­ial, phys­i­cally strong and very hard-work­ing. He needed all th­ese at­tributes to with­stand the va­garies of the chang­ing 19th cen­tury meat mar­ket. Some men were whole­sale butch­ers, only sell­ing meat to retail butch­ers. Oth­ers spe­cialised in pork, poul­try and so on to be sold to the pub­lic.

The job did not sim­ply en­tail cut­ting up meat for sale; a tra­di­tional small fam­ily butcher bought live an­i­mals from farm­ers and of­ten drove them home, ei­ther from the rail­way sta­tion or di­rect from the farms; he slaugh­tered his own an­i­mals and butchered them into cuts or joints of meat; then he ran the stall or shop to sell the goods.

In­side the butcher’s shop, there was al­ways saw­dust on the floor to ab­sorb spilt blood. The car­casses of whole pigs and cows, in ad­di­tion to in­di­vid­ual cuts of meat, were hung up on rows of huge iron hooks, while the im­pres­sive shop dis­play was lit

Butch­ers were highly skilled, strong and en­tre­pre­neur­ial

up by gaslight af­ter dark. As there was no re­frig­er­a­tion, in the base­ment was an ice box which was the only place where meat could be kept cool.

Open all hours

Butch­ers worked ex­tremely long hours and re­lied heav­ily on help from male mem­bers of the fam­ily such as sons, neph­ews and brothers. Charles Marks’ father ran a butcher’s shop in Rams­gate un­til 1902 and Charles re­calls his mem­o­ries of it in Michael J

Win­stan­ley’s The Shop­keeper’s World 1830-1914.

They would open at about 6am- 6.30am and close dur­ing the week be­tween 8-8.30pm. On Fri­days, clos­ing time was around 10pm but on Satur­days, the shop would be open un­til af­ter mid­night: “We used to do more trade af­ter eleven o’clock than we done all af­ter­noon be­cause the pubs used to shut then and the old girls came out for their shop­ping,” ex­plained Charles. The small butcher was ex­tremely im­por­tant to the work­ing classes be­cause he sold the odds and ends from prime joints for just two or three­pence; noth­ing was ever wasted.

Young boys learned the art of butch­ery through a tra­di­tional seven-year ap­pren­tice­ship; on com­ple­tion, they were known as jour­ney­men butch­ers. The names of Lon­don ap­pren­tices who ap­pear in the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Butch­ers records at the So­ci­ety of Ge­neal­o­gists are listed in Lon­don Ap­pren­tice­ship Reg­is­ters Vol­ume 46 Butch­ers Com­pany 1604-1800 by Cliff Webb. Of­fi­cial records of ap­pren­tices were kept in Eng­land and Wales be­tween 1710 and 1811, when stamp duty was payable by masters on in­den­tures. You can search the ap­pren­tice­ship reg­is­ters on Ances­try at

search. ances­try.co.uk/search/db. aspx?dbid=1851.

A mas­ter butcher had ap­pren­tices work­ing for him and, if he could raise the cap­i­tal to set up fixed premises to trade from, there was po­ten­tially good money to be made from butch­ery. Many butch­ers were able to in­vest their prof­its in prop­erty and could re­tire as wealthy men.

Meat was al­ways a rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive com­mod­ity but many fam­i­lies treated them­selves at Christ­mas. The fes­tive dis­plays in butch­ers’ shop win­dows were very im­por­tant for drum­ming up trade. In an ad­ver­tise­ment in the

New­cas­tle Jour­nal (21 De­cem­ber 1861), J S Baker, a pork butcher of Foot of Dean Street, New­cas­tle, in­formed read­ers that “he will have a very fine dis­play of dairy-fed pork for Christ­mas and New Year’s va­ca­tion; and hav­ing made ar­range­ments with the best

feed­ers in the coun­try, will be en­abled to have al­ways on hand the best fresh and salt pork, hog’s lard, polonies, pork and mut­ton sausages of the best qual­ity.”

Chang­ing times

Butch­ers had to be li­censed to sell meat, and in Lon­don and other large cities, they were mem­bers of trade guilds which pro­tected their in­ter­ests.

By the mid-19th cen­tury, th­ese guilds had largely lost their in­flu­ence, but lo­cal meat traders’ so­ci­eties were formed in­stead.

They, in turn, be­came af­fil­i­ated to the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Meat Traders which was founded in 1888.

It cam­paigned for bet­ter trad­ing con­di­tions for butch­ers at a time when their liveli­hoods were threat­ened by tough new govern­ment leg­is­la­tion and im­ported meat from over­seas.

By 1860, Scot­tish beef and mut­ton was rou­tinely trans­ported from In­ver­ness by rail to Lon­don and other cities of­fer­ing cus­tomers greater choice and qual­ity.

From the 1870s, live North Amer­i­can cat­tle were be­ing im­ported and af­ter 1874, chilled beef started to ar­rive from the United States. This was of a suf­fi­ciently high qual­ity to be used by butch­ers to sup­ple­ment their own stock of home-killed meat.

They were not keen, how­ever, to sell frozen meat which was first shipped to Bri­tain in 1884 from the Ar­gen­tine and Aus­tralia. As a re­sult, from the 1890s, there was a rapid in­tro­duc­tion and ex­pan­sion of ‘ for­eign meat’ shops and stalls, many of which were run by multi­na­tional com­pa­nies such as James Nelson & Sons Ltd and the River Plate Fresh Meat Com­pany.

By the 1890s, ac­cord­ing to Charles Booth, “Butch­ers in the strict sense of the word, i.e. men who also kill their own meat, are a rapidly de­creas­ing class.” This state­ment only re­ally ap­plied in the cities where mid­dle­men took over the tra­di­tional butch­ers’ pro­cess­ing roles. The term ‘butcher’ could then mean some­one who sim­ply sold meat but had noth­ing to do with slaugh­ter­ing an­i­mals or cur­ing the meat. Th­ese ‘pur­vey­ors of meat’ set up elab­o­rately dec­o­rated shops with more hy­gienic tiled walls and mar­ble coun­ters to at­tract a bet­ter class of clien­tele. How­ever, in the coun­try­side and small mar­ket towns, tra­di­tional fam­ily butch­ers con­tin­ued to trade as they had al­ways done.

is an au­thor spe­cial­is­ing in so­cial his­tory and ge­neal­ogy

A Smith­field butcher at work with car­casses and joints of meat hung up around him in De­cem­ber 1924

An ex­ten­sive New Year’s dis­play out­side a butcher’s shop, c1900

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