Tetzel could dress two bullocks in 18 minutes

Butchery was a spectator sport in the last days of Queen Victoria’s reign. When a British title contest between London champion Edward Harper and his Manchester contender took place in a Gateshead theatre in 1889, a special train from the capital had to be laid on. But after he won, he came to South London and set up a butcher’s shop in Greenwich. JAN BONDESON tells the story.

The earliest butchery competition considered newsworthy by the national press was held at the Standard Theatre in Gateshead in April 1898.

The London champion butcher Edward Harper had been challenged by the Gateshead butcher Matthew Ramsey, known as the winner of a local beef-dressing competition the previous year.

Each man had to skin and dress two large, fat bullocks, watched by a referee and a time-keeper.

A special train had been run from London, full of cattle dealers, drovers and butchers, who were keen to drink a few pints of strong northern bitter and have a bet on Harper.

The four bullocks were duly slaughtered, and the two butchers went to work, cheered on by a large and uproarious audience.

Edward Harper was a fine figure of a man, 25 years old and very strong and sturdy; Matthew Ramsey was smaller and also incapacitated by blood poisoning to one hand.

The London butcher was by far the superior performer. He finished his two bullocks in 21 minutes and 10 seconds, whereas the Gateshead man took 26 and seven seconds.

There was much cheering as the result was announced, and the jolly London butchers went for an extended pub crawl, before boarding another special train that was to return them to the metropolis.

In June 1898, Edward Harper was challenged by the champion butcher of America, Paul Tetzel, a native of Chicago.

Another butchery competition was arranged at the Wood Green Athletic Grounds, for £200 a side.

The stipulations were the same as those for the Gateshead match, and thousands of pounds were bet on the result.

The attendance exceeded all precedents and several men were doing a good trade selling silk handkerchief trophies of the event.

The Old Butchers’ Band of the Metropolitan Cattle Market were in attendance, rattling their marrow-bones and cleavers to great acclaim.

When the four fat bullocks were slaughtered, there was a roar of anticipation as the two rival butchers went to work.

Edward Harper looked like a proper butcher, large and stout, and with a red, perspiring face.

In contrast, Paul Tetzel was a thin, dapper-looking cove, whose waist-belt would not have reached round half of his opponent’s well-nourished bulk.

Paul Tetzel butchering away at Wood Green, from the Illustrated Police News, 25 June 1898

But still, Tetzel had the head off his first bullock well before his opponent, and he proceeded to skin both beasts with extreme rapidity.

In the end, Tetzel had his two carcases ready for the market in 18 minutes and 32 seconds, whereas Harper took just over 20 minutes.

Paul Tetzel was the new undisputed champion butcher of the world.

The working men’s newspapers of the time reported on the Wood Green butchery competition with extreme enthusiasm.

“International Beef-Dressing Competition for £200 a Side and the Championship!” exclaimed the Illustrated Police News.

At least 4,000 people had watched this bloodbath, which had “aroused a tremendous amount of excitement throughout the butchery trade in England.”

Trade newspapers like the Butcher’s Advocate were also enthusiastic about the Wood Green encounter, and the prospect of future butchery competitions.

But squeamish, middle-class people objected to such a sanguinary display being enacted in front of a large, paying audience.

When there was a question in Parliament whether it was really appropriate for butchery to be performed in a place of public amusement, the Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley, gave a rather vague answer.

Although the Wood Green track had given an assurance that butchery contests would not be allowed there in the future, the butchery trade might well find alternate venues for their ‘beef-dressing competitions’.

Paul Tetzel liked his novel fame among the London butchers.

Showing no urgency to return to his native land, he settled down at a butcher’s shop in Greenwich.

The 1901 Census finds him and his family in a three-story Victorian terraced house at 59 Endwell Road Hiswife was called Amelia, with son George and daughter Caroline.

Endwell Road, Brockley, where Mr Tetzel lived

He had been born in Germany in 1867, but his parents had brought him to New York in 1881.

Paul Tetzel called himself the Champion Butcher of the World and was always ready to defend his title.

In 1901, he was challenged by J. Marsh, the Champion Sheep-dresser of Manchester, to a contest at the Salford Football Club for a stake of £50 a side, that he could not dress a bullock in less time than his local rival would dress a sheep.

Again, several thousand spectators were present, many of them butchers from Manchester or the Midlands.

Councillor Hornby, of Manchester, acted as judge, and Mr Mills, of Birkenhead, as time-keeper.

Once more, Paul Tetzel was the winner, taking just three minutes and 16 seconds to get his bullock ready for the market, whereas Marsh took more than half a minute longer to dress his sheep.

In 1903, Paul Tetzel outclassed all local competitors at a butchery contest in Glasgow.

A few years later, the Champion Butcher performed at Gilbert’s Circus in Sherwood Street, Nottingham, to general acclaim.

The 1910 US Census finds Paul Tetzel at 19 Manhattan Ward, New York, with his wife and three children.

According to an internet source, Tetzel remained active much longer than that, showing off his skills at fairs and markets on both sides of the Atlantic.

His year of death is not known, but since his son George was listed in the 1940 US Census, with four children alive, the Champion Butcher may well have living descendants today.

This is an extract from Jan Bondeson’s book Strange Victoriana (Amberley Publishing 2018).

Main Pic: Endwell Road, Brockley, where Mr Tetzel lived




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