A Life in Transport

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What I would like to do is take you back to when you were getting to leaving school and having to decide what kind of career you were inspired to have. So can we take you back to where you were at school and whether you had examinations to pass or anything like that.

Yes, I went to school in Spilsby in Lincolnshire, the local grammar school there, where I did O levels and then went on to do A levels and from there went on to Nottingham University and did a degree in geography. So that was my education. I had always had an interest in transport. Whether it was road or rail or whatever, I had always found it particularly interesting and I wanted to develop a career in transport. But this is way back in 1960-61 and there wasn't a lot of information available about transport careers in those days. And by pure chance I had a seasonal job – because when one was at university you needed to earn money in your summer holidays. I worked as a bus conductor in Skegness because being a holiday resort there were always vacancies for seasonal staff in all sorts of jobs and being a bus conductor paid quite well – they paid union rates whereas some of the other companies in the holiday industry didn't pay as well. So I did two seasons as a bus conductor, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was something different – gave me a good feel for that type of work.

And one day the traffic manager of the bus company was on one of his sort of local visits to Skegness – he went round all the depots periodically and I happened to get into conversation with him and said: I am interested in getting into the transport industry, could he give me any advice as to how to do it? And that particular company was part of what was known as the Tilling group of companies, they owned a lot of bus companies in the country including Eastern Counties in Norwich at that time. He said they ran a management training scheme for people with the appropriate educational qualifications and he suggested that I went to work in the office in their head office in Lincoln for a while to see how I got on and if I showed the appropriate sort of aptitude he would recommend me to get onto the management training scheme. Which in fact is what I did. So after having experience of a couple of seasons as a bus conductor I then went into the office and saw it from the other side of the fence as it were. And I must have met their satisfaction because after a year he recommended that I went onto the Tilling Group's senior management training course and I went up to London for the appropriate interviews and was accepted and they allocated me to Eastern Counties here in Norwich as a trainee. So that is how I came to be in Norwich for the first time – in 1964 I joined Eastern Counties Bus Company.

And so that meant you left home and …

Oh yes, I had married by this time. We were married in 1963 when I was working in Lincoln. Yes, we came to Norwich and obviously couldn't afford to buy a house in those days – certainly not on a trainee's wages, which was about £750 a year I think I was being paid then.

And where was the office, in the old Surrey Street bus depot?

No, the head office was on Thorpe Road, 79 Thorpe Road. The building still exists. I'm not quite sure who has it now. But that was the head office of the company. At the rear between Thorpe Road and Cremorne Lane was the main engineering workshops where they carried out all the overhauls on the buses and that sort of thing. Because in those days Eastern Counties was a much bigger company than it is now. The bit that the First Group now run is basically Norwich and Ipswich but when I was working for Eastern Counties it stretched right across to Peterborough and Cambridge. We had large depots at Peterborough and Cambridge and our services stretched right across as far as Kettering.

And did it take in the blue buses in Yarmouth?

No. They were separate, they were run by the local authority – the local council, as were the ones in Lowestoft; there was a small Lowestoft Corporation bus fleet as well. Not a very big one, I think they had only 17 or 18 buses, but it was run by the council in Lowestoft.

So you were all the red buses?

Yes, we were all the red ones, that's right. I think the total fleet was about 750 buses and coaches so it was quite a large and significant operation. We ran everything from very intensive city services in places like Norwich and Cambridge and Peterborough to these little rural outposts where there was one bus parked up in the pub yard overnight and the driver lived locally. So you saw the whole gamut of operation and of course a range of coach services up to London and places like that as well.

And they were still using the drivers and the conductors?

Oh yes, yes. One-man buses were coming in. They started to come in around about the middle fifties I think, 1955-56, and we were gradually extending the use of those because, after the sort of post war boom in travel, passenger numbers were starting to decline somewhat particularly with the growth of private cars, the growth of television and that sort of thing. The evening traffic wasn't there so we were seeing a decline in the use of rural services particularly, and that's where the one-man buses were coming in.

You were then working towards… how were you progressing up through the ..?

Well I did two years as a trainee and the training programme really covered the three main departments of the bus company, it was really divided into three sections. There was obviously an accountancy side which deals with all the money and the statistics and records and that sort of thing, which is very essential; there is the engineering side which deals with keeping the vehicles on the road and doing all the repairs and rebuilding and that sort of thing, and the traffic department which deals with timetables, publicity, drivers' schedules and duties that the crews carried out and all that sort of thing. And the licencing of the services, because in those days all the bus services had to be licensed. Now of course you don't have that.

It's always fascinated me, the timetables, how anybody works out all the connections.

It is quite an art. That was my job for quite a lot of the time. For every bus that you put on the road you've got to have a driver to man it and a conductor to man it. Probably more than one because there tends to be an early turn and a late turn and probably a split shift as well. And then they've got to have meal breaks and that sort of thing, so you've got to have somebody to take it over when they come off for their meal break. Quite a fascinating work of art, and of course you had no computers to help you in those days. It was all done manually by people with sheets of graph paper and rulers and pencils and that was basically it.

