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Friday, 9 December 2011

THE BUTCHERED BUTCHER'S SHOP

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by Dave Roberts
Our picture, taken by former Middlewich resident Daniel Preston during a trip back home in the winter of 1988/9, shows Vernon's butcher's shop on Hightown shortly after it closed its doors. The shop, formerly Fitton's, was in safe hands under E & G Vernon's ownership. They obviously recognised the unique qualities of this 1920s gem, going to the trouble of  engaging a sign-writer to produce the traditional sign (although the original Fitton's sign, which can just about be made out to the right of this photograph, was a little more ornate than the Vernon's version), and even replacing the glazed 'Fittons' sign above the door with one saying 'Vernons' (this can just be made out in the photograph).
Sadly, this was not the case once Vernons had vacated the premises. This shop was one of the first causes taken up by the Heritage Society, which had been formed by myself and Ian McQueen in 1985, and also, regrettably, one of our first failures.
The bone of contention was the rare Italian picture tiles adorning the walls of the shop, which would have looked very strange during the shop's rather  incongruous career as that symbol of the 1990s, a video rental shop. To be fair, those tiles would  have looked out of place in anything other than a butcher's shop (although, ironically, they might almost have fitted in with the shops current use as an Indian takeaway) but, we argued, all that was necessary was for them to be covered up, thus preserving them for the future.
It was not to be, and the priceless tiles were smashed.
Chris Koons, who worked in the shop during its Vernons days says, 'Just looking at these pictures, I can still smell the shop - it smelled like a combination of bleach and the rub we used on the pork ribs, along with a tinge of tobacco smoke & tea (we always had a pot on!).
Many local people have happy memories of Fittons/Vernons butchers shop. One feature which everyone seems to remember is the cashier's box at the back of the shop.
All rights reserved. No unauthorised copying or reproduction
Geraldine Williams says, 'when Sid Fitton had the shop there was a cashier in a little cubicle. The money was sent to her, and change returned, by an overhead pulley system'.
Chris Koons says, 'there was actually a little room back there and, in later days, it was where we sat and had coffee and lunch breaks. It brings back memories - not all of them pleasant. The guys in there used to throw knives just to scare you...you'd be working away cleaning out the bone bin, or breaking the fat off the kidneys, or whatever, and suddenly a knife would come whizzing past your head and stick in the door behind you!'
Daniel Preston, who took these pictures, says that his family sometimes used a different Middlewich butchers shop: 'We were more likely to go to Harold Mann's for our 12s 6d worth of roast beef for Sunday dinner. I bet you can't even feed the dog these days for 12s 6d.'
David Graham remembers working for Fittons as a butchers boy in the mid-sixties and Dawn Hunter says she used to go into the shop to buy tripe for her Nan's dog. Presumably for a lot less than 12s 6d..
Geraldine Williams thinks that the Fitton's butchers business went back quite a long way:
'We moved back to Middlewich in 1947 and my Mother always bought our meat from Fitton's. However, Sid was roughly the same age as my parents, so presumably his father had the business before him. Sid lived in a farm/smallholding just over the Station Bridge at Winsford, so maybe this supplied the meat.'
But, sadly, our memories of this one time show piece will always be tinged with sadness when we remember the fate of those splendid tiles.
Chris Koons: 'Those picture tiles were hand-painted antiques and  I couldn't believe it when we found out they'd been smashed. If I remember rightly, there was a bit of a hold up to the remodelling of the shop from a butchers  to a video store, while  the Heritage Society tried to save the tiles. Then, suddenly, all of them had been 'accidentally' smashed and the remodelling was back on track. Stupid, ignorant people'.
Stupid, ignorant people indeed.
I have one personal memory of Vernon's, which comes under the 'now it can be told' category and  must date back to the shop's final days, just before it closed at the end of the eighties.
The Sunday trading laws were very strict then. In fact there wasn't any Sunday trading. But, just before Christmas, Vernon's would  let it be known that they were taking orders for meat for the festive season.
Everyone, including us, would place our orders and pick them up from the side door of the shop on the Sunday before Christmas in a very hush-hush black market operation which was one of the worst-kept 'secrets' in Middlewich at that time.
LOST GLORIES: SOME OF THE  ITALIAN TILES PICTURED BY DANIEL IN 1988
The shop is now occupied by the Balti Spice Takeaway and the frontage is covered in cheap wooden cladding. This does look slightly better than it did under previous ownership, when it was painted green and red and was forever falling off, but it looks like a codge-up all the same.


Faded Glory: The Balti Spice Take Away in December 2011.
 Note, to the right, the NatWest Bank which has now closed, leaving Middlewich with
just one bank. Another sign of the times.



As far as I know, the original tiling is still there, under all that wooden nonsense and it would surely be a reasonably simple matter to remove the tiles which say 'MEAT PURVEYORS'* and replace them with plain ones (keeping the originals for possible future use) or even ones that say BALTI SPICE in the original style.
I'm not sure just how easy that would be.
Perhaps a piece of glass for over the door with BALTI SPICE on it in the old style?
Then this sadly abused building could  be brought back to something approaching its former magnificence, externally at least.
Unfortunately the world doesn't work like that and the restoration of this once beautiful building will, in all likelihood, remain  just a dream.
But this shop is as much a symbol of our town as the Parish Church and those long gone salt works chimneys. There's one more feature which makes it fit in so well with its surroundings (when it's given a chance) and that's the  Bull's Head in the very top centre of that wonderfully ornate frontage, forever gazing down on that part of Middlewich which has always been known as The Bull Ring.
*P.S. Andrew Tomlinson has reminded us of something which was a minor Middlewich legend at one time.
The 'S'  tile in the right hand 'MEAT PURVEYORS' inscription was (and presumably still is under all that wooden cladding) upside down:


5 comments:

  1. Just looking at these pictures, I can still smell the shop - it smelled like a combination of bleach & the rub we used on the pork ribs, along with a tinge of tobacco smoke & tea (we always had a pot on LOL). Those picture tiles were hand-painted antiques & I couldn't believe it when we found out they'd been smashed.
    If I remember right, there was a bit of a hold up to the remodelling, turning it from a butchers shop to a video store, when the heritage society tried to save the tiles. Then suddenly, all of them had been "accidentally" smashed & the remodel was back on track. Stupid, ignorant people.

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  2. Thanks for that, Chris. Stupid and ignorant indeed.

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  3. The above comment from Chris has now been incorporated into the main text of the article -ed

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  4. Could this have been an even earlier butchers shop belonging to the Hulme family? In 1851 William H. Hulme had a butchers shop in Leadsmithy Street, before moving to Wheelock Street by 1861; his son Thomas Hulme was a butcher on Lewin Street at the end of the 19th century. In 1901 The shop at numbers 2 and 4 Wheelock Street was run by William's widow Susannah Hulme.

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    Replies
    1. Hi, I am researching in this area and wonder if I could refer to you historical information above in may assignment for family history. My distant grandmother hannah Griffiths worked for W. H. Hulme as a butcher's assistant and later as a grocer's assistant between 1851 and 1861. Regards Robyn Roylance Email: robynroylance44@gmail.com

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