Trevor Chelsea, Smithfield Butcher
“It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire, and a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above … Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass…” – This is Charles Dickens’ vivid account of the livestock market in Smithfield, described in Oliver Twist in 1838. Seventeen years later the trade in live animals was forced to move north to the open space of Islington, due to the frequency of injuries and deaths caused by wayward cattle stampeding through the narrow streets of the City. And in 1868, the Meat Market at Smithfield formally opened as the London Central Meat Market in new permanent buildings designed by the famous City Architect, Sir Horace Jones.
And it is to this monument of Victorian vision and practicality that I am heading; its ornamental coloured cast iron as familiar to me as the dome of the Old Bailey, which peeks out from the periphery.
The market is sleepy and the workers have gone – the forgotten joke will have to wait for another night. Discarded takeaway cups are filling with rain and the litter from a night of work plasters the sodden streets. Wooden pallets are packed away, and lights within start to dim, as yawns set in. But not everyone is closing down, the day butchers are ready and waiting for custom.
At Smithfield Butchers a typical day starts at five am, with orders prepared for the pubs and hotels, with deliveries and shop displays and, of course, with “the breaking down” – dividing carcasses into those recognisable cuts of meat. This to me is a male world. A man is never without a hatchet or a knife, or a lump of meat, working skilfully amidst blood and bone and flesh, carving to extract the perfect cut. This is a world of affable men, natural storytellers whose banter is as rich and as succulent as a belly of pork, a world where birth names are replaced by nicknames.
Trevor Chelsea (or “Chels” as he is known – “because I support Chelsea”) is no exception. He has worked at the market for twenty-five years now, and I used to pass him and his colleagues as I made my daily way along Charterhouse street, the “hello” to the men at Crosby’s a natural ritual. They had been there since 1971, a bit of a landmark, always there and always would be there, I thought. But one compulsory purchase by the railways later, and the butchers moved to the west side of the market, leaving a yawning gap where they used to be.
“There was no time for a celebration or a quiet drink with your memories,” says Trevor, “it was a Bank Holiday, I remember, we packed up on the Friday and were in the new premises on the Monday. We had orders to fill and we got on with it.
The market has changed a lot since I started twenty-five years ago. A lot of business is done behind closed doors now, and all the characters are leaving or have left. In those early days, there was a real hustle and bustle, lots of laughing and joking, like a proper market, like Petticoat Lane. Loads of shouting.
It was the camaraderie,” he continues. “If I was to leave tomorrow, that’s what I’d take with me. And the laughs. You had to – In the early days my shift started at two am and went on till two pm. In winter it was freezing, hands had chilblains, it was real hard work, and those winters seemed colder then, maybe because we were outside all the time. But joking around kept you warm – kept your spirits up.
The rules and regulations were unwritten then, but you always knew what line not to cross. It was about what you could get away with. We used to cut off rabbit heads and nail ‘em to the front doors of customers who hated rabbit! Joe Pasquale used to work down here too – he liked to put a chicken on his head and run around. Teddy Lynch too – the brother of the entertainer Kenny Lynch – he was the first black man down here to be a bummaree,” and I must have looked quizzical because he added, “You know the barrow boys who load the meat and carcasses for the customer. They were the only ones who had the right to carry meat in the market. When I started there were about fifteen hundred bummarees – now there’s five.”
And Trevor leads me inside to look at the photographs on the wall, the photos of these “barrow boys”. And yet I see no boys, just men over fifty, the hard toil etched into their faces, of a working life that starts when most are asleep, and ends as daylight ferociously erupts across the city skyline.
“Him there, sitting on the stone,” says Trevor, pointing to an old man, “well that’s “Disley” – when he retired he had no one left. All his family had died, so he just came back down here and sat and watched. And that one there, that’s “Treacle” – they called him that because he had sticky fingers. You couldn’t leave meat around when he was about. And that one, him with the glasses, that’s Pat Crosby – brought up in a workhouse. Number D12. He still works. And him there, with the bugle, that’s Johnny Green, he played the Last Post the day the market died.” (The day the market temporarily closed in the mid-nineties to bring it up to EU food safety regulations).
“So did you always want to be a butcher?” I ask.
“No, at first I was a signwriter in Queensway for seven months, and it seemed like I wrote the same word for seven months! It drove me mad, so I left. But there was a recession and the only job I saw advertised was for an experienced butcher, so I went for it – told ‘em I’d worked as a butcher for a year. They found me out when they sent me to the fridge to get something – hadn’t got a clue what they were on about. But they kept me on and trained me. And I’m still here today. Cold and hungry, as we say.”
Black and white portraits copyright © Chris Clunn
Colour photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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