And the paper tickets …

Yes, yes, on the ticket roll. And of course before my time they had the old bell punch tickets where you used to have the conductor with the machine round his neck and he used to pull the coloured ticket in and press a hole in it. Yes, we had moved forward then, we had got what we called the Setright machines which had the rolls in and actually printed the ticket when you turned the handle.

What were the main problems running the service in those days?

We were starting to get problems with traffic congestion which was causing delays to services, which meant it was more difficult to run to time particularly on city services in morning and evening peak hours. That was starting to be a problem with the growth in private traffic. And the other big problem we had, not so much in Norwich, but particularly over in Peterborough and Cambridge was staff shortage, getting people to work on the buses. Because the rates of pay were not particularly high, I mean they were adequate but not excessive and it was shift work, so a lot of people in those days of full employment didn't want to know about shift work.

Because in those days you could walk into a job …

That's right, you could. We found a lot of people, particularly conductors, did in fact use it as a stop-gap measure, you know, I'll go and be a bus conductor for a few months until I can find something better. So you got a big turnover of staff, particularly among the conductors.

Did you have a lot to do with life at the big bus station in Surrey Street?

Yes, that was our largest depot. We had about 220 vehicles based at Surrey Street so it was by any standards a large depot. And, yes, I did part of my training there, mainly on the engineering side because I had to spend 6 months with the engineering department and I did some of the time at the central works at Cremorne Lane and then they sent me out to Surrey Street to work with the fitters down there. So we did all the routine sort of things like changing springs, and changing wheels and all the routine maintenance carried out on them …

So were you in charge?

Oh no, I was purely a trainee, physically …

So you had to have a skill in …

You had to know how it was done, and the way you learnt was doing the job yourself, but obviously you worked with the fitters there, they didn't let you loose on your own – let's put it that way.

And did you have to have a go at being a bus inspector?

Yes, I'd already been a bus conductor so I didn't need to do that, but I had to pass my PSV driving test …

So you had to drive as well …

Yes, they couldn't have you managing them if you couldn't drive them could you?

Well, yes, because that isn't always the theory these days, is it?

It isn't I'm afraid, no.

Because it's quite a skill learning to drive a double decker …

It was and in those days we didn't have things like power steering and automatic transmission. It was all hauling it around corners by sheer strength and gearboxes were the old crash type gearboxes where you had to double declutch up and down the gears so it was quite heavy work. When you had done an 8 hour shift on one of those you knew you had done it.

And this was all packed into two years?

It was, yes.

So you were able to maintain, drive a bus, ticketing …

Yes, anything you can think of in the bus company we had a go at. I wouldn't say we did it for a long period, it might have only been a week in certain departments, it depended how complex a department was. And they sent us out to other places, as you say Surrey Street, I spent quite a bit of time with the engineers there and in the summer season they sent me down to Great Yarmouth, because of course Great Yarmouth was a lot busier in the summer than it was in the winter. Helping out down there on the administration of the depot.

They had the trams then didn't they?

Oh no, the trams had gone before, I think the trams went before the war in Yarmouth. What they did have, which you may be thinking of, they did have the railway line which was a bit like a tramway that ran along the front and they had occasional goods trains down there, which was a bit confusing. Yes, at Yarmouth I did my stint in a little kiosk on the seafront selling day tours and afternoon tours and evening tours.

Gracious … (Laughter.) That's about 5 or 6 different careers …

It is all crammed into the training…

Very good.

Yes, it was.

Comprehensive.

Yes, I remember at Yarmouth selling the little afternoon tours, and we got an overload and the supervisor said, "We've got no-one to drive it. You've got a PSV licence, you drive it." So I finished up taking an afternoon tour to Wroxham and I always remember I got 16 shillings in tips from the passengers. I thought that was quite good.

That wasn't a bad day, was it? I remember at Surrey Street they had the cafeteria. You didn't have to do a stint waiting on tables?

No, I didn't have to do a stint waiting on tables but I did have the task of doing the reconciliation of all the cigarette sales stocks sort of thing – that was quite a complex exercise.

And at the end of the two years what was your job description?

Well at the end of the two years I was then appointed to another bus company as what they called a traffic assistant, which was sort of the first rung on the promotional ladder. They moved me then down to Thames Valley which was a company based in Reading in Berkshire. A company not quite as big as Eastern Counties – about half the size – and I was what they called a traffic assistant there, which meant I worked in the traffic department with the traffic manager as his sort of general dogsbody really.

No longer maintaining the buses?

No, I was purely on the operations side doing things like timetables, schedules, publicity, that type of thing, and what we called road service licencing, because all the different bus routes in those days had to have a licence. If you wanted to change a timing on a bus route, you know you wanted to make your bus to Long Stratton ten minutes later, you had to put an application in to the traffic commissioners and anybody who wanted to object to it could object, and if they did object you then had to go to a hearing before the traffic commissioner and all that sort of thing.

