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Family business that went the extra mile

In the latest of our ‘High Street Heroes’ series, in which we take a closer look at businesses that have gone the extra mile during lockdown, we speak to Simon Buckmaster from Ward’s Fish about how COVID-19 bought market traders and the community closer together.

Ward’s Fish in Birkenhead Market is a family business in every sense of the word.

Run by brothers Simon and Nigel Buckmaster, the shop was established in 1927 by their great grandmother Emily, wife of a ship’s cook and amateur boxer James. In those early days before the supermarkets arrived, their shop on Borough Road was one of 25 fishmongers in Birkenhead. Now only Ward’s Fish remains. 

For four generations, the business has been ‘reeling in’ shoppers in Birkenhead. When fish and chip shops became popular in the late 50s, they supplied most of the local ones, from North Liverpool to Helsby. They moved to Birkenhead Market in 1975 where they have remained ever since. 

Simon and Nigel took control of Ward’s Fish in 2008. The brothers were introduced to the business at a young age, helping out during school holidays. 

“Many of our customers have shopped with us for years and we know 99% by their first name,” said Simon. “When we haven’t seen them for a while, we call them to see if they are well. For many traders at Birkenhead Market it’s not unusual to be invited to a christening or a customer’s funeral. Shopping in the market is about being part of the community. We’re like one big family.”

Ward’s Fish are so renowned for the quality of their produce, in 2011 they were asked to help cater for a very special guest. 

“We were hugely proud to be asked by Wirral Council to supply the Queen’s favourite fish, turbot, on her visit to open the new Floral Pavilion,” recalled Simon.

It may seem surprising that a small shop in a town market were asked to help feed royalty, but few fishmongers boast the experience of Ward’s Fish. The majority of their produce is caught locally and is on their shelves within 24 hours from being pulled out of the sea. Most has only ever been touched by one set of hands - the fisherman who packed the box! “It is a world away from anything pre-packed on a supermarket shelf,” said Simon.

Such is their reputation, local chef and Wirral Tourism Ambassador Paul Askew asked Ward’s Fish to supply Hope Street Hotel and then his acclaimed Art School Restaurant with seafood. Since then, wholesale sales to local restaurants have accounted for 60% of business and six additional people were employed to meet demand.

But when the country went in to lockdown in March and restaurants were forced to close, Ward’s Fish lost the entire wholesale side of their business.

“We decided before the introduction of the government furlough scheme that our staff should take paid leave,” said Simon. “Then when lockdown happened, ‘Operation Survival’ kicked in! Businesses in the market clubbed together, printed leaflets and gave all of our customers our mobile phone numbers, offering free home deliveries. It was critical that we adapted to survive.”

“Prior to lockdown we had customers who couldn’t buy tissues, hand sanitizer or latex gloves so we gave them some of ours. Apparently there was a nationwide shortage of eggs? Not in the market, our suppliers are local. Market traders are only ever a phone call away, which is a lifeline to our elderly customers. Many were in tears when their delivery arrived.” 

“I have traded in the market for nearly 30 years but, even for me, the pulling together of all of the traders to help the local community was amazing,” recalls Simon proudly. “Friends and family from remaining traders stepped in to help supply those who were vulnerable, elderly and shielding with whatever they needed.”

“Some people were really struggling to manage, so when we gave them their delivery, we told them to concentrate on keeping themselves safe and just settle up with us when they next come to our stalls.”

To help sustain them during the pandemic, Ward’s Fish received support from Wirral Council, including a government grant and a 12 week rent-free period. On Friday it was revealed that Birkenhead Market’s traders will receive 50% off their rent for the next three months, to help them bounce back after re-opening. Traders who cannot return to work yet because of government restrictions will continue to pay no rent until they are able to start trading again.

Councillor Tony Jones said: “Friday’s announcement about rent relief is our commitment as a local authority to do as much as we can to help Birkenhead Market’s dedicated traders. They have gone above and beyond during lockdown to help feed Birkenhead’s residents.”

As the high-streets and town centres gradually return to a ‘new normal’ after lockdown, it is vitally important that the public continue to support local shops.

“We’re two brothers, running a small local business, but we have learned that no matter how small you are, you can make a vital difference to somebody’s way of life,” said Simon. “Now we need the customers we have helped, their families and friends to keep supporting our business, as well as other traders in the market.”