Obituary: Peter Sargent the butcher of Bethnal Green who took on the ‘Goliath’ supermarkets
PUBLISHED: 12:00 13 January 2020 | UPDATED: 13:31 13 January 2020
The East End has lost one of its colourful independent butchers, Peter Sargent, who took on the big supermarket and came out on top in his David and Goliath battle down the Bethnal Green Road.
Peter, who started in the trade as a Saturday boy when he was still at school, has died at the age of 65 after 37 years running his business against all the odds — even taking on Britain's first vegan non-meat butcher opening a few doors down.
He was taken ill on Saturday after what is thought to have been a heart attack.
But his big fight was against supermarkets, being a founder member of the East End Trades Guild which was set up in 2012 to fight chain stores putting many independent traders out of business and developers overspilling from the City causing East End business rents to soar.
Peter took over the shop in 1983 when there were eight butchers in Bethnal Green Road. They closed down one by one, leaving him the last one standing.
It looked like he could go the same way—but he daringly started a cheeky campaign with a banner by the zebra crossing outside urging would-be shoppers to visit his shop before they went to Tesco's.
"Have a butcher's opposite before you go into the supermarket," his defiant sign read.
It got him notices in the East London Advertiser followed by national media attention.
"Tesco threatened legal action," Peter revealed at the time. "They came over while I was unloading my van, but I told them where to go."
As luck would have it, the big supermarkets were soon involved in a scandal shortly afterwards when horsemeat was found in some products on the shelves.
Peter defiantly left a bale of hay outside his shop inviting customers to "drop it off if they are going across the road".
This unlikely incident was a turning point for Peter's business, which has been a butcher's since 1861. People started to notice him.
"There aren't many of my old East End customers left," he said. "I was close to calling it a day, but I've found young people moving into Bethnal Green want their meat from a proper butcher's."
He started in the trade in 1970 in Walthamstow when he was 16, then getting a job full-time in the trade when he left school working in several shops belonging to the same owner until they all shut and he lost his job.
He took on the shop in Bethnal Green Road with a £10 down payment his wife Jackie took from her handbag.
But it was hard work, 12 hours a day, six days a week, after daily visiting Smithfield to collect his meat supplies.
Fellow butcher Vic Evenett joined Peter 26 years ago after working in Smithfield for six years then running his own shop in Bow for 23 years and one in Roman Road, but none doing well in the face of supermarket competition and high rent. He came to help Peter out for a few days — and stayed on.
Peter is also a bit of a hero in the neighbourhood.
Bungling burglars in 2018 had broken into Bethnal Green's famous Pellicci café a few doors down, where the gangster Kray twins used to hang out in the 1960s.
But the luckless raiders couldn't get the cash till open after dragging it from the premises and dumped it in the street.
Spitalfields antiques market trader Charlotte Sellers spotted the abandoned cash register in the gutter and alerted Peter, who carried it back to Pellicci's. The cash till has sentimental value and had been in the café since the 1930s.
It was all in a day's work for Peter, just doing his neighbourly thing as a shopkeeper.
His good humour has kept a new generation of now-regular customers loyal who queued out in the street this Christmas for their turkeys and other fresh meat. He will be a hard act to follow.