Was this because you were in competition with another bus company?

Yes, it had started back in the days when there wasn't any licencing at all. There had been an awful lot of cutthroat competitive way back in the 1930s where a lot of small operators were setting up and they were sort of leapfrogging one another along the roads and things were getting rather dangerous. So they brought in the 1930 Road Traffic Act which said that all road services had to be licensed.

So that is still in operation?

No, that was done away with in 1985 I think it was, because traffic was declining and there wasn't the competition between buses. They deregulated the services in the 1980s so nowadays the only control you've got on the services is on the maintenance standards.

Health and safety …

Yes. There's no control over what fares you charge or what times you run. That's down to the operator to decide what he thinks is best. Which is a lot easier and seems to work quite well in the present.

So you find yourself in the Thames Valley, you moved from Norwich down to Reading, about what year was that?

About 19… I did two years in Norwich -1964 and 65 – and we moved to Reading on New Year's Day 1966.

So establishing yourself there. And how many years did you continue?

I did about two and a half years at Reading and then I got promoted again, they made me chief traffic assistant at the Bristol Bus Company, which was a much larger company. That ran about 1200 buses and ran all the city services in Bristol and Bath and Gloucester, Cheltenham and Weston-super-Mare and all the rural services in between.

So you are getting quite a responsible post then …

Yes, I worked my way up there. That was in 1967 and when I'd been there about 18 months the National Bus Company was formed. If you remember, I said that when I joined it was Tillings, they owned about half the bus companies in this country and the other half were owned by a company called British Electric Traction and they decided in 1969 that they would sell out to the government, so in 1969 the National Bus Company was formed, which meant that really all the major bus companies in the country were then nationalised and became part of the National Bus Company. Now that gave me a little step up, because the Managing Director at Bristol was made a sort of regional chairman. He was then going to look after all the main bus companies in the South West of England and South Wales and he wanted a personal assistant, and for some reason best known to him he chose me for it. So I became his personal assistant, which was very interesting because it meant you were not only dealing with one bus company, you were dealing with a whole range of them. There were about a dozen, I think, bus companies in the South West of England and South Wales.

Did you have any problems with industrial unrest during those times?

Yes, we did. It was an industry that we didn't have major strikes but certain depots were quite militant, tended to be the more industrial areas where the competition for labour was tighter where you had sort of more problems that could blow up quite quickly, if somebody wasn't very happy with the way something was being done. We often used to say that when you were a bus driver you were sitting in the cab all day long driving your bus and you had a lot of time to think of the things you weren't happy about.

You didn't have to suffer long strikes?

No, I can only remember one and that was an overtime ban rather than a strike. Because wages were negotiated on a national basis, rather than by individual companies they occasionally got into a bit of deadlock and in about 1970, if I remember rightly, we had an overtime ban which lasted for about three months and that did a lot of damage because whilst you could run some basic services, because we tended to be short of staff we did rely on a lot of overtime to get the job covered, with rest day working and that sort of thing.

Did they have a Sunday service?

Oh yes, yes, we had quite intensive Sunday services at one time and even into the 70s most routes had a semblance of a Sunday service but that did decline later on.

Yes, and they are very limited nowadays.

Yes, but funnily enough it is picking up again now because the shops are all open on Sundays where in my day with the bus companies it was just leisure traffic that we had on Sundays but now of course it is a major shopping day and I've noticed that the services are picking up again.

Yes, two or three a day to get you in and out.

So, when I was personal assistant to the chairman down there, one of the major tasks we were involved with was dealing with Exeter Corporation who ran their own bus service. They had their own corporation undertaking like Great Yarmouth did and they decided they wanted to sell it to the National Bus Company. They didn't want to continue to run it themselves because they were losing money on it basically. They ran about 60 or 70 buses. So we negotiated with them and agreed to buy it from them and I was then asked if I would agree to move to Exeter as area traffic supervisor to deal with the merger of the two undertakings, which was quite interesting because having been run by the Corporation their working practices were quite different to National Bus Company's operation. It was a different trade union. They were Transport and General Workers and our people down there were National Union of Railwaymen, oddly enough, who did have some members in the bus industry. So we had a two union situation which always makes for interesting times. And we managed to get that all going smoothly and we took over the Exeter Bus Corporation on 1st April, I think it was, 1970. I was there for about six months to get that bedded in and we eventually managed to get the two unions talking to each other and kept the services running without too much problem. And then the manager of the company in Devon which we had attached Exeter Corporation to – he moved on by the way for promotion – and I was asked if I would take over as Commercial Director of the company which was called Devon General Bus Company which was based in Torquay, but they controlled Exeter as well. So I moved on to Torquay and I was there for four years which was a very pleasant place to live.

