Wednesday, May 25

Britain’s oldest family business RJ Balson running since Tudor days



Each year about 240,000 British businesses collapse. To survive beyond the first couple of years is an achievement; to celebrate 50 years trading is remarkable.

But for a shopkeeper to be able to mark a 500th anniversary is worthy of great celebration which is precisely what Richard Balson did last weekend.

RJ Balson & Sons, the butcher’s shop he owns in the pretty market town of Bridport, Dorset, has survived the Reformation, the English Civil War, the start of the Industrial Revolution, the end of horsepower, the rise of the internet and more recessions than you can shake a black pudding at.

And all the while it’s remained within the same family, so that experts have now declared it the oldest family company in Britain.

“It’s unbelievable,” he agrees, in a Dorset accent steeped in brawn and chitterlings. To mark the occasion he threw a party at Bridport Town Hall, which hadn’t seen such a gathering since some Monmouth rebels were executed following the Bloody Assizes of 1685.

There were 300 guests, plenty of wine and canapés served by women “dressed as Tudor wenches” (Balson’s words).

We are chatting in his shop, a fairly small establishment the business has occupied only since the 19th century; before then it operated out of various local pubs (a common distribution method for butchers in Georgian and Victorian England).

And before that the family had a market stall in the Bridport Shambles, shambles being an ancient name for a shelf, on which meat was slaughtered and then sold.

“Most of the people who come in, we’ve served their parents before them, and their grandparents before that”

The proof of the company’s antiquity rests on a document from September 1515, which granted one Robert Balson the right to operate two shambles in return for “five shillings of legal money to be paid at the feasts of Easter and St Michael the Archangel.”

On sale now is a mixture of novelty and old-fashioned fare. Packs of beef dripping share space with sliced chorizo. There is a freezer of game: some traditional, like venison and rabbit, some exotic, like bison, zebra, crocodile, ostrich and kangaroo.

When the business opened, the kangaroo hadn’t even been discovered.

Balson says: “Ever since they’ve been going in the jungle and eating funny stuff on the telly, it’s made people have these unusual parties where they have to guess what they’re eating.

I get people coming in buying a load of this stuff. I am not sure what my grandfather would make of it.”

But it’s not just staying abreast of TV-fuelled trends that has allowed the company to keep its head above water in an age when many small retailers, especially fishmongers, grocers and butchers, have gone to the wall.

From the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, butcher numbers tumbled from 15,000 to around 6,000, a drop of 60 per cent, according to Meat Trades Journal, though in the last couple of years figures have stabilised.

Balson is clear that he can fight against the supermarkets. “The main thing is personal service. When you come in, you get a nice welcome, you say, ‘how’s your mum?’, ‘how’s your daughter?’ Most of the people who come in, we’ve served their parents before them, and their grandparents before that and they like to be asked.

“You’re not going to get that personal experience in a supermarket. Who wants to queue up for 20 minutes before you even get to the checkout?”

In any case, if a shop has outlived 23 monarchs and 52 prime ministers, it probably stands a fighting chance of surviving the rise and Tesco and Aldi.

Many argue that family-run businesses are intrinsically more successful than public companies, precisely because the man behind the till or wielding the carving knife is more interested in handing on a legacy than making a quick buck.

Mark Hastings, the director of the Institute for Family Businesses, says: “They are not bound by the terror of quarterly or yearly results. It is in their DNA to pass something better to the next generation. They look not just to their sons and daughters, but to the generation beyond.”

Balson, 58, left school at 17 to work with his father, as his father had done before him. But his own son, Billy, 36, is a successful banker living in Manchester.

Though Balson Jr is keen to help the business (he set up its original website), he shows little inclination to join his father selling faggots and bath chaps.

Balson admits there is huge “pressure” on keeping the business going long after he retires as “custodian” of the firm.

“I think it does matter there is a Balson behind the counter,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter if it skips a generation or goes to my brother’s son.”

He is also determined that however our diets change, butcher’s shops will continue to be central to the British high street.

“We’ve survived plagues, fires, floods, wars, recessions and food scares. There’s always something bad for you, but if you listened to everything, you wouldn’t eat anything. You’ve got to enjoy life rather than living on nuts and being miserable.”

Having tried one of his Scotch eggs, I can confirm they are the antidote to misery. The company is likely to survive a few more years yet.

Ranking Business Founded County Industry

Ranking Business Founded County Industry
1 RJ Balson & Son 1515 Dorset Butchers
2 GA Baker & Son 1741 Gloucestershire Jewellers
3 Stewarts Garden Centres 1742 Dorset Garden centres
4 Bradfords Building Supplies 1770 Somerset Building supplies
5 Hall & Woodhouse 1777 Dorset Brewers
6 Averys 1793 Bristol Wine merchants
7 Palmers Brewery 1794 Dorset Brewers
8 Waite & Sons 1804 Gloucestershire Jewellers
9 Alfred Smith & Son 1811 Cornwall Furniture
10 W Carter & Son 1817 Wiltshire Jewellers