BUTCHER IN THE FAMILY
Michelle Higgs reveals the high levels of skill and sheer hard work that was required to be a successful butcher
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.”
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