Yes, you've done the seaside resorts …

Yes, the only thing was they kept moving me further west and I was getting a bit close to Lands End. Not much further I could go. (laughs)

[Short break]

Right, we are continuing with the interview and J. is going to tell us about some interesting trips when he took the bus to Dartmoor when he was based in Torquay.

Yes, we had quite a large fleet of coaches in Torquay and in the summer they were used for taking all the holidaymakers out on their day tours and afternoon tours and evening tours, and it always used to amuse me that one of the most popular places to take them to was Dartmoor prison. They loved to go round Dartmoor and have a look at the prison. That must be some kind of macabre interest I think! But it was a very interesting place to work around Torquay because you got a great variation between summer and winter. It was very busy in the summer when we made a lot of profit and very quiet in the winter when we lost a lot of money in the winter season.

And those buses would just be parked up, would they?

Yes, we had a fleet of about 350 buses but in the winter time probably 40 or 50 of those would be laid up in the garage. Delicensed and just stored waiting for the summer season. Obviously you could do maintenance on them and that sort of thing. It helped in that sense.

Had the holiday coach companies come to the fore?

Yes, there were a lot of holiday coach companies taking people down to Devon on week and ten-day holidays and that sort of thing, which again put quite a bit of business our way because they would all want their coaches cleaned and fuelled and this sort of thing, so they used to come into our garage to draw fuel and to have the vehicles cleaned and serviced. So we used to make some money out of that as well. And if they broke down, of course, we would repair their vehicles and probably hire them a coach to take their holiday-makers around while they were dealing with the breakdown. So it all brought a little revenue in.

A varied career, again. And this has taken us up to about 19 …

Well, I went in 1970 to Torquay and I left in the end of 1973, so I was there about four years. I was then moved back to Reading as traffic manager of the bus company in Reading, which is where I had been in the late ‘60s. And that was a difficult assignment for a number of reasons. They had amalgamated the Reading company with a company that was based at Aldershot and it was a little bit like mixing chalk and cheese. All sorts of problems putting those two together. Added to which we had a chronic staff shortage in that area. As you might imagine, the Reading area is very close to London, to Heathrow and places like Slough where in those days there was full employment. We recruited a lot of labour from the West Indies, India and that sort of thing. We built hostels at Maidenhead and High Wycombe and various places to house these people, but we still were losing a lot of mileage because we just hadn't got staff to man the buses. Which obviously is very unsatisfactory from the passengers' point of view, you wait for your bus and it doesn't come. People won't put up with that for very long, so passenger numbers were declining as well. And added to which – I don't know if you remember the British Leyland saga, where they were in great difficulties – well, a lot of our buses were manufactured by Leyland's and of course you couldn't get spare parts for them because with all the Leyland problems spare parts weren't available. So we had the Leyland vehicles off the road awaiting spare parts. Endless problems and it was causing a lot of …

A stressful time …

Yes, it was. And to be honest I wasn't very happy with the way things were moving in National Bus Company. Passenger numbers were declining very quickly. Local government had been reorganized in 1974, if you remember a lot of the old councils were done away with and the new district councils were formed, and they were given much bigger powers to subsidize local bus services that were losing money to keep the services going, but of course in return for that they wanted a bigger say in how our services were run. On the other hand, National Bus Company was getting more centralised and I really began to feel that as a traffic manager of a bus company I was becoming no more than a postman, in the sense you were getting instructions on one side and you were just passing them on to the other and you didn't really have the chance to manage the way it should be run.

So I was looking around and identified the distribution business where supermarkets were starting to grow and distribution of foodstuffs and that sort of thing was a growing industry, increasing by the day almost in its sophistication, and I thought that perhaps this was the direction I ought to be thinking about moving in my career. And at that particular time a company called Buxted Poultry which were the main frozen poultry producers, you may remember the name, had established its headquarters here in Norwich, in Rose Lane, Imperial House, and they were advertising for a national distribution manager. So I thought, well, I like Norwich, and I like the sound of the job so I will put an application in and see what happens. And to cut a long story short, I was successful and got the job.

Moving poultry and cider

You had a career change …

I did. Instead of moving live passengers, I was moving dead chickens! They didn't complain so much (laughter).

Was this the dawn of Tesco's?

Yes, it was very much so. We, Buxted Poultry that is, dealt with all the main supermarkets but they were not so sophisticated in their own distribution systems as they are now. I think it was only Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer's that had got any sort of centralized distribution systems. The other people like Tesco and Asda and people like Finefare were on the go in those days, and a lot of other firms that are no longer with us, they all wanted you to deliver to their individual branches. People like Tesco had something like 400 branches, I think, throughout the country, which you had to deliver to. And Buxted was doing that with frozen chicken, which was producing in Tesco's label or Asda's label or Marks & Spencer's label, but also producing chicken under their own Buxted label as well which went into all sorts of grocery and butchery shops throughout the country. So it was quite a big operation. We used to produce something like 2 million chickens a week, if I remember rightly.

