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Peter's half-century of auction adventures

By Mark Andrews | Shrewsbury | Business | Published:

There is an old saying that if you can remember the swinging 60s, you obviously weren't there. Peter Booth is living proof of the fallacy in that statement.

This month, Peter marks half a century with Shropshire-based auction-house Halls, having joined the day before his 17th birthday on July 15, 1968. And he remembers the 60s all right. As we sit in the glorious sunshine outside the cafe at Halls' headquarters in Battlefield, Shrewsbury, he recounts in great detail a never-ending catalogue of raffish-escapades and hedonistic adventures. Days at the races, flash cars and boozy nights out with farmers were all par for the course, leaving his friends green with envy as he enjoyed a coming-of-age they could only dream of.

And while the winkle-pickers may have made way for platforms as the teenager became a twenty-something, the fun did not end there. He did by this time, have an extra mouth to feed, though – a racing greyhound called Snoozy.

"It was like one big family in those days," says Peter wistfully. "I've never made much in the way of money, but I've always had fun and enjoyed what I do.

"It's very different now, and in a lot of ways that's a good thing, everything's much more professional, you have targets to meet. But I still enjoy it."

The adventures started in the summer of 1968, when the teenager joined what was then known as Hall, Wateridge and Owen as an office junior. Despite attending the prestigious Priory Boys Grammar School – "In those days, it was the next step down from the Shrewsbury School" – Peter says he was never academically minded, and the thought of college or university never crossed his mind. What he did have was a talent for mental arithmetic and, crucially, a driving licence.

He remembers: "Quite often the owner Tom Gittins would say to me 'what are you doing tomorrow, kid?' – he always used to call me 'kid' – and he would say 'pick me up at 8.30, I would like you to drive me to Cheltenham races, or Haydock.

"He was a wonderful man, I also used to take him racing over in Ireland, and wherever he went, I went. I would spend the day at the races with him, and if he and his mates went out for a meal, I would go and have what they were having, I was always treated the same."

And the chauffeuring duties came with an added bonus.

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"Our accountant was an old lady called Mrs Wall, she had the personality of the Queen Mother," he recalls.

"I had to go to the station to pick her up, make her a cup of tea, and take her back to the station at 4pm. At the auction house we had a Ford Anglia, but she wouldn't go in that, so I would have to take Mr Gittins's Mercedes, or Derek Pugh's BMW. So I used to take her to the station and then drive around town hoping a few of my friends might see me."

Derek Pugh, by the way, was a former greyhound trainer who was Mr Gittins's business partner. He also owned the Dudley Wood speedway and greyhound track, and it was this friendship that would lead to his adventures with Snoozy.

"Derek had an absolute passion for greyhound racing," he says.

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"We started doing greyhound sales in Hackney, and I used to go down with Derek.

"We started doing regular sales at Monmore Green track in Wolverhampton, and would go to Newcastle, Leeds, all over the country, the most prestigious one was at White City in London.

"We would go to the greyhound races four nights a week.

"Mr Pugh would often say 'get a few of your mates in, and we will go down Monmore Green'.

"He would give us £50 a piece and tells us to put it on one of the dogs for him. It you tried to place a £200 bet with the bookie in those days, they would cut the odds, but if you did four £50 bets they wouldn't notice, and you would get the price."

Peter quickly became hooked, and perhaps it was inevitable he would end up with a greyhound of his own.

"I ended up buying a couple of greyhounds. The one, I paid £60 for her, and she made me a fortune.

"One of the trainers offered me £1,000, but I turned it down. Immediately after that she broke her toe, and was never the same again.

"Derek always used to say 'when dealing with livestock you never turn down profit'."

In 1978, Peter and auctioneer Keith Embrey reopened the livestock market at Bishop's Castle after a three-year absence. Re-establishing the market, which had been closed down under previous management due to hygiene regulations, was no mean feat, and Peter's well-honed people skills were put to good use.

"We had an Ordnance Survey map of south Shropshire, and we must have visited 90 per cent of the farms with in a 15-mile radius, travelling all over Montgomery, Clun, Wentnor," he says.

"It was a phenomenal success, from nothing we went on to selling 4,500 sheep a week, and sometimes up to 1,000 cattle."

It led to a pretty heady social life for the two young men, with a lot of late nights at nearby pubs as they entertained the farmers and customers after the sales.

"They were special times, we were doing auctions in Shrewsbury, Oswestry and Bishop's Castle Monday to Friday, and we made a lot of friends."

The close relationship he enjoyed with the farming community had its disadvantages, though, as Peter discovered on his wedding day in 1979.

"I was getting married at 12pm, and was about to meet my mates down the pub, when a farmer rang up asking me if I could get some sheep in the next sale at Bishop's Castle," he says.

"I said 'I'm getting married in an hour!' and he said 'that's great, can you make sure you get me a good show in the catalogue?'

"Of course I said yes, and we were going on our honeymoon to Paris when I rang Keith up from Euston station to make sure he got a good showing."

Sadly, the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 had a devastating effect on the livestock market, and that year Peter moved to the company's fine art department, and the beginning of another chapter in his career.

And Peter, who has lived in Pontesbury all his life, says he still enjoys his present role as the saleroom manager, and has no plans to retire any time soon.

As a young man, Peter was sometimes tasked with driving Tom Gittins's son Allen to school, and half a century on the two are still firm friends, although Allen is now Peter's boss.

"He has made a huge contribution to the company for many years," says Allen.

"When he worked at the markets everybody knew him, all the farmers and all the buyers, and he had an amazing rapport, and it's been the same since he moved to fine art.

"He is extremely popular, and he is equally comfortable dealing with the Irish greyhound breeders or the fine art clients, he is everything to everybody," he says.

Allen says Peter was also something of a mentor to him while learning the auction business as a young man.

"He took me under his wing, at least he did until one night he took me to the pub, had six pints and lost at pool," he says.

"After that he said 'look after yourself'."

Does that mean Peter led Allen astray?

"I think we led each other astray," says Allen with a cheeky grin.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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