My dad’s family, the Woods, come from a coal-mining village just outside of Birmingham – a little place called Baddesley Ensor. My great great grandad Thomas was born there in 1813, and grew up with his surviving sister and seven brothers (4 died as babies). As was the way of things then, the boys went down the mine, and some stayed their whole lives. But Thomas got out of the mine and set up as a butcher.
I’ve been fortunate recently to come across a diary Thomas kept from 1865 up to his death in 1884. It is not so much a personal diary in the style many of us keep these days. Rather, it is more akin to a family farm log. Significant family events are recorded, especially deaths. Major happenings in his church community especially significant issues raised at governance meetings. Comments on the weather, strange or dramatic events in village, notable anniversaries, snippets of scripture. But by far the greatest number of entries are to do with business:
1866 Feb 22 Bought of Mr Wilson’s 5 Fat Wheather sheep, 1 sheep 2.7.0; 4 [ditto] 3.2.0 a piece, I think they are worth their cost.
March 9 Slaughtered a fat calf for Mr I Baldocks, price 3.0.0. Not a bad bargain. Mr Baldock feeds his calves well.
And it goes on like this for decades:
1877 Nov 6 Paid Mr Wilson for nine fat sheep 24.15.0.
Although these entries can become boring (as so much accounting can be), reading them with a different eye reveals what the business actually involved and how he ran it: he drew stock from a radius of about 4 miles both at markets and from specific farmers. Four miles is about a half-hour’s ride, and close enough to be able to walk the stock back to the shop within 1 & 1/2 or 2 hours. He typically bought one cow/bullock or a ‘fat pig’ or 3 sheep every 2-3 days, and slaughtered, butchered and sold them while still fresh. Before refrigeration this time cycle was crucial.
Sometimes Thomas would buy a small herd from a farmer, with the deal of being able to draw off the stock from the farmer’s paddock within a fortnight or so. He could then just send one of the children every couple of days to pick up another animal and drove it back.
Sometimes there was even stock for free: Every late summer for days on end when the fish were running he and at least one of the children would go fishing in nearby streams and holes, coming back with catches of 5-20lbs which would also be processed and sold.
Thomas and his wife Ann had 12 children, 5 girls and 7 boys, all of whom lived to adulthood (a sign of increasing affluence). It’s clear from the diary the children were integral to the business operation from early teen-hood, though only some of them showed definite interest. These latter started writing in the diary, at first just comments but as time went by duplicating Thomas’ recording of business activities.
Thomas’ six brothers also feature often, since they were all living in the village within a stone’s throw. One of his brothers actually died in Thomas’ living room, and he vividly records the shock and drama of this.
The village almost certainly had several butchers but clearly Thomas had a solid reputation among loyal customers whose support enabled him to send his children to a better life and eventually to build 4 cottages. There was no question of ‘retirement’: he just kept going til a health condition slowed his activities, until finally
1884 Jany 6 My dear father fell asleep in Jesus after a long illness he died triumphantly over death. Very happy.
There’s no account about how Thomas got going in business, but my bet is that he just started. It wouldn’t surprise me also if Thomas started in the backyard where he lived. The village was at that time a string of cottages fronting the road and backing onto fields. Space was just there.
He learned his trade as an adult; the 1841 census has him age 27 as a coal miner living with his in-laws, his wife and three young children. So somewhere there was a deliberate plan to change focus, though almost certainly he learned his trade locally, perhaps from a nearby butcher or farmer, perhaps even a relative since the Woods were thick on the ground in that village. And if he was competent and built a reputation for fair value, freshness, and pleasant company then his success was assured.
Speaking of relatives, it’s also clear that Thomas’ business went on very much in the community. His seven siblings are always dropping in, he clearly relies on particular farmers for supplies, sometimes over decades, as is true of many customers also. And his eleven children are incorporated into the operation as soon as was practical. Almost all the children ended up emigrating to New Zealand as young adults (that’s how I come from Australia), but because there were so many of them the youngest were still at home and working in the business when Thomas died aged 71.
There’s a great richness in serving one’s community in such a practical way for so many decades. The embedment in community means one’s relationships both with suppliers and customers simply flow because they follow a familiar pattern. Trust is continually created and affirmed. And the continuity of unspectacular but steady money over a long period – the original basis of middle class wealth – also results in material ease.
Thomas was able to sustain his activity supported by family, church (he was devout), community and the fertile English land. The question for many of us these days is different and more complex because our choices are at once far broader and far more constrained. For example Thomas’s business was simply supplying an already well-recognised product without any agenda around spiritual innovation or social change.
For me, what is sustainable in the long term is very much about what feeds my soul, what is on my path, what resonates deeply with me and gives expression to those depths. Our simultaneously broad-and-narrow range of choices with our desires for innovation and change makes this immensely tricky. But alongside this there remains the very human and very fulfilling satisfaction, which we can share with even Thomas’s generation, of being recognised and valued in one’s community.