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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Australia Day 2012 – Wealth for toil – Butcher

Recently I invited geneabloggers to join me in Australia Day blogging on the theme “Wealth for Toil” (from the Australian national anthem). The instructions I gave were:

To participate, choose someone who lived in Australia (preferably one of your ancestors) and tell us how they toiled. Your post should include:

  1. What was their occupation? 
  2. What information do you have about the individual’s work, or about the occupation in general?
  3. The story of the person, focussing on their occupation; or
    The story of the occupation, using the person as an example.

Responses may be as long or short as you like, and as narrow or broad as you wish.

This post is my response to my own challenge. I selected an ancestor for whom I had recently found occupational information, and who I thought I might be able to dig up some more information and context in the time and with the resources I had available.

[I will post a list of all the challenge responses received to date shortly]



The first mention I have of my great-great-grandfather Daniel Miller Couper’s occupation is on his marriage certificate in January of 1879. By then 28 years old, he was a butcher. Whether he already had his own business by then or was working for another butcher, I don’t know. From that time his occupation is uniformly given as butcher in all the documents I have viewed – up until the time it changes to retired butcher!

Becoming a butcher

I have not dwelled on the physical skills needed to become a butcher – I am too squeamish for that and it is certainly not an occupation that would suit me! I had always assumed that Daniel Miller Couper must have gone through an apprenticeship. Perhaps he did as there was an apprenticeship system in place in Victoria, modelled after the English system. However, in researching for this post I’m not so sure.

The requirements for a slaughtering licence outside of Melbourne were quite straightforward - a slaughtering licence could be had for one pound if the local council was satisfied that the applicant was of “unexceptionable character and that the situation of such slaughter-house or place is not objectionable”1. There was no requirement for any particular training. It seems probable that he learnt the trade from another local butcher, although not necessarily under a formal arrangement.

The first indication I have of Daniel owning a butchers store comes in the Sands Melbourne Directory of 1880. I have not done a thorough enough search to feel confident that this was when he opened shop. His butcher’s shop was on Broadwood Street, Oakleigh, and his slaughter yard not far away at Mulgrave.

Daniel himself had workers at his store. I know this not from employment records, but from when things went wrong.

In 1885, Daniel hired Joseph Jose for 25s per week on a verbal agreement at the Melbourne Meat Market. However, the employment didn’t last. Joseph left without giving the (allegedly) agreed one week of notice. On 6 March 1885 Joseph was arrested at Walhalla. For his part, Joseph said that he occasionally had to work late at night and, in fact, there was money owing to him. Neither party had evidence to support their claims and the case was dismissed.2

Later, in 1900, John J Keppel, a stout 28 year old butcher of fair complexion, was charged with embezzling 11s. 4d. of Daniel’s money3.

Legal requirements

Being a butcher involved a lot of red tape. Slaughterhouses had to give notice in writing at least 12 hours in advance of any animal to be slaughtered. They also had to keep a book with detailed records of the animals they slaughtered that specified the “color marks brands sex and apparent age of such cattle…” and a copy of these records had to be provided to the nearest court of petty sessions every month. The definition of cattle was broad – it included any “bull ox steer cow heifer calf ram ewe wether lamb goat kid or swine”4.

The purpose of all the red tape and detailed records was to prevent the theft of cattle, or of any other livestock worth stealing. Failure to comply could mean hefty fines.

Abattoirs also had special mention in the public health laws5. In the late 1800s it was well known that unsanitary conditions contributed to the spread of infectious diseases. Inspection of abattoirs and butchers premises was a public health measure.

The public health laws allowed members of the local council and their officers to inspect a butcher’s premises at any time. The local board could give 24 hours notice that any “manure dung soil filth offal coal ashes or other offensive or noxious matter whatsoever” they found was to be removed. Penalties for non-compliance could range from fines up to hard labour.

The fledgling town of Oakleigh struggled with problems of drainage and of livestock being kept within the town limits. On one occasion, as late as 1891, a flock of around 150 sheep belonging to Thomas Jones, a long-time Oakleigh butcher, was found straying on Oakleigh’s streets6. It might not have been so bad if a ram hadn’t started butting a woman!


OAKLEIGH POLICE COURT. (1891, December 5). Oakleigh Leader (North Brighton, Vic. : 1888 - 1902), p. 5. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from

As the town grew, some slaughtering licences were not renewed. In January 1887 Charles Newport’s application to renew a slaughtering licence at Dandenong Road was refused, on the grounds that the area was becoming more populated. However, the application of one J T Clarke with premises directly across the road was going to be granted. The unfairness of this was noted and the decision deferred to the next meeting.

While Daniel had the occasional slap on the wrist from council e.g. for keeping pigs within the town limits or for leaving bad smelling fat and putrid bones lying around, he seems to have always had his licence renewed.

