Working Lives

The Butcher’s Girl (1953-1970s)

Location: Derby

Janet vividly describes working in her father’s pork butcher’s shop in Derby before marrying and moving to Norfolk. You can use every part of the pig except its squeal!

From the grocery to the butcher’s

I left Derby College of Art at 15 and my first job was in my father’s grocery opposite his butcher’s shop. I wanted to be an occupational therapist but you had to be seventeen to start training so my father, who had very bad arthritis, said I should work in his grocery shop. I loved every minute and when he decided to sell it I agreed to work in the butcher’s as I liked retail and I liked talking to people. It was a pork butcher’s, we didn’t sell beef or lamb, just pork and pork products.

We lived over the shop at the cross roads of a very long street, full of a variety of shops, our grocery, the greengrocer’s, our pork butcher’s, the general butcher’s and then a house opposite with a big bay window. It was quite a community. When I started going out with boys, most mornings my father would have a report on who I’d gone with. It was like living in a goldfish bowl. ‘Your Janet was out with so and so last night’, and he would say ‘Yes, I know. It’s all right, I know’. Even if he didn’t know he used to pretend he did.

Everything but the squeal!

They say you can use every part of the pig except its squeal, don’t they? We didn’t sell ears and tails but just about everything else was used. We had a small bake house in the yard where we made sausages and cooked hams and roast pork. We bought in large tins of corned beef. We were near Rolls Royce in the war and a lot of people came for things to make sandwiches. We had a big balloon over our street because we were so near the railway and Rolls Royce and they would come for things to put in their pack-up, as they called it. We sold potted meat and fish paste in little aluminium trays, with melted butter on top so the paste didn’t dry out. It was very finely minced, like a very bland pâté, and was cut into squares, and served in greaseproof paper. A young man who I got to know quite well came from Bingham, near Nottingham, once a week to deliver the fish and meat paste. I looked forward to that day very much. We also sold eggs from the farmer, and all sorts of bits and bobs as well as the pork.

Chitterlings, trotters and pork pies

We bought in the black puddings and the ‘polony’, a solid paste in a red skin which you could cut into rings, in a horse shoe shape, and fry. They were made at Peachey’s in Alvaston, where my father had worked as a boy, making pork pies amongst other things. We still bought their pork pies and at Christmas we sent a lot abroad, to Scotland, all over the place, and we had special pork pie boxes with a ring in so they wouldn’t get crushed. We also sold poultry at Christmas which we bought from a local farmer and we would pluck and prepare them, to order. Sales of poultry increased as people became more health conscious. Peachey’s also cooked and processed chitterlings, the pig’s digestive system, and we would go and fetch them in the van. They cleaned them by running scalding hot water through them to get rid of the ‘poo’ and then boiled them and left them to cool. We had a tray of them and customers would come especially early to get the particular piece they liked, to eat cold with vinegar. As far as I know nobody ever got ill from eating them. We didn’t sell tripe but we sold hearts which people cleaned and cooked with sage and thyme stuffing and bacon. They were as popular as the kidneys.

Peachey’s cooked trotters for us because they had big washing coppers and by the time we got them they were cool and had a bit of jelly round them. We sold a lot of those but I never fancied them. We didn’t get the pigs’ heads and I was pleased not to have to look into dead eyes. They used the head meat in pies and sold them in their shop, as well as wholesale.

We had what we called ‘pluck’ which was hung up, with a bowl underneath to catch the blood, in the big fridge behind the shop. The pluck was the pig’s oesaphagus, with lungs and the liver. The lungs were sold to feed cats, and the liver, which sold very quickly, was particularly tender when the pig had just been killed. The innards were hanging in the fridge and when Mother helped in the shop occasionally she wouldn’t touch them at all, and would call for me or my father. As you can gather, I’m not a bit squeamish. We kept raw meat on one side of the fridge and cooked ham and pies on the other. It was a long time before we had a small freezer.

Dressing the butchers’ window and having a chat

The main shop window had bars across and we’d hang black puddings up. Black pudding is boiled blood with little blobs of fat in, in black rings, in bunches. We make a very exotic display with a ring of polony, a bunch of black puddings right along, and over the bottom we had links of sausages, with a ham each side. It looked super. We’d have tomato sausage, a pork sausage with a tin of tomatoes in the mix and it was lovely and pink and looked ever so pretty. We always had little rows of parsley between our trays of chops, as they still do.

We sold bottles of milk for the convenience of our customers, and we had a stool for people to sit on while they were waiting, and occasionally someone would sit and chat.

One lady would come on a Tuesday afternoon, buy a certain amount and then would sit on the stool and, while I boned out, she would talk. I think she lived on her own. You can’t really blame her. Sometimes father would come down and say ‘I hope your hands are going as quickly as your tongue’, and I’d say ‘Yes, Father. I need a cup of tea’.  We used to get interesting people in, lots of Irish with their lovely accents as there was a large Catholic school nearby.

