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Peter Sargent, Bethnal Green Butcher

September 24, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with favourite stories from the first decade

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. A few 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, Photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid a visit behind the counter 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

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 © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Jillian permalink
    September 24, 2019

    What a lovely shop and what a lovely man. Wish Peter had a shop near me. Great story about the bale of hay outside the shop to put outside Tesco!

  2. Sarah Lily permalink
    September 24, 2019

    10 years since I read the piece on Christmas. Thank you The Gentle Author and Spitalfields Life.

  3. jill wilson permalink
    September 24, 2019

    Good to read about a specialist shop surviving and thriving!

    If anyone is interested in getting a first hand account of the butcher’s trade (and some dodgy dealings!) in the early seventies I recommend The East End Butcher Boy by Joe Lawrence – a thoroughly gripping read which shows all too clearly how easy it can be to slip from harmless scams into full scale gangsterism…

  4. Helen D. permalink
    September 24, 2019

    Oh I am slightly envious of anyone who has the traditional butcher, baker, candlestick maker on their doorstep these days. These kind of shops were what many of us grew up on, before the supermarkets grabbed their greedy share of retailing. Well now I hope things are reverting to the “good old days” of shopkeeping. I so love his sign outside Tesco. Typical response from them though, they can’t stand to see anyone else trying to make an honest living. If I had a decent butcher on my doorstep, I would supporting them. I shall have to make do with the local Tesco instead.

  5. September 24, 2019

    How lovely to see this butcher’s shop surviving in a mass production age. The exterior is not only inviting but charming. Wish we had a local butcher like Peter here! I love the David and Goliath story about his sign and Tesco. Long may he and Vic go on providing choice meat for English tables.

  6. Peter Holford permalink
    September 24, 2019

    Yet another interesting read and one which has a relevance to me. My dad worked for Gunners the Butchers in Bethnal Green for a few years as a teenager in the 1930s and used to have a string of stories that kept us spell bound. He also had a fair working knowledge of ‘butchers’ back slang’. Much to my mum’s dismay (she was from Yorkshire) he made sure that I could speak some choice phrases in said lingo. It worked – I still remember them. He went from butchering to being a policeman at Leman Street.

  7. September 26, 2019

    An excellent story, and what an impressive looking shop – both inside and out. Well done on providing such a good service to the local community. Long may you continue…

  8. Ian Silverton permalink
    September 29, 2019

    Thanks GA great to read about Peter the Butcher in Bethnal Green Road, my friend Cliff Collis who owned the wet fish shop near him before selling up still calls in to buy his meat from him so up to date on all the local news. Thanks Jill Wilson have now purchased the book East End Butcher awaiting delivery. Stay Safe UK

  9. Ian Silverton permalink
    September 29, 2019

    Just one favour please,lady in picture 7 down from main picture of Peter can anybody tell me her names please? Seems very familiar to me from an old neighbour of mine from Gosset Street Bethnal Green. Thanks Uk

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