So did you have to get involved with knowing about the producing of the chickens?

To some extent, yes.

Like knowing how to drive the buses!

Well, yes, not quite as technical as that, because of course we had our own production and agricultural directors who dealt with the actual growing of the chickens and the processing of them. But you obviously had to know how it was done because it was relevant to the job you were doing. But my job really started at the end of the factory production line. Once they had been produced and put into the factory cold store it was my job to get them from the factory cold store to the individual customers in the frozen condition …

In the frozen vans?

Yes, that's right. They were mostly frozen, we did have a small part of our production which was what we called fresh, which these days you would call chilled chicken. That went mainly to Marks and Spencer's, but that was a fairly small part of the production. The bulk of it was frozen.

Exporting?

Yes, we did some exports as well. Because the problem with the chicken business is that once you've got the egg at the end of the day you're going to get a chickens, whether you can sell it or not. And if you can't sell it you've got to store it. I think the chicken, once they were hatched, it was about a 55 day life if I remember rightly before you got to the stage where you had to slaughter them. Of course you had to slaughter them then because you had another lot of eggs coming on after that.

From the incubation stage …

That's right, so it was a continual sort of process. And as I say, if you couldn't sell them you had to store them and so at times we had quite a lot of our production going from the factory into public cold stores and then they'd be stored there until the market picked up again and we could sell them.

Like the butter mountain …

Yes, that type of situation. And similarly that's why we got into the export business because if the demand for chickens dropped in this country we found that there was quite a lucrative market in exporting chicken – in those days it was mainly out to the Middle East. That was a growing market at that particular time. So there were a lot of similarities with the bus industry in that you were dealing obviously with drivers, you were dealing with trade unions, and because you were delivering to lots of stores almost on a regular basis there was almost a certain amount of timetabling in a way. It was control of vehicles and control of staff. So that was really where the similarity came in. I think that's possibly one of the reasons why I got the job in the first place, it was because I had got used to dealing with trade unions and drivers and vehicle control and that sort of thing.

There was a fleet of lorries?

Yes. Just to give you a bit of background about the Buxted set-up. The headquarters were here in Norwich. The name of the company, Buxted, comes from the village of Buxted down in Sussex. Which is where the company originally started. That had been their headquarters but as they expanded further up the country they had had become part of the Imperial Tobacco Group – a very important company together with a number of other frozen food companies, like Ross Foods and Young's seafoods, they had all become part of Imperial Tobacco. And they had decided that Norwich was a better place for the headquarters, more sort of centrally based, because we had factories all the way from Buxted in Sussex right up to Aberdeen in Scotland, about 13 factories in total, Trowbridge in Wiltshire, and a number of distribution depots in the main centres of population. So Norwich was probably almost central as it were to get to any of those places.

And are they still here?

No, no. What happened was that in the early 80s the Imperial Group decided that they would concentrate on their main business which was producing cigarettes. A lot of companies did this, didn't they? They sort of expanded into other things and then realized that it was a bit more complex than they wanted to be and contracted again into their basic business, which was cigarettes. Buxted was actually bought by an organization called Hillsdale Holdings which was one of these companies that bought up other companies and then sold them off in bits and pieces and hopefully made a profit by selling various assets. So whilst Buxted was quite successful for a number of years – I was there for about 7 or 8 years – in the early 80s it was sold off and basically the job disappeared almost.

My word! You weren't made redundant?

I was made redundant. Yes, I was. It was a bit of a shock.

Were you still in the time when you got a redundancy pay?

Yes, yes. No, there was no problem on that score. Obviously it is a shock being made redundant but the appropriate financial packages were about so I wasn't left high and dry without a penny, as it were. But I did enjoy my time in Buxted, it was an interesting job, very different from the bus industry. Quite satisfying.

Then you had to rethink.

Yes, I had to look around and see what other jobs were available. And a similar job in distribution management was offered by Bulmers, the cider people down in Hereford. And I applied for that – I applied for a number of jobs, obviously – and that was the one that I got. So I moved down to Hereford. I seem to have a liking for cathedral cities, really! (Laughs)

So you've had numerous house moves, then.

Oh yes, I think we were Pickfords' best friend. So off I went to Hereford, doing a very similar type of job, except that we were moving cider rather than chickens. And it was a similar sized operation. I think we ran about 150 vehicles, something of that order and a lot of the distribution depots were in very similar locations, because obviously they tend to be in main centres of population, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, these sort of places. Yes, a similar type of operation, but a very different kind of company, of course. Whereas Buxted was a very, sort of new, modern sort of company – frozen chickens had only come in in the mid fifties, so it was quite a young company – Bulmers had been on the go for over a hundred years. They were very much a family business. There were still quite a lot of the Bulmer family still involved. More than 50 percent of the shares were still owned by the Bulmer family.

