“It was an interesting time, it was before retail was serious”
“There you go Mrs McCluskey, a sheep’s heart, some minced lamb and a pigs penis.. that’s £3.50 lovely!!”.. Its phrases like this you might have heard Heather Tires (names have been changed) saying during her mid 90s career as a butcher. This is her story.
Heather works as a retail supervisor and is married with one son. “He is my life” she says. “I’m quite dull really.. I’m a big reader, anything by James Patterson, but I never remember the names of the books… “ She is a big music fan and used to play the trumpet in school “ I’m quite creative in that respect. I make my own Christmas and birthday cards and I used to do a lot of cross stitch. Despite its image its not boring, and it takes your mind off things when having bad times”
“I started work at age 14 at the bakers in Kwik Save” Formerly located on Sealand Road, the shopping centre was eventually taken over by Tesco in 2008. She wanted to go to York for a week with her best friend and her mother agreed to it as long as she paid for it herself. As a result Hev got a Saturday job. She obtained the job illegally by lying about her age and claiming to be 16. The employer didn’t even ask to see any proof of age or her National Insurance number. She used to work 8-6 on Saturday and 10-5 on Sundays for a generous rate of £1.80 an hour. “ I came out with about £30 a weekend, back then £30 was a lot of money when you’re 14”
Just days before her 16th birthday she was dismissed after someone sent an anonymous tip off to her boss revealing her true age” maybe a jealous friend” Tires mused over her bottle of full fat coke. “I loved that job” she states wistfully “I used to open the shop on a Sunday morning.. after a night drinking, we’d walk to work and sleep in the office” carefully evading the alarm system by not stepping on the tiles surrounding the unit . She remembers seeing her manager Janice sitting glum faced in the office, holding the sad letter in her hands that revealed her young deceit
“We’ve got to let you go” Janice said . However the trip to York was a great success and included many hours spent sitting by a pond and a trip to the races.
She was not out of work for long and was soon recruited by her friend to join Colmans the butchers, which was also in the Kwik save unit. She had left school and was soon working there full time with 5 male staff. On her first day she was sent on a wild goose chase around town including 2 branches of Halfords looking for tartan paint. “ I was out for 4 hours!” She also recalls being confused by the scales and dishing out huge portions of corn beef for 45p which had the value of around £16.
A typical day, always an early start around 730am involved setting up the fridges and stocking the different meats. She would often cook some sausage and bacon for breakfast.
Meat was sent from the suppliers as half carcasses, and preparing it into the wide range of different cuts was a highly skilled task using as many as two different knives ( Boning knife and cleaver) “you needed to be able to handle the blood and the strong smell of iron”. The preparation was done in the back room, the floor covered in sawdust. 3 times a day the bloody mess would be brushed up and the floor mopped. “there was no recycling back then, it all went in the same bin!” It was a happy time for Hev, the radio was always on and she enjoyed the Daily Mirror crossword and the comic strips such as Scorer( which ran until 2011). It was a time of constant pranking. She would make a hole in a soft drinks can with a knife with hilarious consequences for the unfortunate drinker “Thats a good one for future reference if you ever wanna use that one” she chuckles. In the meat freezer was a container of pork ribs in salted water and staff used to dare each other to see who could submerge their arms in the water the longest “I had to do it because I was the only girl and I wanted to prove myself!”
“Every day we had to do mince.. pure mince was the best. Cheap mince was anything and not just beef! Any off cuts, loose bits of fat, any unwanted bits of meat”. The meat was placed in the mincer and pushed down with an implement. As the meat emerged through the blades Hev had to massage it, in order to give it is wavy pattern and make it more visually appealing.
Hev met one of her early boyfriends during this time, a lad known here as Denzel, who worked at Halfords. She used to see him buying his sandwiches in Kwik Save.”God he’s so fit!” she would think. They went on several dates but he returned to his ex girlfriend. The lads in the butchers didn’t take kindly to this and “strong words” were spoken. Her male colleagues were very protective and used to look out for her. One of her co workers used to tell all the elderly customers that he and Hev were engaged. A light hearted example of the sexism that she encountered. “the sexism oh my God, was awful”. She received little training with all the attention being given to her male NVQ partner. She had big problems dealing with delivery drivers who would normally ignore her or try to hit on her. She noted one driver for being a complete bigot, always asking for sexual favours.
