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So Long, Peter Sargent

January 14, 2020
by the gentle author

I am saddened to report the death of my friend Peter Sargent at the age of sixty-five after suffered a heart attack on Saturday. He became a local hero by standing up for small traders against supermarkets and was a popular and charismatic member of the community in Bethnal Green where he ran his shop for thirty-seven years.

Peter Sargent

In 1983, when Peter Sargent took on his shop, there were seven other butchers in Bethnal Green but in recent years his was 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 create 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 worked 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 was supported by fellow butcher Vic Evenett and the pair made 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 would 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 – continued 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

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Irene Barnett permalink
    January 14, 2020

    I have lived in Bethnal green for 47yrs and I am deeply saddened to hear the passing of Peter. My whole family would buy from this butcher’s shop, the memories. we would like to Express our deepest sympathy to Peter’s loved ones.

    May he rest in peace xxx

    Irene Barnett

  2. Remo Broglia permalink
    January 14, 2020

    I was born in Bethnal Green in 1953 and have fond memories of growing up around the local area and living on the corner of Spitalfields market I remember the lovely local shops run by people like
    Well done to him for standing up to Tescos, you know what you are getting when you buy from someone like him and the large supermarkets have become a cancer killing the local high streets

    My sincere condolences to his family.

    Remo Broglia

  3. January 14, 2020

    A really bitter-sweet story here of a man who won through against a supermarket giant and did things his way and for his customers; just sorry he has gone so soon. He looks like a great chap…

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 14, 2020

    Yes – sympathy to all his family and his loyal customers.

    I loved the story of the cheeky sign and hay bale outside the shop as it shows what a witty protest can do (it puts me in mind of the “Drug dealers only” parking bay done by the North Weavers group in Shoreditch..)

  5. January 14, 2020

    That is sad news. Too young. But he made an impact that hopefully will continue.

  6. paul loften permalink
    January 14, 2020

    I am sorry to learn of Peter’s sudden passing. My deepest sympathy goes to his family and friends

  7. January 14, 2020

    Very sad news, but a wonderful legacy. He showed that a small shop can stand up to the big guys. Best wishes and sympathy to the family.

  8. January 14, 2020

    Sending my sincere sympathy to Peter’s family and to Vic.
    Another great East End character taken too soon, so sad that after many years of dedication to his loyal customers he has been denied a well-earned retirement.
    Rest In Peace Peter.

  9. Akkers permalink
    January 14, 2020

    My sincere condolences to Peter’s family on his sudden passing.
    I remember going in this shop when I was a little girl and even when I was grown up my Mum and I used to go there when we were shopping in the area on a Saturday.
    Hope the shop will continue.

  10. Jillian Foley permalink
    January 14, 2020

    So sad to hear about the passing of this lovely man. I read the article about him last year and was fascinated by his fight to keep the business going. You will be sadly missed Peter. Rest In Peace.

  11. Peter Metaxas permalink
    January 14, 2020

    Good bye Peter. See you later. The only butcher shop in the area where there use to be eight, sad.
    It is happening all over the world. Even in small communities here in Eastern Canada. The small villages are loosing their shops, garages, petrol filling stations, banks, doctors, dentists for the central conglomeration of big business in the larger centers. And these big shops all have the same products, it’s hard to find something novel. Sad day for Bethnal Green in more ways than one.
    Peter Metaxas
    Prince Edward Island

  12. Eastendbutcher permalink
    January 14, 2020

    Saddened by this news. Peter was one of life’s “characters” and will be sorely missed by his friends down at Smithfield Market where he was always a welcome visitor. Thoughts are with his family at this sad time. RIP mate.

  13. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    January 14, 2020

    I can only offer my heartfelt condolences. He ran the kind of shop that I wish we had here. I hope that someone will take up the reigns and keep it the way he did.

  14. January 14, 2020

    Condolences to all Peter’s family and friends.

  15. Pauline Taylor permalink
    January 14, 2020

    My condolences to you and all Peter’s friends and family GA. He must have been a great character and I am sure he will be greatly missed. RIP Peter.

  16. Susan Henry permalink
    January 15, 2020

    This is so sad – he wasn’t very old (younger than me) – such a loss. I even have a photo of his shop, which I took when I was in London last January. All of the game birds were hanging outside on a rack, which shocked (and totally delighted) me, as you’d never see that in Canada, where I live. All the old ways are disappearing, as are the folks – like Peter – who remember them. I do hope Vic is able to carry on the business; I’ll look for it, if I’m ever in Bethnal Green again.

  17. Greta Kelly permalink
    January 15, 2020

    Very sad to read about the untimely death of Peter who never gave up and developed a good business. I do hope the shop continues in the tradition of the owner run Butcher’s. I think the younger generation are becoming more open to individuals shops.
    I live in a small town in West Cork, (Population approx three thousand) We have three family run butcher shops. All doing well.
    I am wondering if Peter’s ancestors were Huguenots? Because of the name Sargent.

  18. January 15, 2020

    What a Beautiful, Delicious meat store. God Bless You, Mr. Sargent. ??❤?????

  19. January 15, 2020

    How sad when you have to go at the age of sixty-five …

    Mr Peter Sargent — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  20. David Green permalink
    January 19, 2020

    Sorry to hear of his passing, I remember reading his story of taking on Tesco’s last year (Good for him!).

    How fortunate though, that he was able to live and thrive in a place where butcher’s shops like his are actually allowed to exist. Where I live in Canada (Newfoundland) the Health Dept. inspectors would lose their minds at the idea of hanging game in the window. And to show animals that haven’t been skinned and butchered? Illegal. And unless something is in a refrigerated cabinet and wrapped in 800 layers of plastic they wouldn’t even allow it to be sold.

  21. January 29, 2020

    Such sad news – we visited last Saturday as we often do – one of the highlights of our weekend, only to find they were shuttered up, and now I know why. I remember over the Christmas period just gone Peter joking over as someone called his mobile whilst he was in the middle of serving several customers at once “call me back in ten years time!” in his typical witty way. Gone far too soon – hope they’re playing all the classics you have on in the shop (ELO, The Beatles etc) up there! Condolences to his family and all the other lovely staff who worked with him.

  22. February 29, 2020

    I googled the shop to find out why they were closed and i am totally shocked and saddened to hear this. Totally knocked me for six!! Sincere condolences to his family xx

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