A different feel to it …

Yes, very much a paternalistic family. A lot of people who had worked there all their working lives. So I was there for about four years. Nothing wrong with the job, but I can't say that I really settled all that well in Hereford. I think when you have been used to the eastern side of the country more. It's a bit too wet in the west! Laughter. And it was difficult to say … I can't really say I disliked the job because that would not be correct because it was a nice company to work for, but because it had been established so long there wasn't really the challenge of developing it and improving operations and that sort of thing. It was a very profitable company so perhaps the pressures for improving and streamlining were not so great.

So I had the opportunity, in 1985 I think it was, to move back to Thetford in Norfolk to one of the subsidiaries of the Transport Development Group who ran a number of distribution and storage companies throughout the country and they had one in Thetford called Williams Cold Storage and they wanted a managing director to run that.

Similar to the chicken operation?

Yes, and that was why I was interested in it. This was more storage, perhaps, than lorries, although we did have a small lorry fleet concerned mainly with cold storage. And they were looking for a managing director for that to replace a man who was retiring, so I applied for it and got that one. Transport Development Group was quite a large organization but what I might call a low-key operation. They were a group but they didn't sort of blazon their group name every where they worked very much through their subsidiaries so each of the small companies – they had about 120 companies throughout the country -all traded under their own individual names like Williams Cold Storage and a number of other transport and storage companies throughout the country each run as separate businesses, and the profits all went to TDG.

So different industries used your services?

Yes, they did. We had something like just under 2 million cubic feet of cold storage at Thetford and we would store anything that wanted storing really at low temperatures. So we had chicken people. We had a lot of frozen peas for people at Ross Foods.

And Birdseye?

Yes, we had frozen food and frozen meat for Birdseye. And the beef that went into their beefburgers used to be stored with us before they drew it off to their factory for their requirements. The butter mountain, you mentioned earlier, didn't you, we had quite a lot of that at one time. So it was really a question there of sort of balancing the products coming in throughout the season. Obviously peas, turkeys for Christmas, and then we had things like Easter eggs we stored. They would start to produce them in the autumn for storage.

I never realized Easter eggs were cold stored.

Yes, it's amazing what things are kept in cold storage.

In their packaging. Just as they appear on the shelves?

No, they were initially in those but also in protective outer wrappers as well to stop them getting freeze dried and that sort of thing, to keep them in better condition. But they did store adequately. And it made sense from the producer's point of view because he could keep his production line constant and just draw them off as he required them. So yes, a whole range of products we had there. It was an interesting business. Because you met a lot of customers, of course, got to know a lot about different things.

And you would be negotiating constantly, would you. How much for so many cubic feet?

That's right. Well, normally we did it on a pallet basis. That was the way people stored things. It was nearly all palletised goods, came in on pallets. We charged them so much per pallet for handling the goods that came into the store and so much rental per pallet per week.

Had computers come in by then?

Yes, it was coming in, because obviously the key to something like that is knowing where everything is at the store.

So pre-computers …

We'd rely on old Fred with his good memory!

Going along with his chart.

Yes, it's amazing what memories some of those people had as well, and how good they were at remembering where the stuff was. Yes, we actually brought in a computerised location system while I was there which enabled us to very quickly ascertain what was where and how much space we'd got and that sort of thing.

And had date stamping come in?

It was coming in, yes.

A lot of things were coming in,

A lot of things were just starting to come in, yes.

It must have complicated matters after that.

Yes, indeed it did. But of course stock rotation was important to the customer anyway even before sell-by dates, because he always wanted to keep his stock rotation properly, so, you know, the older stuff came out first. So you had to know not only what was where but when it had come in and how old it was.

How long were you involved in that ?

Well, I was involved in that for about six years. Not only storage, we did things like packing as well. In fact, sweetcorn would come in bulk from places like Spain and that sort of thing and we would pack it down into individual retail packs for customers.

Into the little cellophane packs – three sweetcorn in a pack?

Yes, that's it. Or even the individual loose sweetcorn would go into sealed packs and that would go out to the major supermarkets. It was quite a range of activities we did. Yes, I was there for about six years and the reason I left there was that I got made redundant again. Because the Group had a change of policy in the early 90s. They decided that they could compete better in the market by presenting a sort of national image. They felt that having lots of individual small companies didn't really enable them to get in to the really big customers and sell their services as they really could do. So they decided that they would roll a number of these companies initially into regional companies and have one man in charge of a region … and then eventually I think it has gone onto a national basis now. So they didn't want managing directors as individual companies. So I was in effect made redundant. I did have the opportunity of moving elsewhere, but by this time I was in my early to mid fifties and very happy in East Anglia and didn't really want to move elsewhere. It would probably have meant moving to London or somewhere like that and I didn't really fancy being a commuter. So with the appropriate sort of package I felt that I could stay in East Anglia and I began to think, well, do I really want to have another fairly senior management job? Because I'd been in senior management quite a long time and there is a lot of stress attached to that. So I thought, well, I'll look around and see if there is something else I can get, probably entirely different, that can see me through for about 10 years until I get to 65 and can draw my old age pension.