Hev remembers the culture of the mid to late 90s. A glance at a photo of her teenage bedroom reveals the pop culture of the time: Trolls, a super nintendo, racks of music cassettes, VHS tapes and a dancing flower ornament. “ I remember stuff like Colour me Bad, The Bodyguard, Charles and Eddie, Blur and Oasis” Every Saturday night she would be glued to Noels House Party before hitting the town. The Spice girls hit the music scene in 96 and Bev became known as “posh spice” among her group of friends. She was also a massive Man United fan, obsessed with Ryan Giggs. Hev was at Old Trafford on the day David Beckham met Victoria on the pitch, a fond memory. The ravages of time meant Hev lost touch with “her girls” but the powers of facebook reunited them, minus one of the group who had tragically died.
Returning to butchery, I asked Hev what her favourite cut of meat was. “Mine was fillet steak, one of the perks was helping ourselves to the prime cuts”. On a Sunday she would get some topside beef for her mum to cook. Mince was a big seller, with a rush on lamb chops on fridays. Liver was also popular, bags of pigs livers and lambs hearts would be sent from the suppliers “if you get a good one you can see the two veins on the top.. you fry them off with some gravy”
Times changed when new manager Mario, who also owned the Saltney branch took over and and sacked the entire team apart from Hev. He revamped the business and installed the unpopular Mick to run Colmans. He was the brother of her friends boyfriend and had a shady past. Hev describes him as a “horrible person, a little Hitler” who once docked her half an hours wages for being 4 minutes late. He also looked like Harry Potter, years before the books were published. However Mario recruited Hev to go and work undercover in the Saltney branch with the mission of exposing staff whom he suspected of stealing from the till. He offered her a management post if successful. Within three days she had exposed a Saturday girl and the manger as thieves and they were both dismissed. She then became assistant manager with a new team including one of her ex colleagues from Sealand Road. She now received the training and support that she had sometimes been denied in the past. Her new manager forced her to engage with suppliers as she started phoning through orders.
These were long days working form 730 and getting home at 8pm. However there was still a great camaraderie amongst the team. She recalls the “hand sink incident”. A young Saturday girl had discovered the joys of alcohol at 16 and came to work stinking of dirty drink. So someone grabbed her and sat her in the hand sink to wash her after she repeatedly refused to go home and shower. The taps were turned on but then the sink fell off the wall with hilarious consequences. The girl fell to the floor, water everywhere so Hev pulled her along by her ankles in a mopping manoeuvre. “We had to get a new bloody sink!”
She spent her days off in the pub, the Queens Head, including karaoke every Thursday night. The club scene in Chester was tamer than it is now, there was only love street (Raphaels), or the one above Yates. Rosies was mainly a student venue, but Blimpers on city road was still open “We used to hang out with a lot of soldiers” One in particular, Soldier X had a big impact on her. She saw him waiting in the queue for the club, but some of his friends were denied entry because they had trainers on. Seizing the moment, Bev grabbed his hand and said “you’re coming ‘ome with me”. The plan worked.
The apocalypse of BSE and the British beef ban followed as Bev’s days as a butcher drew to a close. “the trade collapsed, people stopped buying meat because they were afraid of going mad. It actually went more expensive and people couldn’t afford it” Hev’s supplier in Wrexham had to slaughter many animals, which were burned then buried in mass graves. It was the worst of times now, and she was deeply worried about the future. There was no passing trade out on the business park ( now a Netto) and there were long periods with nothing to do. She filled some of the time by going on shopping trips for her boss. The meat industry was changed forever as consumers were forced into the unfeeling embrace of the supermarkets who could import cheap meat. “ I felt the government weren’t informing people properly, it was scaremongering, dead sad”. Suppliers offered so called exotic meats as replacements but they didn’t sell. She never tried pigeon as it suggested vermin.. Ostrich “tasted just like beef” and crocodile meat used to arrive packaged like a large frozen sausage.
The quiet periods and depressing mood were impacting on Hev and she was feeling like it wasn’t even worth getting out of bed, spending £6 a day on a taxi, when she was only earning £3.50 an hour- years before the minimum wage was introduced. Things came to a head when Soldier X was on leave and Hev wanted to go home early to spend some time with him. When her request was denied, she had an awakening and walked out on her job in disgust and disillusion
Her boyfriend was then posted to Germany for 6 years, breaking her heart, as she loved him deeply. Things got so bad she couldn’t even mention his name, and to this day Oasis’ Wonderwall still cracks her to pieces. “ I was lost for 6 months, they were tough times”. The sun shone again for Hev when she met her husband to me at a fancy dress party in 1996 dressed as a devil. “He saved me ” she says. Looking back on her time as a butcher she says ” I have no regrets, they were the best years. I learnt a lot and I grew up a lot .. I would recommend the trade to anyone.”
With thanks to Heather Tires *