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Peter Sargent, Butcher

February 17, 2014
by the gentle author

Peter Sargent

In 1983, when Peter Sargent took on his shop, there were seven other butchers in Bethnal Green but now his is the only one left. Two years ago it looked like Peter’s might go the way of the rest, until he took the initiative of placing a discreet sign on the opposite side of the zebra crossing outside his shop. Directed at those on their way to the supermarket, it said, “Have a look in butcher’s opposite before you go in Tesco.”

This cheeky intervention raised the ire of the supermarket chain, won Peter a feature in the local paper and drew everyone’s attention to the plain truth that you get better quality meat at a better price at an independent butcher than at a supermarket.“Tesco threatened legal action,” admitted Peter, his eyes gleaming in defiance, “They came over while I was unloading my van to tell me they were serious, but I told them where to go.” Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that Tesco had been selling horsemeat and Peter left a bale of hay outside his shop. “I invited customers to drop it off if they were going across the road,” he revealed to me with a grin of triumph.

This unlikely incident proved to be a turning point for Peter’s business which has been in the ascendancy ever since. “There’s not many of my old East End customers left anymore and I was close to calling it a day,” he confided to me, “but I’ve found that the young people who are moving in, they want to buy their meat from a proper butcher’s shop.”

In celebration of this change of fortune in the local butchery trade, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid a visit behind the counter recently to bring you this report, and we each came away with sawdust on our boots and the gift of a packet of the freshly-made sausages for which Peter’s shop is renowned.

“I started as a Saturday boy in Walthamstow, when I was sixteen, in 1970,” Peter told me, “and then it became a full-time job when I left school at eighteen.” Over the next ten years, Peter worked in each of half a dozen shops belonging to the same owner, including the one in Bethnal Green, until they all shut and he lost his job. Speaking with the bank that his ex-employer was in debt to, Peter agreed to take on the shop and, when they asked if he had a down payment, Peter’s wife Jackie produced ten pounds from her handbag.

Since then, Peter has been working twelve hours a day, six days a week, at his shop in Bethnal Green – arriving around eight each morning after a daily visit to Smithfield to collect supplies. “I love it and I hate it, I can’t leave it alone,” he confessed to me, placing a hand on his chest to indicate the depth of emotion, “it’s very exciting in a Saturday when all the customers arrive, but it can be depressing when nobody comes.”

Peter is supported by fellow butcher Vic Evenett and the pair make an amiable double-act behind the counter, ensuring that an atmosphere of good-humoured anarchy prevails. “I started as a ‘humper’ at Smithfield in 1964 for six years, then I had my own shop in Bow for twenty-three years, then one in Walthamstow Market, Caledonian Rd and Roman Rd, but none of them did very very well because I had to pay too much rent,” Vic informed me, “I came here twenty years ago to help Peter out for a few days and I stayed on.”

In a recent refit, an old advert was discovered pasted onto the wall and Peter had the new tiles placed around it so that customers may see the illustration of his shop when it was a tripe dresser in 1920. Yet Peter will tell you proudly that his shop actually dates from 1860 and he became visibly excited when I began talking about the centuries-old tradition of butchery in Whitechapel. And then he and Vic began exchanging significant glances as I explained how Dick Turpin is sometimes said to have been an apprentice butcher locally.

Thankfully, East Enders old and new took notice of Peter’s sign, “Have a look in butcher’s opposite before you go in Tesco,” and  he and Vic – the last butchers in Bethnal Green – will be able to continue to make an honest living without the necessity of turning highwaymen.

Peter’s sign outside Tesco, July 2012

Excited customers on Saturday morning

Vic Evenett & Peter Sargent

Peter & Vic sold more than five hundred game birds last Christmas

The Butcher’s Shop, 374 Bethnal Green Rd, E2

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Ana permalink
    February 17, 2014

    There is nothing like a butcher’s for friendly service and a larger selection. Nice images that perfectly capture this.

