Britain’s Oldest Family Business Turns 500
24th September 2015 Paul Andrews
Balsons is celebrating 500 years as a family business and still sells pork sausages using the same recipe that was used back in the 16th century.
Paul Andrews spoke to the 26th generation of RJ Balson & Sons, Richard Balson, to find out more.
The Balson family have been butchers since 1515 and deal in the highest quality meat, poultry & game making a range of speciality foods including their award winning sausages and home cured bacon. They are the oldest family business in the UK and have a direct lineage in the Balson family that dates back 500 years to the reign of Henry VIII and they have just become the first family business in the UK to celebrate their quincentenary, a milestone for family firms across the country and a remarkable achievement at that.
The values behind this quintessentially British butchers is simple, as Richard Balson, the 26th generation butcher explains: “The business began in 1515 and is one of a few family firms that have lasted for over three hundred years, firmly establishing us in the family business tercentenarians, and now the inaugural members of the qunicentenarians! Not only are we the oldest family firm in the UK but to celebrate 500 years as a family business based in Bridport is a remarkable achievement.”
It all began just six years into the reign of Henry VIII. The same year Henry’s fourth wife, Anne was born in Cleeves, Germany and Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, was made a cardinal. This was the year before the first published account of the discovery of North America appeared and eight years before the cocoa bean was introduced to Spain.
Since then a lot of significant historical milestones have occurred – World Wars, recessions, England winning the World Cup, the birth of the internet, space exploration and an industrial revolution to name a few - and for this Bridport based family firm dozens of family members have passed their butchery skills down through 26 generations.
The current Master Butchers are Richard Balson and Brother-in-Law Rudi Boulay, who married Jane Boulay (nee Balson), Richard’s sister. Richard and Rudi were trained by Master Butcher Donald Balson, Richard and Jane’s
father. He started with the firm in 1938 and always maintained that his first task was to go out into the fields to catch the horse before he could begin the day’s deliveries. After 73 years service to the firm, interrupted only by service to HM Navy during the 1940’s, Donald sadly passed away in 2011.
Nevertheless, the drive of the family enables the family to continue to build on the long history and tradition of butchery, continually evolving to compete in an ever-changing marketplace too.
From 1880, until this day, the RJ Balson shop has been in West Allington, Bridport, not far from its original location. It is from the same shop that the Balsons continue to deal in the highest quality meat, poultry and game, make their own range of speciality foods, and offer an unrivalled, old fashioned service.
A day in the life of a butcher is a busy one and Richard is the first to admit that it is a remarkable achievement to have lasted for so long. “Too many family firms fail to successfully pass from generation to generation so we have been fortunate to do so,” explains Richard. “One of the best things about being in a family business though is the control that you have over your own destiny. Although we are the oldest, it is more important to strive to be the best at what you do, and for Balsons it is all about the product and the service that we offer our customers, many of whom represent families that have also been customers for generations too,” he adds.
Summing up life in the oldest family firm in the UK, Richard is very grounded. “It is all about the here and now and planning to succeed. We obviously have a long history but every generation needs to build on what has been handed down to them and, more importantly, be prepared for long hours, plenty of hard work and this will provide the opportunity to reap and enjoy the benefits of being your own boss and in control of your own destiny,” he continues.
At Balsons, the business has now been in the family for 500 years and as Richard adds: “It has been in the family for so long that it is part of our genes – we get up each and every day and serve the needs of our customers here in Bridport and maintain our place as part of the very fabric of the community that has brought us to where we are today. One of the secrets of our longevity is staying small and retaining the level of customer service that people expect. In fact, nine times out of ten, I know what people want even before they have asked for it!”
Sausages remain as popular as ever to Balsons and a growing customer base sees them being ordered online, even from as far afield as the USA. In addition to the sausages they have added a diverse array of products to include more exotic meats such as elk, bison and kangaroo too.
As the business moves forward there is a next generation in the wings but handing over the reins is not on Richard’s mind at the moment. “I have a son and two grandsons so there is a next generation but succession is not something I am concerned about as I have years in front of me and am looking forward to the start of the next stage in our journey and retirement is not something that is on the agenda,” he concludes.
An incredible milestone – here’s to the next 500 years.