The Butcher, the Baker and the Undertaker

What better way for the Society to celebrate Christmas than to invite our good friend Jonathan Oates to come and speak to us about some Victorian Lichfield trades. So it was that a packed audience were well entertained by Jono before our usual Christmas serving of coffee, tea and mince pies.

Georgian Lichfield was a busy, prosperous city. Strategically located astride the coaching routes from London to the north, its hotels and inns flourishing as stage coaches disgorged weary passengers either to pause for a meal, or rest overnight before boarding a further onward coach. Many trades fed on this bustling prosperity; and then the railways arrived in Victorian Lichfield. The city fathers had ensured that the first line, along Trent Valley, would be well distanced from the City in what some say was a half hearted attempt to discourage the march of progress. Then, later in the mid-nineteenth century, the South Staffordshire line from Walsall was opened to a new station in the centre of the City, thus finally sealing Lichfield's fate as a coaching city. Some said that the end of the coaching trade was the end of Lichfield. It was against this background that Jono examined in some detail and, with the aid of illustrations, a number of the trades in Victorian Lichfield.

In 1883, twelve butchers (at least) plied their trade in the centre of Lichfield. If one embraces a wider area, then perhaps there were as many as twenty. Indeed, so many existed, that an annual butchers' show took place every Christmas. Reading from the Christmas 1883 edition of the Lichfield Mercury, Jono described the eye-watering displays of meat in the shops, all "temptingly arranged". Conduit Street was once known as Butchers Row, such was the scale of the butchery trade. Some members will recall that a Smithfield Auction Market occupied the existing Tesco site. These markets, principally selling animals but also other goods, were common throughout Britain. Now most have disappeared. Almost all of the butchers have disappeared too, but the shops survive, serving different retail specialisms. A notable example is Superdrug, which still maintains two images of bulls' heads on the shop-front. Indeed, small clues are scattered about the City Centre, providing hints as to the former use of premises. Perhaps a task for a pleasant day is to stroll around and spot the clues!

Moving on to the bakery trade, Jono took us to Alpha Sports in Market Street, once the premises of John Humphries, then W. Guest in Bore Street, now Café Nero. Just nearby, the shopping precinct occupies Bakers Lane. In the thirteenth century, this was Baxters Lane; Baxter being the old english name for a baker. So we can surmise that many bakers traded in the immediate vicinity. Nationally, the return of artisan bakers has been most welcome and, co-incidentally, we now have one trading in Bore Street.

What about undertakers? Jono explained that all undertakers had multiple roles, especially in smaller towns. So, if you walk along Bird Street to F.M. and J. Waite's premises and pause, do look up to view their original advertising sign at first floor level. It confirms that they were cabinet makers, upholsterers and paper hangers (missing from the sign) as well as undertakers. This also applied to John Maddocks with premises in Dam Street, close by Tales Press. Indeed, these trades were often bundled up into one retail operation by many undertakers nationwide.

Jono also recounted the interesting history associated with the department store of Shakeshaft & Playfer, located in the Market Square on the site of the current Natwest and HSBC banks. This was the store in Lichfield to visit.or to be seen in! Higher priced quality furniture, carpets and clothes were on offer to prosperous Lichfieldians. Mr Shakeshaft became a prominent member of Lichfield society, re-establishing the tradition of The Sheriff's Ride as well as becoming Mayor. Yet he left the business (possibly through advancing ill health) and died in 1903 penniless in York, living in the Workhouse. On a happier note, to mark Christmas, Jono turned to the December 1891 edition of the Mercury, where its "Christmas Report" guided us around the shops of Lichfield, eloquently describing the goods that were for sale. It truly was a description which could have graced a Dickensian novel and a fitting conclusion to a highly informative, yet relaxing Christmas presentation.

Roger Hockney
December 2019