Chris Godfrey: butcher

18 Dec

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  Godfrey’s at Highbury Barn was originally the smallest of a chain of north London family butchers established by Frank Godfrey in 1905. Today it’s the jewel in the family business – run by Chris Godfrey, great grandson of founder Frank, while down the hill at Finsbury Park, Chris’ brother Philip makes handmade sausages with his team. Chris Godfrey talks meat, drink and business.  Interview by Nicola Baird

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“I’ll be eating turkey at Christmas – they only taste like they do because they are raised free-range in the fields over the summer. In my house turkey legs go fast because they’ve got the most flavour,” says Chris Godfrey who runs Godfrey’s at Highbury Barn.

Chris Godfrey – runs Godfrey’s today (son)

Peter Godfrey – father

Leicester Godfrey – grandfather (died after WW2)

Frank Godfrey – great grandfather set up approx. 1905 (His sons Dan and Leicester looked after the shop during WW2 while Stanley was a tank commander in the desert and Peter eventually a POW in Greece).

Islington used to be London’s meat capital. Smithfield – on its southern boundary – is the oldest meat market in the world. Then the 1850s the market was deemed too small for London’s rapidly expanding population, so it split. Live animals went instead to the Metropolitan Cattle Market just off Caledonian Road (opened in 1855) while carcasses and cuts of meat were sold at Smithfield, as they still are.

“For years Upper Street was the main droving route for livestock, that’s why the pavements are so high, to stop the mess and the dirt,” explains Chris Godfrey, the fourth generation butcher in his family to run the award-winning Godfrey’s.

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Chris Godfrey: “My dad put ‘Frank’ outside in the 1970s. He gets kidnapped by football fans… or goes dancing. I’ve dragged him out of the Highbury Barn and the Arsenal Tavern a few times.”

“Frank, my dad’s dad’s dad, came to seek his fortunes in London in the 1870s. Our family were Lincolnshire farmers – they’d lived there for as long as anyone can remember.  He started with a shop on Green Lanes around 1890 though we didn’t become a limited company until 1905.”

Frank was hungry for success – soon he had a chain of four butcher shops with new stores at Stoke Newington High Street, Highbury Barn (where Chris now runs Godfrey’s) and another in the West End at Marble Arch. “He also had a few market stalls,” says Chris.

Back then Frank would buy livestock from the Royal Agricultural Halls on Upper Street and the Metropolitan Cattle Market. He’d then graze them in nearby Clissold Park until they were slaughtered (all his shops had a slaughter facility attached, except at Highbury Barn).

The family may revere Frank still – the model outside Godfrey’s in stripey red butcher’s apron is fondly named after him – but he was quite a character. Chris says “Frank used to go to Smithfield where the pubs were open for 24 hours. He’d buy his meat, then drink. To get home he’d be strapped on to the cart and his favourite horse would drive itself back to Highbury Park, where the secretary would undo his belt and let him sleep it off.”

Family business
The business was left to Frank’s four sons Peter, Stanley, Dan and Leicester (the two girls were given the freehold).  With Peter a Prisoner of War (POW) in Greece and Stanley commanding tanks in the desert, the shop was run by the younger brothers. “When Leicester died my dad, also Peter, came to work for his uncles.”

Peter went on to be the President of the Royal Smithfield Club.

Chris, now 51, has followed that tradition too, and still lunches once a month at Butchers’ Hall – home of the Livery Company of Butchers, which has been around for more than 1,000 years.

Chris Godfrey, butcher, drinks his tea from a stainless steel cup on which he engraved his name 20 years ago. “Everyone has an engraved mug (there are 32 staff). I do them myself.”

Chris Godfrey, butcher, drinks his tea from a stainless steel cup on which he engraved his name 20 years ago. “Everyone has an engraved mug (there are 32 staff). I do them myself.”

Although he lives in Hatfield, he has been commuting to Highbury most days for years. “As soon as I could walk I came to work,” says Chris who has a lovely sense of humour and is very quick to get me laughing. He’s kitted out in white hat and green apron and taking time out during the very busy Christmas rush to talk to me in his staff’s tiny rest room. Compared to Chris’s office (more like a cupboard with a computer) it’s cavernous  – all the space goes to the shop and the area where carcasses are cut into cookable-sized portions.

Just five supermarkets are today’s big meat buyers, and this concentration of purchasing power has utterly changed the way we all shop. It’s had a strange effect on Islington too…  many butchers shops have shut, the Royal Agricultural Halls where the livestock were paraded has been turned into Islington Design Centre and though many pubs in the south of the borough reflect the meat trade (eg, The Pig and Butcher, 80 Liverpool Road) not a lot of people are aware of these strong links.

