Obituary: Robin Young, wholesale meat trader

Robin Young, wholesale meat trader who was made a Freeman of the City of London. Picture: Contributed

Robin Young, wholesale meat trader who was made a Freeman of the City of London. Picture: Contributed

0
Have your say

Born: 7 May, 1921, in Saltcoats. Died: 13 September, 2015, in Perth, aged 94.

In the 1960s, Smithfield meat market in the heart of London was a hive of activity. Hundreds of people were employed handling and selling the carcasses of livestock coming into the capital city from all over the country.

One part of this trade saw Scotch lamb coming down overnight by train. On reaching the Smithfield rail link and, in a strongly unionised operation, some of the workforce, labelled the “pullers back” would then enter the vans.

As their job description indicated, they dragged the lamb carcasses over the bed of ice on which they were lying to the back of the van where they would be loaded onto wooden handcarts. The operators of the carts or bummarees would then take the carcasses to the stall holders who would sell them on commission.

And where did Robin Young, Perth who died last week, come into this operation? He was one of the wholesale meat traders who sent the lambs down from Scotland. In his case, he bought the lambs from farmers in Perth, Fife and Angus, then took them to the abattoir in Perth and loaded the carcasses onto the overnight trains.

At the peak of the seasonal trade, he would be handling up to 3,000 lambs per week and with a maximum of 80 carcasses per railway van, that was a sizeable operation. After the Beeching cuts, with the closure of many smaller stations, the trade moved onto the roads where container lorries could take 300 or so carcasses.

Despite the increased pay load and flexibility of road transport, Robin would often praise the old rail service for its reliability.

Recalling these days supplying the London market, he used to say his biggest concern was a union strike. The withdrawal of labour might have nothing to do with his consignment or that of any other of the Scots supplying meat to the market.

All it needed was one firm to use black or non-union labour and the whole workforce would come out on strike. With perishable meat in transit, this could be a logistical nightmare for consignors and that was an occupational hazard.

His life started 94 years ago on the family farm, which was then on the outskirts of Saltcoats but is now completely under houses. Like many West Coast farmers in the early years of last century, his father uprooted the family and brought all his livestock and farm machinery through to the East; in the Youngs’ case, it was to Balgay farm in the Carse of Gowrie.

The belief for those making such a migration was that farming was easier on the east side of the country and even if that was not the case, there was, at least, less rain to deal with.

It was from that carse farm that Young senior established all five of his sons, including Robin, on farms of their own. In Robin’s case, the unit that was bought was Friarton, close to Perth.

Before then, while still working at home, Robin missed the Second World War; with agriculture being a reserved occupation there was no call up for those producing food. However, he and other country lads on farms served in the Home Guard.

With a shortage of labour on farms, his youthful years were mostly a case of work and more work. In later life he would recall ploughing with horses, building straw stacks and hand spreading dung with a graip; all jobs entailing hard physical work.

He did have time to help set up Perth Young Farmers club and latterly Carse of Gowrie club. It was there he learned the skills of judging livestock, an attribute which was to form the basis of his successful career.

But first, there was the move to his own farm in the post-war years and marriage to Janey Clark, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer.

On the farm, he started buying and selling livestock but the big breakthrough in his business came in 1954 when the government removed itself from the selling of meat. From the beginning of the war in 1939, the government had controlled all sales of beef and lamb from farms. This was an essential part of the wartime food rationing programme and the government employed graders to assess the stock being marketed.

When de-control came in, most farmers stuck with the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, the body set up to replace the statutory government buying scheme but Robin and a few others saw the potential of the open market.

He was soon heavily involved in co-ordinating the wholesale meat trade in Scotland. At his instigation, the various local meat trade federations in Scotland amalgamated to become the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, an organisation which still represents the industry.

His work in Scotland organising the industry and especially in developing the lamb supply chain between this country and Smithfield saw him receive a string of honours.

He was made a Freeman of the City of London and clothed as a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Butchers in recognition of his political and practical input to the meat trade.

He never did exercise his Freeman’s right to herd his sheep across London Bridge but he did welcome the appointment as it opened doors and allowed him to meet the top people in the business and in government.

One specific result was that he was asked and then served 19 years on the Joint Meat committee of the Ministry of Agriculture. This was work which involved dealing with policy, which he found very interesting.

Some considered the rise of supermarkets buying meat direct from processors as helping to spell the death knell of the Smithfield trade but Robin thought the UK joining the Common Market was equally significant as the French liked the taste of Scotch lamb and soon a percentage of the top quality carcasses were heading into the massive Rungis market in Paris. He did not enter the export trade because the slaughterhouses he worked with did not meet the European standards.

With a tailing off in his trade in London, he changed tack and began to buy large numbers of store lambs from Shetland and Orkney for resale on the mainland. Such was the scale of his purchases on the islands that after shipping them down he was once able to sell 2000 lambs at a single Perth sale.

The small island lambs were snapped up by arable farmers who would fatten and finish them on turnips and the by-products of arable crops.

His reputation as someone who knew the quality of livestock resulted in him being asked to judge at Smithfield show and at the prestigious Highland show. He was also a stalwart and supporter of the Scottish National Winter Fair. International recognition for his expertise as a judge also saw him being asked to judge the sheep carcasses at one of the big shows in Australia.

His wife Janey predeceased him and he is survived by his daughter Janey, son Robert and their families.

Back to the top of the page