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Hidden histories: Britain's oldest family businesses - Episode 1

Updated Friday, 20th December 2013

In the first episode, we meet Britain's oldest family business: Balson the Butcher.

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Balsons butchers shop front  Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Balsons Personal Archive - Used with permission Balsons butchers shop front

About the episode

In episode one we meet butcher, Richard Balson, whose family have been butchering in Bridport, Dorset since the time of Henry VIII, making it Britain’s oldest family business. We follow Richard as he meets historians and experts and traces his family history back nearly 500 years. In the 16th Century his ancestors sold meat - freshly slaughtered in the street - from a market stall or ‘shambles’ in the centre of Bridport. It would have been messy, chaotic work – so much so the word shambles has since come to mean chaos and disorder. 

This is also the story of the British market town, and Richard learns how the 18th Century desire for towns to be more ‘civilised’ and elegant saw butchers and their bloody work moved from open street markets into covered buildings and new town halls. In the late 19th Century, the invention of refrigeration dramatically changed the work of the butcher. Now slaughtering and preparation could take place a healthy distance away from the high street, while back in town butchers could sell their produce like any other shop keeper. In the late Victoria era, the Balsons opened their first shop and enjoyed the golden age of the British high street.

Over the generations, the family has endured tragedy and scandal but they never stopped butchering. Richard is still there behind the counter but as well as the lives and practices of his forebears, Richard’s mind is on the future – who will carry on the family’s ancient traditions once he’s gone?




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