The Shambles

  • 15 Jan 2012
  • Worcester People and Places
  • Back

'Buy!  Buy!  Buy!  Saturday night in the Shambles, after 9 o'clock, was like a medieval fair, with butchers vying with each other to auction unsold meat. Until about 1930, few butchers had any form of refrigeration, and meat was sold off cheaply, rather than let it spoil over the week-end. Crowds of the poorer folk gathered there waiting to get a cheap bit of meat, for the shops stayed open till after 10 p.m. There were many butchers in the Shambles then, with their own slaughter-houses at the rear of the shops, and very unhygienic some of them seemed to be.

Day or night, the Shambles was a lively place, for there were a number of greengrocers there, and these shops had a tradition of 'barkers'. The shouts of 'Ripe Tomatoes',  'Beautiful Cucumbers',  'Best Jaffa Oranges' were bellowed in quick repitition - each outshouting the other. The greengrocers always appeared to spill out on to the pavement, as did the refuse of cabbage leaves and empty boxes. One shop needed no barker. It was Taylor's the grocer who kept the ripest cheeses. If one's attention was elsewhere, it was soon obvious that the shop was near, for the smell of cheese was strong and unmistakeable. Outside the shop, looking through the window there were usually a group of small boys, watching the cheese intently, for it was believed that if you watched closely, you could see it 'walk'.

In the centre of the Shambles stood Millis's Fish and Chip shop, where, in the 1930s, one could buy a fish and chips for 3 1/2d. and a huge paper of chips for a penny, and for the youngsters with less, a 1/2d worth of scratchings. This illustrates the difference in the value of money then and now, for a young man with 6d. in his pocket (present value 2 1/2 new pence) could buy a pint of home brewed ale (3d), a packet of Woodbine ciggarettes (5 for 2d) and a box of matches (1/2d) and still have 1/2d change.

Still going strong well over 100 years is Pratley's China Shop, surviving two fires which burnt down the premises completely. George Pratley originally travelled with a horse and dray selling at market places up to 60 miles distance, but today the customers come to the shop, for the china shop in the Shambles has become a mecca for all who like Royal Worcester, Crown Derby, and other fine china at prices cheaper than elsewhere. It has even been said, that people come to Worcester for two things: to see the Cathedral, and to visit Pratley's, and they are constantly amazed at the vast quantity of china, stacked high and seemingly so precariously, and that there are so few accidents.

The Shambles was, however, a street of butchers, but it is not the carcasses hanging the hooks, nor the joints of meat on the slab, that is best remembered in the days before 1939, but the variety of cooked meats and dishes of offal.  The butcher's shops were full of upturned buckets of pressed beef, brawn, chitterlings and tongue. There was dishes of tripe, pig's feet, chawl (pig's face), faggots, brains and hearts. There were pig's puddings (black and white), and 'mountains' of thick and thin sausages; but pride of place was given to the legs of roasted pork, the crackling scored and roasted to a crispy brown, with in the centre, sage and onion stuffing - selling at 7 1/2d a quarter. There was a great deal of poverty about then, and offal was cheap, and when cooked properly, provided a meal that was tasty and nourishing. Perhaps there is little call for such food today- but where, oh where, are the bowls of pork and beef dripping, and the bowls of rosemary lard that stood so invitingly on the counters?