A Story from the Fifties.
I Was a Butcher's Boy.
Photograph: Butchers boy Ian Forsyth on his bike.
In Ealing comedies gently parodying life in Fifties Britain, one of the stock characters was usually the butcher's boy, an uncouth youth delivering orders around the quaint country village on a big black bicycle with a basket in front of the handlebars.
School Holiday Job.
I was a butcher's boy once, but it was a far cry from the movies.
From 1956 to 1958 I spent my school holidays working in the back shop of Clifton's Butchers at Grasswell, near Houghton-le- Spring.
Several short terraced streets ran at right angle from the main Houghton to Newbottle road, down to the embankment of the NCB railway line from Houghton pit. Clifton's shop formed the end of one terrace, with the shop front facing the main road.
The Butcher's Shop.
It was a typical small butchers of the time, with chrome rails above the window from which joints of meat could be hung, sturdier rails along the back wall which would support whole quarters of beef and, in between, a small counter and a sturdy butcher's block standing on a floor covered with fresh sawdust.
A door in the corner led into a walk-in cold room where carcasses hung in rows. Behind the shop was a paved yard with double gates opening on to the back street and across the yard stood the 'back shop' where I spent much of my time.
Mr Clifton was an imposing figure, tall and with abundant white hair. He was known locally as 'Billy' Clifton - but not by me. He had two assistants who I suppose were in their twenties. One would serve in the shop while the other went out with the travelling shop, a 5cwt Morris van.
I never found out what area they covered, because that was strictly a one-man job. Both lads could turn their hand to any job, and I was there to help in any way I could. I didn't serve customers, but at the end of each day I was allowed into the front shop to sweep up the sawdust and to clean the chopping block.
Using a device that looked like a big scrubbing brush, but with rows of spring steel blades about a quarter of an inch wide instead of bristles, I had to scrape and scrape at the surface until no trace of blood was visible. This wore away the end-grain wood, and the top of the block soon looked like rolling hills.
Coppers and Set Pots.
Out in the back shop there were two coppers. For the younger generation I should explain that a copper, or 'set pot', was a hemispheric steel bowl, about two to three feet across, set into a concrete bench with a small fireplace underneath.
Once upon a time most households would have one in the scullery or washhouse for heating water and to boil the sheets in the weekly wash, The coppers at Clifton's were used mainly for cooking. One job that quickly became my responsibility was making the beef dripping.
During the week all pieces of fat taken from the beef carcasses, or trimmed from individual joints when serving customers, were put to one side and stored in the cold room.
A Weekly Task.
Once a week I had to cut the trimmings into small pieces, and heat them in a copper to melt out the dripping. This process was known as rendering.
When all the dripping had been extracted the pieces of fat would be shrivelled and crisp, and could be taken out with a slotted ladle, leaving the copper more than half full of very hot clear liquid dripping. The dripping was sold in waxed paper cartons, printed with Clifton's name and address,and a jolly drawing of a Hereford bull.
I had to set out sufficient cartons on a tray, then fill each with liquid dripping up to a pre-printed line which would give the correct weight. I think the packs weighed half a pound each. When the dripping had cooled and set, I would fold down the sides of the cartons neatly and stack them in the cold room.
Nearly a Disaster.
The copper was heated by a coal fire in the little grate beneath it, which I had to light and put coal on as necessary. The first time I was left to make dripping on my own there was nearly a nasty accident.
What I failed to realise was that as I ladled the dripping out to fill the cartons, the level in the copper was going down but the fire was still burning brightly underneath and pumping heat into a smaller and smaller volume of hot fat.
Fortunately, one of the lads returned in time to spot the blue haze in the air before there was a fire, and explained that I had to let the fire down when the rendering was finished.
We also made mincemeat on the premises. The mince was always as fresh as the joints on sale. Mince could go off very quickly and so was not prepared in bulk, in fact sometimes when a customer asked for mince the butcher would cut a piece of meat and mince it on the spot.
The criteria for sausages were rather more elastic. Most of the meat going into sausages was the trimmings which were left after cutting saleable joints, and scraps cut away from the big bones. Although we did not have the abomination of 'mechanically recovered meat' in those days, it was important not to waste a scrap, and one of the things that made a butcher profitable was his skill with the boning knife.
What's a Slatch?.
There might also be a few joints which had failed to sell within a day or two of being cut and which, while still edible, no longer looked inviting. I remember a great debate one particular day when a piece of meat was sniffed repeatedly and passed back and forth as the two assistants tried to decide whether or not it had a 'slatch' (an off smell).
Any joint that did go off went into the waste bin along with the bones, to be collected periodically by an evil-smelling lorry. Sausage making went on in the back shop. I was allowed to use the electric mincer (under supervision) and fetch and carry ingredients.
What Goes into a Sausage?
Then, as now, sausages were made of meat, a cereal based filler known as 'rusk', a blend of seasonings and spices, and some water to make the mixture workable. The whole was mixed in a large electric food-mixer which stood on the bench next to the manual sausage machine.