We closed from 1pm till 2pm and my father had a rest because of his arthritis. We always ate our main meal at lunch time and something cold, with cakes, for tea. My father would ask what I’d like and I’d go and choose a piece of pork pie, or, when we cooked hams, I liked the little end piece, pure meat. I never liked fat meat. Occasionally I ate chitterlings and I liked black pudding, but eventually went off it because of the fat.

I would open up and, as it was usually quiet, I would bone the bacon, which, strangely enough, was Danish. We always had Danish bacon. Don’t ask why, I never knew. A wholesaler brought it in his van, hanging up, opposite the van door, on a high rail. I couldn’t reach it so I used a pole to hook it on and get it down. That was sides of bacon, no heads or tails, purely the body of the pig, with its ribs. I had to stand at what was called the block, just inside the door from the house, and bone these sides of bacon. Our bacon machine was a huge circular knife which you turned with the handle to slice it. Some deli’s still slice the same way. You could adjust the thickness, say four slices of number 4, and you had to be very careful of your fingers. I can feel now, I caught the side of my little finger and sliced it off, but I don’t remember every having a bad cut.

Pressed pork and chilblains

Pressed pork was the shoulder pork which my father cooked, took off the bone and shredded into chunky pieces and put it into a mould, with no gelatin or anything, and pressed it down with weights. When you took it out you could slice it though it would break up a bit, but not much. A lot of people bought it instead of ham because it was cheap. We bought in tins of luncheon meat which is like spam, and customers would say ‘Cut it a bit thicker, Janet’. It was square, like spam, and cheaper than bacon, and they would fry it. There was a lot of frying went on in those days.

I really disliked the cold. We had a little stove in the shop but during the winter it was very cold. I wore a white nylon coat which, after a couple of years, went a yellowing white, and a blue and white striped apron over it. I could hardly fasten my coat I had so many things on underneath. My father bought me some fur boots because I used to get chilblains and they got so bad I had to wear very thin latex gloves. The doctor said ‘While you’re working in that shop you’ll never get rid of them’. It’s taken years to get rid of them on my feet, I still get one, just one toe, as a reminder. It was more of a problem with the meat when it was very hot. You were cool in the summer which was lovely as we were on the shady side of the street. The shop opposite had to have blinds.

My father had a slaughterman’s licence which meant he could kill a pig. His uncle had a farm in Swarkestone in Derbyshire. If you know your history, Bonnie Prince Charlie got as far as Swarkestone Bridge. Occasionally my father would go there to kill a pig and my mother and I would go with him but we would have to stay in the house. I would say ‘Can’t I go and look?’ and they’d say ‘No, you cannot go and see the pig killed’, but it wasn’t horrendous to me as I’d grown up with dead things all round, bits of pig. After they’d killed it and were cleaning it down and taking the insides out, he would fetch me to see what they were doing and I remember the smell. They used a lot of very hot water to clean the pig’s body and then would scald and shave the outside. I’ve got visions of my father and great uncle Frank, his name was Frank too, it was a family name, cleaning the pig. There wasn’t another smell like it, not nasty, but it had a certain smell and clouds of steam would come out of the door. This may have been sometime before Christmas so they’d got pieces to sell, but it was their own pig, an ‘in house’ pig.

Scrubbing, cleaning and singing on Mondays

The shop was open from 9am till 5.30pm but we’d start cleaning early because there was a lot to do. We finished at 4pm on a Saturday. People coming back from holiday on Saturday afternoon would send us a postcard saying ‘Will you keep me a quarter of ham and a piece of pork, or a piece of pie, and we’ll pick it up as soon as we come home’, and they would pick it up around 6pm at night. We were closed on a Monday. I had to get married on a Monday because that was the day I could get away. No way could you marry on a Saturday if you’d got a shop.

On my Monday afternoons off I went for private singing lessons which my father paid for. I still love singing and I’m in a choir. I sang classical things like The Trout song, and folk songs, nothing popular. I took two or three exams and got quite good. Unfortunately I didn’t have a piano which was a shame, and then my singing teacher died.

We always did our main cleaning on a Monday morning when I would be on my knees scrubbing the wooden shop floor. It was an art in itself because you had to go with the grain and I had to scrub from right to left all the way down unless an inset of wood was set the other way. You had to make sure you didn’t leave the scum at the end of each floor board. After I married and started to have my children they didn’t do it so much. My father couldn’t scrub it because of his arthritis so an old gentleman used to do it and my father would say ‘He doesn’t scrub it like you. He leaves the scum at the sides’ and I said ‘I had a good teacher’, which, of course, I did.

