Selling Meat Too Cheap

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December 7, 2015 by auntkatefirmin

A butcher and a man on horseback with a carter in the background.

“The Butcher” by Pyne from about 1804.

In August of 1801 an article appeared in the London Times, entitled “Cheap Meat,” under the account of the Surrey Sessions. Rather than quote the entire article I will summarize.

-Robert Blackford had attempted to obtain a stall in the market in Marlborough (roughly twelve miles from Swindon) to sell meat but had been refused. The article claims that his application had been deliberately refused as his prices undercut those of the other butchers. It was never mentioned that Robert lived outside of Marlborough.

-After the refusal, against the local regulations, Robert Blackford set up a stall to sell meat outside the Marlborough marketplace and sold his meat at lower than market price, gathering “a considerable portion of the custom.” Action was brought against him and he was arrested.

-In his defense two points were made: first, that he had a wife and ten children to support and second, that the other butchers were preventing the “fair competition in trade.” It was suggested that in reality he was arrested for “selling meat too cheap.”

A view of Marlborough High Street from St Peter's church roof by Brian Robert Marshall via CC2.0 license.

A view of Marlborough High Street from St Peter’s church roof by Brian Robert Marshall via CC2.0 license.

Map of 18th century Marlborough.

Marlborough in the 18th century.

Up to this point, it’s a rather sad story of a desperate father trying to support his family. Certainly Marlborough had more potential customers than Swindon so I can only assume that Robert’s aim was to sell more items than was possible in Swindon, despite the larger number of competitors and the distance he had to travel. Robert clearly had the sympathy of the Court as they requested that charges not be pressed. It’s the side-story that makes for a really wild tale.

Prior to the court hearing in Surrey, Robert had escaped from custody in Wiltshire. He was arrested in Marlborough at 9AM on the 7th of February and he and the arresting officer proceeded to a tavern where they drank steadily until 9PM when they were apparently tossed out. The following day Robert found himself in London – but he didn’t know how he got there! This is positively Dickensian. (I know, Dickens wasn’t born yet.) I’ve done just enough research to conclude that transportation from Marlborough to London warrants a separate post, so we’ll return to the chronicle of Robert’s movements.

Passengers boarding the London coach in Picadilly, 1829.

The London-Bath Coach leaving PIccadilly in 1829.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Robert spent the time until April 21st in London when he turned himself in. When questioned as to why he had not returned home he responded that the “Magistrates had deprived him of the means of getting his bread” and supporting his family.

Heaven only knows what Rebecca was doing in the interim – there is no mention that he let her know where he was; perhaps he thought it dangerous for her to know. Certainly she would have had word of the arrest but she must have been very worried about him and about feeding the children. Had Robert anticipated his arrest – did they make any plans? How involved had Rebecca been with the business – did she rely on their son John while Robert was missing or was she able to assist? Again, more questions than answers.

It seems unlikely that Robert would have proceeded to Marlborough (where he had to know he would upset the other butchers) unless he was out of other options.

The following April, after Robert turned himself in, he was incarcerated in the King’s Bench prison. I have a limited understanding of the court procedures in 1801 so I am assuming that he came before the Surrey Sessions, rather than being transported back to Wiltshire, because he turned himself in while he was in London. In the end I suspect he was discharged because the Surrey Session personnel had a different perspective that those in Marlborough might have had. Comments explaining the trial location are welcome!

People stroll in the yard of King's Bench Prison circa 1808.

A view of the yard in King’s Bench Prison in Southwark circa 1808, via wikimedia.

The result was that Robert was discharged from custody. The conclusions of the court as printed in the newspaper are worth quoting:

“[The Court] thought the bye-law entered into by the Corporation [of Marlborough] would have the most oppressive tendency, as it prevented the fair competition in trade. Persons who endeavoured to keep up the prices of the necessaries of life were certainly objects of punishment; but when a man, situated like the Defendant, stepped forward to alleviate the distresses of his fellow creatures, he deserved the thanks of every disinterested person, and was entitled to receive protection.”

It was not enough for Robert or the family. The sympathy of a Surrey court did not feed the children. Robert died about a year after this incident and was buried on 20 July 1802 in Swindon. He was about 45. Certainly the time in prison was not good for his health or his spirit, or the finances of the family.

What else can we conclude?

-Robert seems to have been personable – it looks like he persuaded his arresting officer to go on a drinking binge with him.
-He made a favorable impression on the court; in part it was his situation, but he must have also been sympathetic in person.
-He got to London somehow while thoroughly drunk or hungover – was he spending the money he made before he was arrested or was he extremely persuasive? Because he participated in single-stick (or backsword) competitions he was used to travelling, so his experiences contributed to his ability to pull this stunt off.
-It appears that he was good at thinking on his feet or he wouldn’t have managed in London from February through April.
-He was persistent and resourceful.

It’s pretty amazing how much of a paper trail exists for Robert Blackford, Butcher in Swindon given that these are events of over 200 years ago




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