Five things you may not know about local butchers…

This week we’re marking National Butcher’s Week with a delve into the history of the famous local Black Country butcher’s brand, Marsh and Baxter. Read on to find out some little known facts about one of the region’s most famous historic butcher.

Marsh and Baxter began in 1871, with Alfred Marsh in Brierley Hill. It became known as Marsh and Baxter in 1912, following the purchase of the business and factory of Mr A R Baxter of Dale End, Birmingham. The heart of the business was always in Brierley Hill however, with the factory and offices dominating the skyline. It employed many local people and provided social and sports facilities. At its height it had over 50 shops spread throughout the Midlands. It also had its own fleet of vehicles travelling across the country. The brand was once widely known, until the closure of the factory in 1978.

1. Secrets

Marsh & Baxters advertising poster – the secret of the pork pie (BCLM Collection)

It’s not unusual for product owners to claim they have secret ingredients. The famous Bakewell Tart, from Derbyshire, springs to mind. Here, however, Marsh and Baxter were proud to declare the “delicious secret” of their famous pork pies, the “real pork jelly” surrounding the pork, which kept the pie “fresh, juicy and full of flavour”.

A more closely guarded secret apparently was the special seasoning added to products, with only a trusted few knowing how to make it. Spices would be weighed and mixed each week, including pepper, coriander, ginger and mace.

Did this secret disappear when the factory closed in 1978?

2. Advertising

M&B ‘Drawing his own conclusion’ BCLM Collection, 1981.

The image most closely associated with Marsh and Baxter is of the pig “drawing his own conclusion”. Perhaps less well known is that this design is attributed to Mary Grearley, from Pearson Street, Brierley Hill. Mary worked in the company offices after leaving school. This image was widely used by the company for years to advertise its products, from shop windows to large billboards. Some of their shops even had models of pigs in their windows, including a large papier-mâché one that is preserved in the Museum’s collections.

The company had novel promotional campaigns. To drive sales in the summer of 1965 they offered a free tube of Colman’s mustard with every I Ib pork pie. Marsh & Baxter were also innovative, dabbling in early television advertising in the 1950s.

3. York Ham

Pork Pie offer – Colman’s Mustard? BCLM Collection, 2019.

One of the top products produced by Marsh & Baxter has to be the York Ham. It carried the Royal Warrant from George V (1910 – 1936).

Alfred Marsh began curing hams in 1871 and to meet consumer demand, he installed a refrigeration machine, made by Atlas Engineering Company, Birmingham, in 1877. This was claimed to be the first refrigerating machine to be installed in the UK for the purpose of curing hams and bacon. The Curing Houses in the factory were capable of holding 60,000 hams, which would be salted here. Once the curing process was complete, the hams would pass to the washing house, to have all the salt removed. They then passed to the drying kilns, before being wrapped in calico bags and hung up for the final maturing process. Once ready, the hams would be distributed to the local shops, transported around the UK or packaged up for export around the world.

4.”Everything but the squeal”

Marsh & Baxters circia,1950s-60s, BCLM Collection.

The company utilised every part of the animal in their production, “everything but the squeal”, including bone meal and dried blood being used for fertilizer. Hairs were used to make brushes, or were mixed with a rubberised solution, to be made into seat interiors for British Leyland Motor Company, and for furniture.   The company even had its own lard making plant.

With mass production of products, there can be concern for the welfare of animals. Here, the company took care of the animals that came to the factory. From the early days they employed a fully qualified Veterinary Officer, who would assess the condition of the livestock on arrival. The pigs would be washed and fed, held in a suitable resting place. The company claimed to have constructed the slaughter houses carefully, following much research, and to always handle the livestock “by the most humane and speedy methods known”.

5. How tasty were the tomato sausages?

York Ham Leaflet – BCLM Collection, 2018

The Marsh and Baxter shops received fresh meat deliveries each morning. Window displays, even during rationing (1940-1954), aimed to be attractive and enticing, to draw customers in. People often remember the York hams and pork pies, but there was also a wide range of cooked meats and sausages. Graham Taylor, a former employee, thought the tomato sausage “was to die for”. He also recalled that the Gala pork, “pork pie with egg all the way through it” was popular at Christmas and had to be pre-ordered. Veal ham and egg pies were made every day in the factory in the 1950s, using a large boiler that held over 1,000 eggs.

When Black Country Living Museum opens the new town in 2023, visitors can once again step inside a Marsh and Baxter shop. This will be a recreation of the smaller Brierley Hill High Street shop, set out in the early 1950s. If you have a memory about Marsh and Baxter and would like to share it with the Museum, please contact [email protected] or call us on 0121 557 9643.

With special thanks to Dudley Archives and Local History Service for additional resources.