Glazed tiles, often featuring cows, sheep, or pigs, are usually the first and biggest clue that a shop once belonged to a butcher. These tiles usually decorate the area beneath the window sill – the stall riser – but they can also be found on pilasters, fascias, the walls of entrance lobbies, and inside the shop itself.
Several different manufacturers produced tiles especially for butchers – and, indeed, also for fishmongers – including Pilkingtons and Carters. As well as designing individual pictorial tiles, these companies produced large tile pictures.
Victorian butchers’ tiles tended to be transfer printed in monochrome shades of grey, sepia or blue. These continued to be popular into the 20th century but many later examples were more colourful. In addition to tiles, some butchers decorated their shops with reliefs of animal heads, usually bulls’ heads. These were often made of glazed terracotta.
Vitreous surfaces were popular with butchers because they were easier to clean than absorbent wood or plaster. For the same reason, many butchers made extensive use of polished emerald pearl granite. In some cases stall risers were made of white marble slabs incised with the name of the proprietor.
2. Rails and Wooden Blocks
Butchers hung carcasses and joints of meat on rails inside their shops, and also to create window displays. In older premises rails were of iron or brass, but by the 1920s steel was preferred almost universally; usually gleaming stainless steel. Because rails were made at one time by local blacksmiths, they had the same dimensions as the metal rims of cart wheels. Rails could be fitted to ceilings or walls, and some were equipped with wheels – to manoeuvre meat around the shop – as well as hooks.
Whenever the customer asked for a particular cut, the carcass was unhooked and the desired cut was chopped off on a well-worn wooden block. Blood was absorbed by sawdust strewn over on the floor. Although this was refreshed daily, bloodied sawdust gave butchers’ shops their distinctive aroma.
3. Sash Windows and Marble Slabs
Butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers had a preference for large sash windows, usually with handles fitted to the bottom of the lower sash. Much wider than domestic windows, butchers’ sashes could be raised to reveal displays arranged on cool white marble slabs, ideally tilted towards the window-shopper and fitted with drains. Sometimes sales were conducted through, or in front of, these windows.
Displays under open sashes looked very attractive. But after the First World War there was a growing awareness that this practice exposed meat to the dirt of the street, to flies and traffic fumes. Something of a campaign was launched against ‘open shops’, supported by the Public Health (Meat) Regulations of 1924 which required butchers to avoid the contamination of meat. Consequently, most new butchers’ shops from around 1930 had fixed plate-glass glazing. Nevertheless, it is amazing how many Victorian and Edwardian butchers’ sashes have survived. Established butchers kept their old windows, though they were careful to set displays back from the street to ensure compliance with modern hygiene regulations.
4. Counters and Cashiers Desks
Practically all traditional food shops, including butchers, had counters where shopmen would prepare and package items for customers, and a separate booth or kiosk – usually located centrally, to the rear of the shop – where a cashier took payment or made up accounts.
Butchers’ counters were solid and did not incorporate chilled, glass-fronted displays as they do today. These were a post-war innovation, introduced from America. Sometimes there was a sausage-making machine on or near the counter: sausages were often made to order, in front of the customer.
Pay kiosks were constructed of wood, with glass windows. The cashier was equipped with a stool or chair, a desk, a cash drawer with bowls or a cash register, and a shelf for receipt books and ledgers. The term ‘family butcher’ – still commonly seen on shop fascias – once implied that local families could buy on account and settle their bills regularly, rather than pay cash for each purchase. As this practice died out after the Second World War, and cash trade became the norm, cashiers’ desks became obsolete. This took some time, however, since there was a feeling that butchers could contaminate meat by handling dirty coins.
5. Cold Stores
By the end of the 19th century it was increasingly common for butchers’ shops to be equipped with cold stores, where meat could be preserved in good condition for some time and brought out as required.
The spacious walk-in refrigerators which replaced the ice safes of earlier decades were the most expensive items the 20th-century butcher needed to invest in. Some butchers also had special rooms, often in outbuildings to the rear of the shop, for smoking or curing meat.
In the 19th century, most butchers raised their own animals or bought meat ‘on the hoof’ at markets. It was common to see small quantities of sheep and cattle being driven through the streets of towns and cities to butchers’ premises. The livestock was then kept in a pen and fed until it could be slaughtered by the butcher in his abattoir, to the rear of the shop. In 1873, when moves were afoot to ban this practice in the metropolis, it was calculated that butchers operated around 1,500 private slaughterhouses in London.
In the 1880s the earliest chains of butchers’ shops (‘multiples’) were developing. These businesses bought carcasses (often frozen; later chilled; usually foreign) from wholesalers, thus eliminating the trouble and expense involved in raising and killing animals. Today, of course, livestock must be slaughtered in a registered abattoir before it can be sold by a butcher.
This is the first in a series of Spotter’s Guides to the High Street, to be published on http://www.buildingourpast.com in 2017.