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Master Bennett the butcher’s son

Blog | By Jeffrey Handley | May 01, 2024

Illustrated by Roger Fereday

The year after the end of the War, 1946, was a memorable year in my young life. I had started work at the Co-op as a butcher boy the day after leaving school at fourteen and enjoyed my job. But then I received the dire news that my predecessor had been de-mobbed and was reclaiming his old job. I was given the choice between becoming unemployed or transferring to the Co-op dairy department as a milkman.

I chose the transfer and started arriving at work at five in the morning to help the driver load the milk bottles and orange juice onto the horse-drawn wagon. It was then ‘giddy-up’ to Rothwell on the outskirts of Leeds. When we got there it was often fogbound, and on one occasion I had to lead the horse four miles to the start of our round. Our customers were very generous and provided us with cups of tea and a meal as we trotted on our way. Then we returned to Depot, unloaded the empties, and finished work at about three.

I had a good relationship with the driver but it wasn’t the kind of work I wanted to do as the weekend work interfered with my hobby of cycling. So I was grateful when a club-mate, Jack, told me his father wanted an assistant for his butchery business. I’d met Jack’s parents at cycling events and we got on well, especially as he let me take Saturday afternoons off to cycle.

This situation was idyllic but it ended tragically when I arrived at work one Monday morning to find that Jack’s dad had been killed in a road accident and the family had closed the business. They very kindly gave me the week’s pay for the lack of notice, but there I was, without a job and within a few months of National Service. I doubted whether I would find anyone prepared to employ me.

Luck was on my side when I answered an advert for a butcher boy and was interviewed by a Mr Bennett who had a shop in Headingley and wanted to fill the vacancy quickly. There was the issue of my imminent call-up, but Mr Bennett told me not to worry as he would be happy to employ me until I had to leave. He stayed true to his word, and when I received my call-up papers three weeks after my eighteenth birthday he asked me to work until the end of the week and take two weeks’ holiday with pay. So generous of him.

That action was typical of Mr Bennett and I really enjoyed working for him. His customers came from a wide and mostly rural area which I covered initially on a carrier bike, twice a week, come rain or shine. He would send me home if I came back soaking.

It wasn’t long before I found he was ambitious. I arrived one Monday morning to find a motor bike with a sidecar sitting outside the shop. This was to be my future means of travel and I would have to learn how to drive it. Fortunately, my father had a friend who was willing to teach me. We went down remote lanes to practise starting, operating the three gears mounted on the fuel tank, using the clutch and holding the box down on left-hand bends, etc. When Mr Bennett was satisfied with my performance I started using the machine for deliveries. I think he used it to transport his family at weekends.

Unfortunately, my motor cycle training did not include the ‘mechanics’ and I found myself, one snowy winter afternoon, with a dead motor at Lawnswood Tram Terminus, about two miles from the shop.

I tried a kick-start, but the engine simply coughed and died. I had no alternative but to push the bike back to work through the thickening snow. Mr Bennett was concerned about my lateness and not knowing my whereabouts, but I couldn’t find a telephone so it was impossible to let him know of my problems. He was glad that I had returned safely and, after Mrs Bennett made me a hot cup of tea, I was sent home before I ‘perished’.

The Bennetts were nice people. They had two sons, Alan and his elder brother Gordon. They were always well-behaved and very affectionate towards their mother who smiled frequently but usually kept herself to herself, as they say in Yorkshire. The house was attached to the shop but I only visited it when Mrs Bennett wanted some coal fetching or something similar. To access the coal you had to go under the shop, into the cellar and reach through a trap door to get the old poleaxe (the means of breaking the coal). I used to swing it and imagine it stunning cattle and the occasional bull. Mr Bennett must have stunned at least one bull in his time as he wore the ‘badge of office’, a bull ring, on his steel.

After my demob from the Royal Navy I didn’t see the Bennetts until the late 1950s, when I discovered from one of my cycling friends that the young boy I had known from the butchery as Alan was actually the Alan Bennett.

Years later, when I came to live in Carlisle, I passed the instantly recognisable figure of Alan Bennett sitting on the bench outside the Green Market in front of the old town hall. He seemed lost in thought and once I had taken a good look at his profile, I wanted to introduce myself and tell him how I had worked for his dad. Something held me back, so I continued on my way home. I’ve regretted it ever since but I’ve often wondered what we would have talked about.