Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers.
A Victorian Butcher's Shop
Step inside a butcher’s shop in the 1800s and what would you find?
Well, according to Thomas Miller in 1852, first you would have to step over the gutter before the door, which literally ‘ran with blood’ (Victorian London). And be mindful of all those carcasses hanging on the outside of the shop! Photographs from the time (Mary Evans) show the astonishing displays of plucked fowl and the sawn-in-half bodies of pigs and cows pierced on hooks all over the outer shop walls. It was certainly not for the squeamish!
But of course, back in Victorian times, these displays would be a common sight. Unlike nowadays, High Streets of all sizes in the 1800s had butcher’s shops, and often more than one. Many would specialise, and a pork butchers was especially popular due to the fact that almost every part of the pig could be utilised (BBC).
Most shops had also been in the same family for decades, if not centuries, earning their reputations. Businesses would shout about where they sourced their meat, and were proud to sell local produce, the animals coming from nearby farms. At Christmas time, huge, tantalising displays were created to entice customers, some so magnificent that they were reported on in the local papers, and these reports would include where the meat had been sourced from and any prizes it might have attained. Indeed, by the end of the century when meat imports were on the rise, butchers would display signs saying ‘No foreign meat’. Having said that, one damning estimate from the 1860s alleged that ‘up to one fifth of all meat purchased at a butcher’s shop was from animals that were diseased’. (BBC)
Nevertheless, meat consumption was on the rise. Despite many desperately poor people being unable to afford meat and living mainly on bread, scraps, and tea, statistics show that annual meat consumption per head had risen from 87 pounds in the 1830s to 132 pounds by the turn of the century (BBC). Butchers were busy people, and according to Thomas Miller, these ‘knights of the cleaver’ were doing well for themselves, with some even ‘keep[ing] his country-house' (Victorian London). Even so, it was a gruesome job. In London at the start of the century, farms from all over the country drove their animals to Smithfield market every September and October where they were sold and slaughtered - Dickens describes the horrific scene in Oliver Twist, if you’re intrigued (Vic Sanborn). Butchers were slaughter men, and would kill the animals at their own premises then salt and store the meat in the cellar beneath the shop.
In a time of no refrigerators, salting and smoking meat was a good method of preservation. Yet, Victorians liked their meat a little aged, and sausages, for example, were hung in the windows for much longer than they are nowadays. Apparently, this made them taste better! By the end of the century, ice boxes began to be used.
Inside the shop, you would see a butcher with his ‘bare muscular arms’ (Thomas Miller). You might find yourself a little confused as this butcher conversed with his assistant, for butchers were famed for their backslang. This was a language made up of reversed words (‘boy’ would be ‘yob’, for example) which enabled butcher and assistant to talk without the customer understanding. Why? So they might charge different prices! It was known for butchers to price their meat according to what they thought they could get away with (BBC). Despite this rather salubrious trait, butchers tried to be clean. Fresh sawdust was put down each morning to soak up the spills of blood and cleared away at the end of the day. By the start of the twentieth century at least, butcher’s shop walls were tiled for better hygiene, and chopping boards and knives were scrubbed and washed at the end of each day. (1900s.org)
I hope I have managed to show some of these fascinating insights in my book, The Butcher’s Wife. And if you would like to read more about Victorian butchers, check out the bibliography.
Vic Sanborn and Jane Austen's World: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/tag/19th-century-butchers/
Victorian London: https://www.victorianlondon.org/professions/butchers.htm (Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London Past and Present, 1852)
BBC: The High Street - 100 Years of British Life Through The Shop Window. Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Turn-Back-Time-British-Through/dp/1849164207/ref=sr_1_1
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