As for specialist butchers like Godfrey’s, they have moved with the times too. “We buy direct from small family farms where the famers love their animals and have great respect for them. We took a philosophy from my great grandfather wanting quality in a traditional way. I feel it’s a privilege to eat animals and be at the top of the food chain. So when we despatch an animal we do it with humanity and care. But that quality comes at a price… Having said that I’m not a rich man!” says Chris, “but I feel I belong here, Highbury Barn is home and I feel comfortable in life.”

Godfrey's sausages are handmade in Finsbury Park, N4.

Godfrey’s sausages are handmade in Finsbury Park, N4.

Loved up
At Christmas when the shop develops a massive queue of turkey, goose and cocktail sausage collectors everyone is treated to a Christmas drink.

Chris makes friends with his customers too, five years ago a man who’d been a regular shopper for 30-40 years, “retired and started helping us – he’s the reason we got this website, set up the butchery school and changed our image a bit.  As a top businessman he could see what needed to be preserved and what to be taken forward for the next generation. It can be difficult when you work with family as you can be stuck in your ways, so he’s really helped. I like doing the butchery school because everyone finds it fun,” he adds.

Godfrey’s looks set to open a new butcher shop in Finsbury Park by 2018. “I’ve added this model of a bull to the factory so people know Islington’s history,” says Chris Godfrey. “It’s an Aberdeen Angus – a replica of the prize bull Frank Godfrey bought in 1930 for Maxim’s of Paris* and then marched down the Champs Elysees.”

Godfrey’s plans to open a new butcher shop in Finsbury Park by 2018. “I’ve added this model of a bull to the factory so people know Islington’s history,” says Chris Godfrey. “It’s an Aberdeen Angus – a replica of the prize bull Frank Godfrey bought in 1930 for Maxim’s of Paris* and then marched down the Champs Elysees.” Spot the bull opposite the Park Theatre, just before the bus station.

Chris’ three children help out at busy times – Christmas and some Saturdays too. At this stage it looks as if son James, 17, will be coming into the business. It can be a huge pressure to follow in your parents’ shoes, but here’s hoping James gets as much fun out of the business – and as many good meals – as his dad.

Out & about with Chris Godfrey

Godfrey’s, 7 Highbury Park, London N5 1QJ, tel: 020 7226 2425, www.godfreys.co. Open Mon/Sat 8am – 6pm Tues-Fri 9am-6pm.  Use the website to order exactly what you want, find menu ideas, book a Butchery School lesson or get your knives sharpened.

WORDS

Jack Straw’s Castle was the nickname for Highbury Manor. This was burnt down by the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, Jack Straw and his followers, in June 1381 in protest against a poll tax ordered by Richard II. There’s a sign commemorating this event on the Highbury Barn Tavern, opposite Godfrey’s, though the house was actually on the Godfrey’s side of the road, approximately where the Post Office depot is. See the council’s website for more info here

Royal Smithfield Club still runs agricultural shows. It was based at the Royal Agricultural Halls in Islington (now the Islington Design Centre) from 1862 until 1938. See http://www.royalsmithfieldclub.co.uk/ Find out more in the Club History Book (1798 to 1980) by R. Trow-Smith or the Club History Book (1980 to 1998) by R.W. Waltham

Maxim’s of Paris is a legendary French restaurant, famous for its food, celebrity guests and Art Nouveau interior. See www.maxims-de-paris.com/

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.

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3 Responses to “Chris Godfrey: butcher”

  1. nicola baird blogs December 30, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    Lots of twitter action for this interview with Chris Godfrey including tweets from:
    ‏@ledavies who says I love Godfrey’s and bought my Canadian thanksgiving turkey there this year.
    @FieldsHighbury Chris Godfrey: butcher http://wp.me/p2BG3d-sS ” Seems a good moment to tweet @nicolabairduk ‘s new blog again – our favourite local butcher.
    ‏@HotblackN1 asks Why are the pavements in #upperstreet #Islington so high?. Chris from #frankgodfrey tells you here: http://wp.me/p2BG3d-sS via @nicolabairduk

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tony Bedwell: Highbury Barn pub manager | Islington Faces Blog - February 19, 2014

    […] There’s a restaurant serving carefully sourced ingredients, which are then cooked on the premises including homemade pies, condiments and meat from Godfrey’s, the butcher over the road (see islingtonfaces interview with Chris Godfrey here). […]

  2. Hugh Grover: estate agent | Islington Faces Blog - April 2, 2014

    […] I also do a sea bass (bought from Steve Hatt) with sea salt all over it. See interviews with Chris Godfrey and Steve Hatt already published on […]

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