My father did clean windows and things like that. We had a wooden counter for years before the regulations came in when we had to have a refrigerated counter. The only refrigeration we had was a big old one we used to store stuff at night. We closed early on Saturday if we could, were closed all day Sunday, and opened on Monday afternoon when people would ask ‘Have you got anything left?’ and you’d say ‘There’s a bit of ham’. We served people while we were cleaning if we’d got it but we always hoped to sell out. Occasionally my father would stock up with things but we didn’t have wholesalers like we do now, it was always from Peacheys.

It was common to have pork butchers, like Craske’s in Norwich, back of the Inns, and it was always busy and you had to queue. We had a general butchers opposite who sold a small amount of pork but otherwise it was all lamb and beef. They didn’t cook any pork products so it was quite fair.

I was paid about thirty shillings a week and I gave my mother ten shillings for my keep. My mother made a lot of my clothes so that helped. If you wanted to go to the pictures or buy a record or some make up or something, a pound would go a long way.  My father had a very close friend, Mr Peters, who had a big newsagents near the Midland Station in Derby, and he needed a girl in the sweet department so he asked my father if he could borrow me. My father said ‘if she would like to work for you, I’ll lend her to you. It was all in good part. So I did odd mornings for him and was paid ten shillings and my father paid me the pound, so they split it. I worked in the sweet department with all the big jars. People on their way to the station would pick up sweets and chocolate there and they’d go next door for papers and cigarettes.  I’d never worked for anyone else and my father thought it was good for me to experience another side of retail. When I got married and had started a family I worked one night a week for my Dad, doing a lot of boning. I got paid ten shillings for that.

My father, who was a master butcher, taught me all the butchery skills as I went along. He got his diplomas and did talks to women’s guilds and was President of the Master Butchers’ Association one year. My brother came into the business, took all the exams and is now a master butcher but he went on to be a primary school teacher, then a headmaster, and is now retired.  I didn’t take my diplomas because I was too busy getting married. I went in to help my father who was quite crippled and in a lot of pain, and I never came out to do occupational therapy, prompted by his condition and as I’d originally planned.  When I was at Art School I wasn’t particularly good at drawing or painting though I did textile design, and a teacher suggested going in to occupational therapy, helping disabled people to use their fingers, basket weaving or similar. I enjoyed working for my father and never regretted not going to college.

Courting under the bacon

I met my husband through my aunt who lived in Twickenham in London, when we went to stay with her, to ‘do’ London. He was her lodger, her ‘gentleman from the City’. He came from Norfolk and worked in Threadneedle Street, the banking street in the City of London. He could see that I really couldn’t leave my father and the shop so he got a job in the shares department at Qualcast in Derby, and lodged with a lady up the road until we got married. We did our courting in the shop, beneath the sides of bacon. Very often he would come for an evening meal and when he left we went out the shop way so we could have a goodnight kiss under the bacon. He liked pork, so that was a good thing!

After we married we lived at the top of the road in a semi-bungalow so I only had to walk down the road to work. By then my husband cycled to work, in the shares department at Rolls Royce, a big employer in the area. When his job changed he had the option of moving to Scotland or Norfolk. As he was born in Holt and his parents were still in Norfolk we moved here. We lived in Thurton and when his father died we shared the house with his mother. Both our boys were born in Derby so I was housekeeping for Peter’s mum, our family and, after my father died, my mum. She built on to our house but we virtually lived together. My friend used to call it ‘The Granary’ because there were two grandmas there. They were so very different but it actually worked very well.

The end of an era

My father died the day before my brother’s wedding. We went through with the marriage because the bereaved were on the male side. Back then if it had been the female side the wedding wouldn’t have gone ahead. Looking back it was strange to see Father’s empty seat at the reception, where they’d put his buttonhole. It was a real ordeal. My poor brother lost two stone and was then in full charge of the shop which was awful because he was only twenty one. He liked the work and got on very well with the increasing immigrant population who wanted different food. We had a lot of poultry and they wanted the chickens jointed, which was no problem but pork butchery was changing by then. He carried on but things were never the same and when he decided to go into teaching my mother’s sister and her husband came to help my mother, and then the shop was sold.

We kept Oxo cubes in a tin and as a young girl I would stand at the end of the counter selling them loose for a penny each. I spent about two years in the grocery and was about seventeen when I started in the butcher’s. I married at twenty one so I wasn’t there for many years but it seemed for ever. I enjoyed my working life in the shop, opening up in the morning, setting everything out in a certain order. I don’t know if it was because I went to art school, I loved dressing the window.

Looking back, my life changed with people’s deaths. The biggest change, of course, was when my husband died. I’ve been a widow fourteen years which is an awful long time. I was only fifty seven, but my father’s death was the biggest change in our family.

Janet  (b. 1937) was talking to WISEArchive on 9th November 2007 in Alpington, Norfolk.

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