My son, Stuart, became the new proprietor of Barker Bros in 2006, continuing the Barker name that has been associated with Shelford for many years.
The earliest records show that Barkers were trading as long ago as 1843. Records are a bit sketchy but apparently, according to local magistrates documents from that year, brass weights were stolen from the butchers shop and the culprits were apprehended and sent to Australia! Although this is the earliest recorded reference to the shop, it is more than likely that Barkers was established well before this date.
I believe that the shop was located in Stapleford first, which is where they had a slaughterhouse (the building is still there today, next to the Longbow public house). The slaughterhouse was sold to the Stapleford parish council in the 1960s and is now a museum.
My own personal recollection of early involvement in the High Street shop is when my family moved from London Road, Stapleford into the present premises in 1947. I was only four at the time but can remember certain things that often stick in a child’s memory. That year, my father, Stanley Barker, bought out his uncle’s share of the business and we had to move to provide the necessary capital (£400). A very kind farmer, Mr Frank Hardy had offered to lend my father the money, but he refused, as he did not want to be in debt to anyone. He was a very proud man but never forgot the kind offer and the two remained close friends.
Whilst a junior at Shelford primary school, I can remember very little about the shop trade of Barkers, the only real memory being my fathers 5am starts and late afternoon finish at around 5-6pm. During the summer he would then play bowls in the evenings, despite such a long day and very early start in the slaughterhouse… oh the good old days!
During the 50’s and 60’s, village butchers very much relied on delivery services or mobile shops that toured the villages. Any readers over the age of, say, fifty may well recall these vehicles. Barkers main sales were definitely with deliveries.
From the age of twelve or thirteen I was a delivery boy, either on a tradesman’s bike or helping on one of our two delivery vans. Anyone who has ridden a trades bike will recall many stories where goods have either ended up on the roadside or tipped over into some unsuspecting customers garden. It would then mean a trip back to the shop to get the meat goods wiped and washed and tickets replaced before setting off again! As far as is known no one died or suffered food poisoning from any of these small accidents! Today, of course, the meat goods would have to be destroyed… how times have changed!
In the mid 50’s my mother’s brother, Walter Fortin joined my father in the family business. He was an excellent butcher and, having previously been the assistant manager of Sawston Co-Op for a number of years, many loyal customers followed him to our shop.
The peak time for delivery services was during the 50’s and 60’s when Barkers delivered six days a week to all the surrounding villages. It was a time of low pay and cheap fuel and everyone expected a frequent delivery service up to 2-5 times a week in some areas. My father obviously employed quite a number of people during the years he was in charge and there are far too many to mention. There are however a few characters I remember sharing many a good time with; my late Uncle Walter, the late Joe Amey (cousin), Colin White (Spar shop Stapleford) and Mr Jack Andrews. These people were the real stalwarts for a number of years and I know my father had great respect for them all.
In 1960 I joined Barkers full time, deciding to leave Cambridge Grammar at the tender age of 17. At one time I had fancied a job teaching history but felt that, after all the years of hard work my father and mother had put in, I could not let the shop and the good name of Barkers be sold off or left to die out. I felt I could and should carry it on.
Obviously I am glad I made the decision and I’m sure my father approved, but at the time he wanted me to stay on in school and choose an easier career.
In 1970 I married Jennifer Pesci who, becoming a member of the Barker family soon became very active in the business. Within the first five years of marriage we produced two fine sons, Richard and Stuart, but Jenny still managed to find time to help in the shop. At that time we had good loyal staff and part time help from Mrs Dot Creek and a great old character Mr Freddie Austin. Freddie was a great bowls player and an excellent old-time dancer.
As I said, during this time, the hours were long and when I look back I often wonder how on earth we did it. For example a typical Saturday would be a 6am start, driving to a Cambridge abattoir to collect bullocks, pigs, lambs and offal then straight back to the shop to unload everything (from two vans each time). Next a fry-up for breakfast with all the trimmings, tea and then more tea! Both vans would then be washed before being loaded with meat for deliveries. Deliveries would be finished around 1pm then we’d return to the shop so the vans could be washed out. We’d then cash up the till, shut the shop and dash off to play football for Great Shelford F.C. After, it would be straight into town for a few beers and curry or dance and return home in the wee small hours. Sunday would be work as well but luckily not until 10am and only till 1pm.
