Wearside Echoes: A slice of history

MEAT, THE BOSS: Ian Gibbons of Gibbons the shipping butchers on High Street, Sunderland, which is celebrating 90 years of business.
MEAT, THE BOSS: Ian Gibbons of Gibbons the shipping butchers on High Street, Sunderland, which is celebrating 90 years of business.
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DOZENS of butcher shops once jostled for position along Sunderland’s busy High Street.

Today, Gibbons International is one of just two to survive – and the last in a long tradition of Wearside shipping butchers.

“This year marks our 90th anniversary,” said chief executive Ian Gibbons.

“The corner shop business started by my grandfather is now an international company.”

The Gibbons family originally hailed from rural Wiltshire. When business started booming in Sunderland during the Industrial Revolution, they opted to move north in the 1870s.

“They did labouring work at first, but my great-grandfather, Albert George Gibbons, became a grocer. He opened a shop in Hendon soon after the turn of the century,” said Ian.

Ian’s grandfather, also called Albert George, helped out in the store as a boy but, when the First World War broke out, he signed up to fight for King and country.

“He served in France with the East Yorkshire Regiment, where he was shot and gassed. Apparently he had a bullet wound which went from his stomach through to his back,” said Ian.

“After recovering from that, he was sent off to Ireland with the Lincolnshire Regiment, which must have been hard too, before returning home and finding a job at the Glebe pit.”

Albert spent several years at the colliery before deciding to branch out into business on his own. In 1921, he formed A.G. Gibbons and Son and opened a butcher’s shop at 71, High Street East.

“Those were the days when you used to get a rabbit, a pound of pie meat and an onion for a shilling,” Albert’s son, also called Albert George, recalled in the Echo in 1983.

“Sometimes my father would open his window and auction the meat off. The meat was often brought via a horse and cart run by a local character, Ernie Adamson.”

Business soon flourished and, as Wearsiders flocked to stock up on meat at Albert senior’s shop, he found time to stand for election as a councillor – serving as deputy mayor at one point.

“I think my grandfather wanted to be his own boss, that’s why he started the shop,” said Ian. “Sadly, as he died when I was eight, all recollections of what he was like came through my father.

“My grandfather was apparently a very keen councillor, later becoming an Alderman of Sunderland. He was also a Freemason too, which many of the local businessmen were at the time.”

As Albert senior started spending more time on his council duties, so Albert junior stepped in to run the business. A move to a new base at 138 High Street West, the current site, followed in 1936.

“Between here and the docks, there were probably two dozen shipping butchers at the time,” said Ian.

“Business was very competitive, but my father was a very competitive man.

“The staff of each shop would have to go down to the ships to tout for business.

“When a ship came in, my father would row across in a coble, climb the ladder and ask what meat they needed.

“It was a case of first come, first served, as to who got the order. Many a time my father would stay out all night, ready to talk to a sleeping ship’s captain when he woke at dawn, then come back and do a full shift.”

Once an order was secured, Albert junior would transport the meat to the town’s cooper, Andy Ferguson of High Street East, who would seal it with salt before packing it into wooden caskets.

“This was a tradition dating back to Napoleonic times and before, when ships had no form of refrigeration and needed to have their meat salted to preserve it,” said Ian.

“Times changed of course, but I always remember how my father told me his grandfather was livid when he brought his first freezer for the shop. He didn’t see the point of it at all!

“My grandfather was very keen on his council activities, while my father wanted to move the business on.

“It was my father who realised there was a marketplace for supplying ships with meat.”

The outbreak of the Second World War put Albert junior’s dreams on hold.

On his return to Sunderland after serving in the merchant navy, however, he led a major expansion into the wholesale business.

“Although we were primarily butchers after the war, we also supplied coffee to foreign ships by the ton,” he later recalled. “It was freely available in England, but not in Europe.”

The end of rationing saw business boom. Once meat was back on the menu, Albert’s half-crown fry-ups of steak, lamb, liver and black pudding proved so popular he couldn’t keep up with demand.

By the early 1950s, the firm employed six butchers and seven shop assistants.

Not only was business brisk in the store, but Gibbons was also supplying ships in the Wear, Tees and Tyne.

Albert junior’s son, another Albert George, later joined the family firm. Further shops were opened, and interests expanded, during his 30 years with the company.

Today Ian, Albert’s younger brother, is at the helm of Gibbons International.

Although the firm still operates a family butchers, the shop represents less than 10 per cent of company business now.

Instead, Gibbons supplies meat and provisions for such high-profile customers as DFDS Seaways, MPI Offshore and Nissan’s import/export carriers, as well as ships around Britain. It has even supplied the Royal Yacht Britannia.

“Our business is very diverse now,” said Ian.“We export pork from County Durham farms to the Falkland Islands – and beer, wines and spirits to British bases in the Antarctic.

“But we will always remember our roots.

“I’d love to go back in time to see the shop in the 50s or 60s.

“All the men wore bowler hats and meat was sold through the windows. It would be priceless to see that!”