  2. February 17, 2014

    Have a butchers! Keep up the good work!

  3. February 17, 2014

    SO glad to hear you stood your ground and won!
    Tescos have a truly dreadful track record in aggressively wiping out local food retailers, as you no doubt found out.
    Well done. Long may you prosper.

  4. February 17, 2014

    Oh! This brings back some memories for me. I had a Saturday job in Edwards the butchers three or four doors along from this butcher. I took the money and served the bacon and cooked meat. Alf ( the owner) used to give me pork chops at the end of the day yo take home for my tea. A very nice man.
    Thanks for this story, Gentle Author.

  5. sbw permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Thank you, I’m proud to say I have never, and will never buy meat from Tesco as long as I live. We’ll done Peter of Bethnal Green , continued good luck to you . Thanks GA, a v good post, important.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Ah yes, Beef that is brown, not pale pink!
    And actually tastes of something. (Shock, Horror )
    My local butcher in Walthamstow had a similar problem. He had a shop in Hoe St, close to W Central station – rents went up – & he had to retreat to a factory-unit for some time, but now has one in Orford Rd & is doing much better. He also tries to source his meats from known delivery & supply chains, which matter enormously.

  7. February 17, 2014

    Looks like a friendly and jolly shopping experience there! A lot of butcher’s shops have had to give up here, too. Valerie

  8. Roisheen Childs permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Lovely story – nice to see the local shop winning over from the big boy – keep up the good work.

  9. Peter Holford permalink
    February 17, 2014

    My dad worked as a teenager in Gunner’s butchers in the 1930s. He learned the rudiments of back-slang there and taught me various phrases when I was quite young. Mum was from Yorkshire and wasn’t too happy about that but she feigned amusement. I can still remember some of it but it’s about as much use as knowing Manx or Cornish where we live.

  10. February 17, 2014

    Well-done, Mr Peter Sargent! Telling the people what is better for them — I would have done it the same way.

    Should I happen to be in London Town, I would like to visit your shop!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  11. Vicky permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Great news! Now I know where I’m off to get my meat in future.

  12. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Proper meat from a proper butchers shop.The you know what you are buying & where it comes from.Our butcher has a list each week saying which farm the meat is from& in a lot of cases its cheaper than supermarket meat.

  13. February 17, 2014

    You go Peter!

    As someone who hasn’t bought from a supermarket in 20 years as I like to support the small independent/local shops/farmers markets, I salute you!

    One of the most frustrating factors for me is that the British consumer still hasn’t realised that buying food produce from trusted outlets (that would exclude a number of supermarket chains) you get better produce at better value, support the economy of small retailers AND stand a better chance to look after your health. (you can monitor where produce comes from) I call this a Win-Win-Win situation.

    Surely that’s a no-brainer?

    Peter, keep on making yourself heard, something the British are not so good at. And as for Tesco, the bullies, rather pathetic and small-minded behaviour! That, to me, sums them up in one!

  14. February 17, 2014

    fantastic!

  15. February 17, 2014

    Why would anybody buy meat from a supermarket? 9 times out of 10 it’s inedible tough tasteless rubbish that I’d think twice about before serving to my dog. I drive past 4 large supermarkets and 9 kms to my butcher and it’s worth every mouthful

    I must admit I do love a good sausage and this blokes sausages look like they would be to die for; thank you or another delightful post. I shall now go raid my refrigerator.

    :)

  16. Donald Carlton Burns permalink
    February 18, 2014

    Now that’s a proper butcher! Sawdust on the chop’s floor happily takes me back more years than I care to count, back to the first time a butcher reached over the counter to hand me a wiener while my mother shopped.

  17. BGgirl permalink
    September 27, 2016

    Peter Sargent is a decent hardworking man – his meat is top notch. He is the last butchers down Bethnal Green….I miss the old BG Road…..keep up the good work Peter…Tesco’s food is processed rubbish!!

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