You’d be forgiven for conjuring up an image of a big burly man in a red striped apron if asked to imagine a butcher. Perhaps he’s wearing a white cap, maybe he has a beard, a moustache, or even some tattoos.
But you certainly wouldn’t imagine Tilly Paul; a 26-year-old Londoner with a degree from Central St Martins.
“My aunt had a dinner party last night, and when I told one of the guys I was a butcher their response was ‘sorry what?’ That’s literally the reaction I get every time, I’m used to it now.”
I first met Tilly at London Fields Market one freezing December morning, when she was working for the local butchers, Hill and Szrok, on their Sunday stall. Today though, we meet in a warmer cafe; Tilly’s just left the organisation to pursue her dream of opening a female-led butchers. But it’s a recent dream, a dream which began – rather unconventionally – with a feeble lamb five years ago.
“Basically I ended up adopting a little lamb, Bobby, from a friend’s farm in Gloucestershire. I went for a cup of tea in the middle of lambing season, and they said to come and look. Of course my heart melted. I got into this pen with all these lambs jumping up at me, but there was one in the corner who looked like he was dead.
“I picked him up, and put my finger in his mouth to see if there was any warmth. It was dead cold, but I felt this suckling, and I just turned to my Mum and Dad and said, ‘you are taking both of us or you’re leaving me here.”
“I brought Bobby home to London and ended up rearing this lamb in my bedroom, my whole floor was covered in hay. It was like having a baby, I had to bottle feed him every four hours. It was intense because lambs know not to leave their mothers. He didn’t leave my side; I didn’t go out much because I knew he’d have to come with me.
“But I took him for a few walks on Hampstead Heath. I’d take him all wrapped up, then we’d get to a quiet spot and I’d let him wander around. People would do a double take – ‘what, that’s not a poodle that’s a lamb!’”
As it turns out, adopting Bobby completely changed Tilly’s life. After realising that a healthy ram could live to the ripe old age of 35 (“I thought, holy shit, I’m going to be a crazy old lady with a ram in my garden!”), she started to research alternative options. Celebrities’ farms, city farms, working farms, all said the same thing: that because Bobby was a ram, it would be too expensive to keep him indefinitely. Instead, he’d be fattened up and sent for slaughter.
To make her decision, Tilly investigated what would happen to Bobby if she sent him back to a farm. Inevitably, her research touched on food industry practices.
“I ended up turning vegan for a while, I was just so shocked, I had no idea about the practices that go on; how they kill animals, the conditions they’re kept in, the abuse. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been aware of this.”
So how did a vegan become a butcher?
“I love eating meat and dairy, and veganism felt like opting out; it didn’t feel it would have enough of an impact. I didn’t want to just close my eyes to what was happening, and I didn’t want to give up meat and dairy. And I looked at farming and saw an age old partnership with animals; I had this real craving to be out there, farming in the countryside.
“But from a practical perspective, London was all I really knew. Moving to the countryside full-time felt really overwhelming, so I looked for things I could do in the city. I walked into my local butchers and gave in my CV, and a couple of weeks later I had an interview.”
That was three years ago; since then Tilly’s worked in butchers across London. But although she’s loved it, it hasn’t always been easy.
“Initially everywhere I worked, I felt extremely welcomed. But after a while, sexist comments started sneaking in. Just small things, like if everyone was going to collect the deliveries, they’d be like ‘oh no darling, don’t worry I’ll get that.’ It made me want to pick up twice as many boxes.
“Some customers just completely ignored me. I’d ask if I could help, and they just say they’re waiting for him. It drives me; it makes me want to prove my worth even more.
“But most of the time it’s quite a fun feeling, like the only girl in a boy’s club. Of course when you get lots of men in one particular environment without women, they tend to show off a bit more. A lot of the time, the sexist comments didn’t bother me because I knew they were winding me up, but after the hundredth time you’ve heard a joke, it’s not funny anymore, it’s offensive.”
In certain places, the sexism was less ‘laddish’.
“There’s a lot of cleaning, washing up, sausage making, in butchery. I totally get it, this stuff is done by the less experienced member of the team, which was me. But there were times when I was only being given those jobs, the most female jobs. I felt like I was being controlled, and part of that was because of my gender.”
However, for the most part, being a women has helped – not hindered – Tilly, and she thinks butchers should be welcoming more women into the industry.
“Butchery is extremely necessary; it teaches us how to deal with our food. In order to keep the trade going we need more young people in it, and a major part of that is women.
“I’ve spoken to customers who say that male butchers can be intimidating, whereas women are more inviting and friendly. I don’t know if that’s all been down to the gender or the person, but I want to encourage other women. We need butchers to be really inviting places to shop in, so I think it’s necessary to get more women into the industry.”
Accessibility is at the heart of her new venture, ‘Tilly’s Butcher.’ She’s just putting the finishing touches on her business plan, before she starts hunting for investors.
“I think it has become so much clearer to me that my main goal is to educate and to get people to understand where their food comes from. The idea is that it’s not just a shop, but a hub of the community. I want to be encouraging people who come in to ask questions; to speak and chat to the people who make their food. I want to have lots of workshops and get people involved.”
Tilly’s passion for food is clear. Her face lights up when she talks about butchery, farming, the books she’s reading and the documentaries she’s watched. But what happened to Bobby, the lamb that started it all? Is he still in her garden? Or did he have an altogether different fate?
“Bobby died. He got hypothermia and pneumonia again. It was honestly the most traumatic time of my life. He lived for one full month, then one evening when he suckled, milk went into his lungs, and overnight he deteriorated.
“I look him to the vet the next morning, but they didn’t really know how to deal with a farm animal. Little did they know he was my baby. They said he was in a lot of pain, that it would be unkind to keep him as he was. So they put him down – then slapped me with a £100 bill for the injection and the consultation.
“I walked home with his dead body wrapped under my jumper, and I got into bed with his body and just cried and cried and cried. In the end I buried him in my back garden.
“But I look at what I’ve achieved and what I’ve learned and what I’m inspiring in other people and I feel so proud. It honestly is all down to that little lamb.”