Technology and advancement

The latter half of the 1800s was a time with many changes affecting butchers’ ability to run a business. Through good management or good fortune, Daniel Couper seems to have navigated them all.

Viable systems of refrigeration had been invented, and as the technology was being adopted, the ability of a butcher to refrigerate his wares was a fact worthy of advertising7. Investing in a new technology is a risk, but in the case of Daniel Miller Couper the risk seems to have paid off as he eventually retired a wealthy man.

The spread of the rail network also brought both the risk of losing custom, and opportunities to sell to new markets.

I have only a few details of Daniel Miller Couper’s own business. I have located his butchers shop in Melbourne Directories but this tells me little. I hope to gain more information from newspaper advertisements. In Taking its Place: A history of Oakleigh by H.G.Gobbi mentions Daniel advertising his business – the source is not clear but probably in the Oakleigh and Ferntree Gully Times based on the surrounding source references. This publication is not (yet?) on the Trove Newspapers website and I have not been able to find examples of him advertising in other papers.


As it happens, Daniel Couper Miller did become a very wealthy man (although that was not why I chose him for this challenge). He was able to retire and lived for many years as a gentleman of independent means, leaving a sizable estate when he died in 1935.


[1] Victoria. “The Licensed Butchers and Abattoirs Statute 1864”. These provisions were retained in later replacement legislation.

[2] OAKLEIGH POLICE COURT. (1885, March 25). South Bourke and Mornington Journal (Richmond, Vic. : 1872 - 1920), p. 3 Edition: WEEKLY.. Retrieved January 21, 2012, from

[3] Victoria Police. and Victoria. Police Dept. and Victoria Police Force.  Victoria police gazette  4 Jan 1900, p7.

[4]Victoria. “The Licensed Butchers and Abattoirs Statute 1864”. These provisions were retained in later replacement legislation.

[5] Including the Public Health Statute 1865 as well as earlier and subsequent legislation.

[6] OAKLEIGH POLICE COURT. (1891, December 5). Oakleigh Leader (North Brighton, Vic. : 1888 - 1902), p. 5. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from

[7] Gobbi, H. G. & Oakleigh and District Historical Society.  2004  Taking its place : a history of Oakleigh marking its sesquicentenary, 1853-2003 / H.G. Gobbi  Oakleigh and District Historical Society, Oakleigh, Vic.


  1. Thanks for your post, Shelley, and for organising the challenge.

    I have spent too much time today reading all the posts that have come in via my RSS reader. If I have forgotten to pack something I need for Salt Lake City then it could be your fault. :-))

    I have learnt so much about ordinary and extraordinary Australian from the posts I have read today. I look forward to your compilation later when no doubt there will be more distractions for me.

    It's been great fun.

    1. So long as you've got your Galaxy Tab, your passport and access to money, anything else can be sorted out. Have a great trip!

  2. Thank you for your post Shelly. It was good to read about butchering as I have several direct ancestors in my tree who were butchers.
    Thanks also for organising the challenge and putting all the posts together, under difficult circumstances.

    1. Thanks Merron, I'm glad I managed to get my own post done or it would have been a bit embarrassing!

  3. Great post Shelley. I was considering writing about my husband's great-great-grandfather who was also a butcher but I'm glad I held off and chose someone else. You have some really interesting information here about the butchering business - particularly about the licensing and so on which is great inspiration for me when I do some more research for my husband. Thanks so much for organising the challenge.

    1. Thanks Alex. The Trove newspapers were a great help to me. All the council meetings were reported and they mentioned changes in legislation, that I then went and read. I think it's given me the confidence to start to look into things for myself and not just hope that someone else has written a book about it.

  4. I really enjoyed your post Shelley. Such wonderful details about the conditions and requirements of a butcher. I also have an ancestor who was a butcher, it seems like many of us have, and your post has shown me the potential amount of information that is out there - that mostly depends of course though if he made the newspapers or not!

    1. If the local papers reported council meetings there could be a lot reported that affected him directly, even if his name isn't mentioned. Of course, it's much easier if the name is mentioned! Thanks for coming by.

  5. What an interesting story Shelley, My ancestor was a pork butcher (from time to time) so I found it fascinating to learn the legal constraints. Thanks for inspiring me to find out more about this aspect of his life.

    1. Thanks Pauleen. I actually had a different story in mind when I started, but started digging into the legislation to understand one or two points and kept on from there.

  6. This is very interesting as I have been reading a few articles mentioning your ancestor tonight actually because you mentioned my great great grandfather Thomas Jones, butcher of Oakleigh in your writings. Both Thomas and your Daniel go to court/get into strife a few times with the law for various things, makes for wonderfully interesting reading :)