A new life as a signalman

As I said when we opened, I'd always been interested in all forms of transport and railways had been one of my interests. I was not exactly a train spotter in that I'd never been a number-taker at the end of the platform, but I'd always been interested in how railways worked and types of trains and services they had and by pure coincidence, one day in the Eastern Daily Press I saw them advertising for a railway signalman which was a bit unusual because I would have thought they would have promoted signalmen from within their ranks. I saw this advert and I said to my wife, "Shall I have a go at that?" And she said, "yes, nothing ventured nothing gained. You've always been interested in railways, have a go at it." So I bunged an application in, not expecting to hear very much more and I was asked to go for an interview and went for the interview and lo and behold I was offered a place on the training scheme. So for the last ten years of my working life I became a railway signalman.

What a responsible job!

Well, it is. Yes, it's an interesting job and … railway signalling is divided into two types. There's the modern signalling which is on the main lines, Norwich to London, which is all done from these what they call power signal boxes where there is just two or three men in a large room with a big track diagram in front of them and they control miles and miles of track. I mean all the station movements and things from Norwich, for instance, are all controlled from the signal box in Colchester. There are no signalmen in Norwich at all. And the ones at Liverpool Street are even more modern. They are all done by computer so all that they do there is sit and watch the computer screen and do something if something goes wrong, if something is out of course.

Were you ever involved in pulling all of those levers?

That was my scene. That was what I was coming onto. One or two areas have still got what I call "proper" signalling. The old fashioned signal boxes where you sit there in your little box at the crossing gates …

And the bell goes …

That's it, that was the type of signalling I did. It still exists, even now still exists between Wymondham and Ely. The signal boxes down that line, places like Thetford, Harling Road and Brandon. And also to the east of Norwich going out towards Lowestoft and Yarmouth. That's still got the old-fashioned, "proper" signal boxes. So we were living in East Harling in those days, and I got taken onto the training course for this to be a signalman at Harling Road, which is the nearest station to Harling.

Near Attleborough?

Yes, between Attleborough and Thetford. And it's quite, as you can imagine, quite an intensive … as you might imagine railway signalling, even at a small box like that, is quite a responsible job and there is an awful lot to learn. It was a 12-week training programme at the signalling school in Norwich – at the station in Norwich. We had to learn all the various rules and regulations which cover both signalling and railway work in general because it is very much controlled by the rule book because the way the signalling works the driver is relying on the signalman to do his job properly and the signalman is relying on the driver to do his job properly.

Does the signalman alter the points?

Yes, oh yes, they control all the movements, any train movement within their area. So everybody has to be sure that they know what they are doing and respond accordingly. So it was a12-week training course where you had an exam at the end of every week which you had to achieve a satisfactory pass mark in. And at the end of the 12-week course there was an exam on the whole of the course which you had to pass. You then had a full day's verbal examination where the Chief Signalling Inspector would sort of set up specific scenarios of things that could happen in your signal box and you had to tell him how you would deal with it. And that lasted about five hours. You had a break for lunch in the middle. It was about a five-hour verbal exam. You then had to go and see the Regional Signalling Inspector who in those days was in Birmingham, and have a further two-hour verbal examination with him. And if you passed that lot, which I am pleased to say I did, he then said yes, you can go and learn your signal box. Then, because what you had learnt then was all the general rules and each signal box is slightly different because of different layout of lines of each individual box. You then had to learn the individual box. So you then had to go and work with an individual … I was going to Harling Road so I went and worked with the signalman at Harling Road for a number of weeks and then the Chief Signalling Inspector came down to Harling Road, watched me work the box and asked me various questions and provided he was satisfied he then signed me as being proficient in working that signal box and you were then able to take it over on your own.

And was that nine till five, or shift system?

No, this was a shift system.

So there was a team of you in the signal box.

Yes, we used to work a nine-hour forty-five minute shift in those days, early and late. There wasn't a night shift at that particular time so you started either at half past five in the morning and worked through till I think it was two fifteen in the afternoon and then two fifteen until just after midnight until whenever the last train came through.

Then of course the trains stopped …

That's right, there was nothing between about one o'clock in the morning and half past five in those days. But if you were on the late turn you were obliged to stay until the last train had gone, and if the last train was late you had to wait until it went through.

A bit of a lonely job …

Yes, not the job for anybody who doesn't like their own company, that's true. I didn't mind it. I quite enjoyed it. Well, it is lonely but you do have contact with a number of other people. Obviously you've got the signalmen in the boxes either side who you speak to on the telephone for various reasons. And you have a number of people who come into the box, particularly on the early turn – the chap who walks along the line and examines the line every day. The trackwalker. He'd come in for a cup of tea.

So you had your little kettle in the corner?

Oh yes, you had all your facilities there. The signal boxes are nowadays very well furnished actually.

