Many businesses can point proudly to their history and longevity, but most are mere start-ups compared to Balson’s the Butcher.

The current owner of this Bridport shop (est. 1515), a genial chap by the name of Richard Balson, was the focus of a BBC4 documentary on Wednesday night, the first in the Hidden Histories series looking at some of the UK’s oldest family businesses.

We learned how meat was retailed in medieval market towns, and were introduced to some of Mr B’s relations.  These included his mother, who brought more recent history to life through her recollections of post-war rationing and the unrationed, ‘delicious’ tripe.  But there was no sign Mr B’s 33-year-old son.  We were assured that he wants to carry on the business, but at the moment he lives in London where he has a good job as an accountant. 

I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer who, cheerfully bouncing along on this historical tour, at mention of the son suddenly began to worry for the future, even though only the faintest flicker of doubt disturbed Mr B’s genial face.  I stopped basking in the past and realised just how changing times are – well, just how changing times are now really changing things.  The shop has been in the family since Henry VIII was a slim and sane man, yet unless the young accountant decides that weighing up sausages in a small West Country market town is a better lifestyle choice than juggling figures in the metropolis, it won’t survive the early 21st century.

An American nephew, on a visit to the UK, dropped by.   Before dedicating himself full-time to selling sausages online in the US, he was a university academic, which is even more odd than having an accountant in a butcher’s family.

For the moment, Balson’s is doing well, trading on its status as Britain’s oldest family butchers’, and it should shift a fair few wild boar steaks as a result of its BBC exposure.  But the world has opened up, and communications make all sorts of things possible (such as selling bangers online).  In our age, it’s more and more the case that doing what your Dad did is either no longer feasible or just one career option among many.  Breaks with family tradition, as well as our evolving shopping habits, bring the shutters down on small shops.

town of Bridport

Bridport, Dorset – home to a remarkable family business