In 1976 my farther became ill with the dreaded ‘big C’. This was by far the worst time in my whole life as I just couldn’t imagine Barkers without him around. He had so many admirers and I still miss him today. My mother was lucky to have some really good friends and she managed to enjoy her life and grandchildren for several more years.
With help from Jenny, good staff and excellent customers, Barkers prospered and continued to grow into the shop we are so proud to have today. We have always maintained a high quality of meat together with excellent service. This was drummed into me at such an early age! My Father always said that quality not quantity would always win through, and this is even more true today.
I can’t remember exactly, but at some point we decided to concentrate more on our shop trade. It was at a time when it was difficult to find good delivery drivers and cost was beginning to play a big part in making it worthwhile.
Our shop had not had any major alterations over the years and badly needed a facelift and a clearout of some very old equipment. The first big refurbishment came in the 80’s. This was a huge improvement and a considerable help in improving trade. We began selling cheese and more continental meats, which was an exciting venture for us. Poultry was becoming more and more popular and turkey meat was at last being eaten all year round.
During the late 80’s we became even more adventurous and started to do prepared game (in season of course). Unfortunately we were not allowed to pluck birds anymore as a separate room was now needed for this purpose and we had turned our last outbuilding into a proper smoking chamber. We were now selling our own cured and smoked bacon and hams - so much nicer than the commercial mass-produced stuff which is mostly watery, too salty and flavourless!
Many factors have played a part in making Barkers so successful with hard work, good luck and, of course, our loyal customers among the most important.
In the late 90’s we had the BSE crisis. This had a devastating effect on trade and unfortunately many family butchers went out of business. The first week of the crisis (made much worse by the media and government) we actually, over a six-day period, sold less than fifty pounds in weight of beef. Luckily as time went on people began to realise that the early facts had not been entirely accurate and that young beef, which could be traced back to their farms, were safe.
We survived a horrible time and at Christmas even managed to sell more beef than the previous year. Although beef on the bone was banned, it was lawful to sell for dogs and there were many happy owners around. We are after all a nation of animal lovers!
At the turn of the century we decided to have major refurbishments. A massive and costly undertaking but one which paid off as it has made us very competitive in displaying our meat more attractively and hygienically. In 2000 Mr Tom Biggs (of Ellis and Son) joined us until his retirement and many of his loyal customers became ours.
Being a member of the Q Guild gives us the edge in knowing that everything we do is monitored strictly and that all hygiene rules are rigorously followed, checked and recorded. Stuart is very much committed to this, making sure that everything is done exactly as it should be, even if at times I see it as a waste of time. For me paperwork seems to increasingly take over from real butchery, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting old!
In the last 18 months we have had further alterations that have made the shop better for both staff and customers. The customers can now see exactly how we work with the meat and the whole environment of the shop is better.
I personally feel that Stuart, with our excellent staff, can carry on and make an even better business in future years. Stuart will also have the invaluable help of his future wife Katy and maybe even a son to carry on the name - who knows?
This is just a brief history of Barkers, although on reading you may disagree with the word ‘brief’! It is only my recollection and factual bits of information that have been shown or told to me.
And now for something a little different. Over the years there have been numerous stories to recall, some of course not quite fit for print! One in particular that comes to mind (which is suitable to print!) is a Christmas story about a turkey;
It was immediately upon opening up after the Christmas holidays about fifteen years ago. A customer entered the shop complete with covered dish and a rather severe facial expression. Our manager at the time asked if he could be of help. The customer replied that he was sold this bird, uncovering the dish to reveal a turkey, and was disgusted with amount of meat he had been able to carve from it. Trying to keep a straight face our manager turned the bird over so that the breasts were on top and explained to the customer that this was the part where most of the meat is found, (not on the backbone!). The poor customer was hopelessly embarrassed and obviously lost for words! Another customer who was in the shop at the same time, still remembers the incident and says that had they not witnessed it with their own eyes, they would never have believed it! This is perhaps one of those times when the customer is NOT ALWAYS right!
If you need inspiration for seasonal meats, or just want to cook up something special, have a read of our blog!
There is something in there that will catch your eye and delight your taste buds!
43 High Street
Telephone 01223 843292