You'd have to have a toilet and everything?

Oh yes, you've got your toilet, you've got a fridge and everything. You've got a microwave and a small sort of Baby Belling cooker. Because you've got to cook all your meals you see, or take you meals with you, you can't pop out to the cafe, you've got to be there.

So I was at Harling Road and then just about a year later a vacancy came up at Brandon which was a more interesting box to work. Harling Road basically was just the two lines and a level crossing so for each train that came through you had to pull the signals off and close the crossing gates, which was fairly straightforward. But at Brandon you'd got a small goods yard. You got goods trains come in, and also you had what we called a passing loop, where if you had a freight train that was coming along with a faster passenger train behind it you could put the freight train into the loop to let the passenger train through. There was a bit more to do there.

Were you then also needing to be in contact with the gate keepers?

No, you worked the gates yourselves. At Harling Road the gates were right next door so you came down the steps and closed the gate and then went back and pulled the signals off. At Brandon they were barriers. Again the box was adjacent to the crossing. You just pressed a button and the barriers came down or lifted up.

You hadn't got these automatic ones?

We did have some at Brandon. The ones at Santon Downham, which is about half way between Brandon and Thetford, they were worked automatically, but they were under the control of Brandon signal box. But they were just half barriers, because they were only minor roads, they came down over half the road but you had an indicator in the signal box that told you when they were working and if for any reason after the train had gone they didn't go up, as did sometimes happen, then obviously you had to ring for the engineers to come and see to them and also notify the local police that there might be a problem there.

And did you have contact with …? D.T. is a railway enthusiast at Wymondham.

Yes, he is.

He has a lot of memorabilia.

He has a lot of very interesting memorabilia at Wymondham station. Yes, I have visited there a number of times.

Yes, he's a true enthusiast.

Indeed he is. There are a lot of enthusiasts about. It is amazing how many people come to visit the signal box. Particularly at Brandon where they used to walk by on the pavement outside almost and sometimes people would sort of say, can we come in and look around? And although technically you weren't supposed to do that, you would invite them in and show them how it all worked.

I take it there will be signal boxes in museums.

Yes, there are. Yes, the railway museum at York has got various examples. And there is a good working model of one at Crewe, which is a signal box which has been moved there from some other location. But they've got it sort of fixed up with a computer in some way that shows you how it actually worked when it was in situ, and it is quite cleverly done, you can actually watch the signalman working. It's quite fascinating.

So you took this job through to your actual retirement?

I did, yes. We were living in East Harling and I stayed at Brandon for seven years and then we had the opportunity to buy the bungalow we now live in here at Stoke Holy Cross. Because we had lived in Stoke Holy Cross when I worked for Buxted so we knew a lot of people here and we always said that when I retired we would really like to be a bit nearer to Norwich. Because my wife and I had various interests in the City and East Harling was rather a long way away, although a very pleasant place to live. And by pure coincidence somebody we knew had this bungalow and said they were getting too old to look after the garden and that sort of thing and were thinking of selling it, so we did a deal and bought it. And at that particular time I thought, well it is a little bit far to travel from Stoke Holy Cross to Brandon every day to work. It's about 40 miles each way. But there was a vacancy for a signalman at Somerleyton swing bridge near Lowestoft, which is only about 25 minutes from here. So I asked if there was a possibility of a transfer and they said there was, so I was able to transfer for the last few years of my signalling career to the swing bridge at Somerleyton, which was again quite interesting, because you had the swing bridge to open for shipping and things to go through. And a very nice location to work in.

Near Somerleyton Hall.

It is, but it's right out on the marshes there, so you had to park your car at the station and then you had to walk down the track for about half a mile across the marsh to get to the signal box.

In all weathers.

In all weathers, yes. So on a nice summer's day it was lovely. On a February morning, when it was snowing at half past five probably not quite so …

Just before mobile phones and everything … so anything could happen?

We did have mobile phones, yes. And by that time three shift working had come in. There was a night shift as well so you were always relieving somebody there. So if you were delayed you could ring your colleague and say, I'm on my way but may be ten minutes late or whatever. And we all worked well together, with a bit of give and take. So if anybody wanted to be away early we would organize that.

You've had what sounds to be not only a very interesting career, but very happy, you've enjoyed your jobs.

Yes, I've been very lucky in that sense I think. You know, not only have the jobs been interesting but the people I have worked with have been very pleasant people to work with. A lot of people I am still in touch with from the bus industry days. And I still have contacts and we still meet from time to time.

That sort of buzz – everybody's going somewhere – is exciting. I get that feeling when I'm on a station – either a bus station or a train station – there's an atmosphere.

Yes, there is a great satisfaction if you are controlling something like that. As you say, perhaps standing in a bus station and seeing all the buses going out loaded with people you think, well, there's (hopefully) a load of satisfied customers. So you do get some satisfaction with that, I must say I have enjoyed my working life.

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