Think of the caulking guns used to squeeze mastic around window frames and into cracks, then imagine one with a barrel about two feet long and eight or ten inches in diameter. A large rotary handle drove a the barrel. At the business end was a highly polished chrome nozzle, at least a foot long.
How the Sausages Are Made.
To make sausages the butcher took a sausage skin (known in the trade as a 'casing') several feet long, which had been soaked to make it pliable, and worked the whole length of it onto the nozzle, bunching it up as he went.
I had to fill the barrel with sausage meat and turn the handle as smoothly as possible to drive the plunger down the barrel and force the mixture out of the nozzle. The butcher held the casing at the tip of the nozzle and, by varying the pressure of his grip, regulated the speed at which the casing was pulled off the nozzle by the emerging mixture.
The Skill of Sausage Making.
If his grip was too slack the sausage would not be properly filled; too tight and it would overfill and burst. This was a very skilled job, and I never got the hang of it.
Then he would link the sausages, a twisting movement too quick for the eye to follow, that turned one long rope of sausage into a chain of sets of three sausages linked to each other and to the sets at either side.
Needless to say, I never learned to do this either. But I was very good at washing the mixer and the sausage machine afterwards in a copper of hot water.
Most sausage casings were factory-made and bought from a wholesaler.
One day one of the butchers took me along when he went to collect casings and spices from Newcastle.
A Visit to Newcastle's Meat Centre.
The shop was near the Cattle Market, a traditional auction mart with pens in the open air, which stood at the head of the Scotswood Road, just down the road from Marlborough Crescent bus station. For those who only know modern Newcastle, it was in the area between the 'Life' science centre and Redheugh Bridge, that now has a newly-built hotel and multi-storey car park.
Meat Trade Shops in Newcastle.
There was a long row of shops facing the mart, along the lower half of Marlborough Crescent and Scotswood Road, all of them connected with the meat trade in some way; retail and wholesale butchers and suppliers of butchers' equipment and sundries. Almost all of them are long gone.
The shop we visited was an Aladdin's cave of everything a butcher could want except meat. There was a wall of shiny equipment; knives, cleavers, saws, steels use of, ovenware and containers of all shapes and sizes, chopping blocks, wrapping paper, paper bags, and of course the sundries that we had come for.
Killing Animals for Food.
In describing life in a butcher's shop, sooner or later we have to talk about killing animals, a very emotive subject now but then hardly questioned at all. Today most butchery is done in large, centralised abattoirs, but things were very different then.
Billy Clifton was licensed to slaughter pigs and sheep in his own back yard, but not bullocks, which had to go to Houghton slaughterhouse, somewhere in the back streets off Sunderland Street.
The whole process of converting a dead animal into saleable products was carried out on the premises and nothing was wasted that could be used. The sheep carcasses would be skinned and the whole skins were sold to a dealer, or sent for tanning then sold in the shop as rugs. Pigs' intestines were valued as the original and natural casings for sausages.
That's why there are still two different sizes of sausages today the thick ones were originally made from the large intestine of the pig, and the thinner chipolatas from the small intestine.
One pig had yards and yards of intestines and the process of preparing them for use was quite time-consuming. First they had to be drawn under the back of a knife from end to end to force out the contents, then washed through several times with salty water poured into the tubing through a funnel, then left to soak until ready for use.
A similar cleaning process turned animal stomachs into pure white tripe ready for poaching in milk. I admired the intricate sculptural patterns on the inside surface of the tripe but I could never bring myself to try it, having been put off by my mother's assertion that it was 'like eating stewed knitting'.
The blood that I had caught was the main ingredient in black pudding, along with finely chopped animal fat, seasonings and (I think) some oatmeal. I had to hold a large casing upright in a dish while the butcher poured the mixture in from a jug. Then he tied the top tightly and it was dropped into boiling water. When it floated to the top, it was done.
White Pudding and Brawn.
We also made white puddings sometimes, but I have no recollection of the ingredients. As I got more experienced 1 would be set on making brawn, or potted meat.
A pig's head was sawn in half and boiled in the copper until tender. I then had the job of removing every scrap of meat with a small boning knife, cutting it up finely as 1 went along. While still warm it was put into a dish and covered with the gelatine-rich juices that had run out. Once set firm it was pinkly marbled and delicious eaten cold.
I look back on my times at Billy Clifton's with affection and gratitude. I am not sure how useful I really was, but the money was very welcome. The young butchers were rough and ready but never unkind, and the whole experience of seeing how the meat gets to our tables was enormously interesting.
Oh yes, and I did get to ride a 'butcher's boy bicycle', delivering orders round the local streets. It was black, shiny and very heavy, with a big square basket on the front and a metal panel between the tubes signwritten with the shop's name and address. There were no gears and it was a pig to pedal!
First published in the Friends' Newsletter Autumn 2003.
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