Banjos and baby foods, Colman’s 1942-1982

Location : Norwich

Albert Cushion began work at Colman’s before joining the army during the war. He returned to work in the Baby Food department and became a supervisor. As a musician he was very involved with the Colman social club.

I joined Colman’s on 4th April 1942 during the war. I was fourteen. My father was a postman and had registered me to be a telegram boy with a red bike, but when I left school there were no vacancies, so I thought, “I’m not going to mess about” and I went down to Colman’s and got a job. A fortnight later I got an invitation to be a telegram boy as they had a vacancy and my father said I should take it. “No,” I said, “I’m sticking with Colman’s”, which I did, and stayed there for forty-two years to 1984.

I had been working for about a fortnight when we had an air raid on Norwich and four departments were obliterated at Colman’s. We had a couple of days off while they cleared up the rubble and then we went back in. It was a good family firm but everything was disrupted and we had no social activities, only the cricket ground.

I worked in the cereals department making Three Bears Oats, porridge oats, until I went into the army four years later, in 1946. I was well established by then.

I was in the army for two years and then went back to my original job in the cereals department. By that time the firm had returned to normal. They had built up the new flour mill and the new soft drinks department. Everything was lovely. In that era, especially from 1958 on, they worked on improving everything including the medical side they’d had right from the start. I got a Colman’s house at Lakenfields overlooking the cricket ground and felt very much a part of it all. That period at Colman’s, apart from the war, was great and when they built the Social Club we had everything. Everything!

When I returned the foreman said to me, “You silly boy, you ought to have stayed in the army.” I’d been sent abroad to the Far East and before I came back they wanted people for the Singapore dock police and offered us soldiers a job. Of course, we wanted to get home, but one of my pals stayed in Singapore and he finished up as chief of the Fire Brigade there – that was good for him.

Baby Foods Department

In the 1950s we had automatic machines which filled the cartons and later on I knew they were going to buy a bigger machine. It was able to make the cartons, take them along to be sealed and sent them out the back where the girls packed them. It was called a Rose machine. They bought several of them and when they got the new baby food department they all went into it. When I knew they were going to buy more I asked Mr Lenton if he would consider me for the job of machine minder and he said, “I’ll see.” And I got it! When my machine come in I went down and watched it being erected.

I began to look after a whole line of machines with only two girls – one at the beginning feeding the cartons in and one at the end taking the cases off. I did that for a good while and was made supervisor. That was a good department.

In the baby foods, they used to do all the meat in the meat section. It came in every day and was cooked and dried and made into little flakes; then we’d pack it. What with packing the baby rice, groats and mixed cereal, it was a busy department and a very successful department. We had a good staff too.

Many people don’t realise Colman’s made baby foods. They are so famous for the mustard, but the baby rice was the most popular baby food when the new machines came in. We worked non-stop from eight in the morning to ten at night producing it. I worked days but I used to work nights sometimes; it was a busy place.

My father died at that particular time and Mr Lenton came down and said, “Look, you go home, and have three days off to get it all sorted out.” Just like that. That was Colman’s. When he was retiring much later on and I was a supervisor, a lot of the staff Council were sitting in his office. “Albert” he said, “I’ll leave this chair for you.” I said, “I ain’t good enough for that, I’d have a hard job to replace you!” He was a good bloke, he did a lot of good things for people.

That was the atmosphere in those years, say from the fifties onwards. It was a good place and those years were really good for everyone. We had entertainment and they’d help you if you were in trouble. The workers were happy to be there. I supervised mostly women on the baby foods. I think we had about 40 girls working on triple packs and all sorts of things. They all liked the company and I had good relations with them.

We had a big export order once for barley and they rang me up and said, “We must have this out tonight”. I said, “But we’ve got to pack it all up!” “It must go tonight,” they said. I had about eight girls hand-packing – putting the cartons in the boxes, sealing up the cases and stencilling the fronts. “This has got to go out tonight,” I said, “are you going to stop tonight till it’s all finished?” And they all said, “Yeah”.

They did it and I told Mr Lenton, the manager, who said, “Get ‘em all a lolly!” An ice lolly! They were blooming good.

When I was on the machine, I used to go in at seven to get everything ready and run the machine and I’d leave off at six. That would be a normal day but I had to work some nights to 10 o’clock although I also entertained in the evenings as a semi-professional musician. Mr Lenton knew it. I said, “I can’t work every night, and I can’t do the two to ten o’clock shifts.” He said, “That’s alright, I’ll get someone else to cover,” which he did. He did that sort of thing to keep everyone happy in the job. If anyone was away ill he’d go and see them. If there was an accident on the job he’d ring me up and say, “What happened, Albert? Tell me all about it.” I’d say, “Well, we had to get the ambulance out and the nurse had to take the man to hospital because… ” He’d be concerned. People don’t realise all that.

Pay

The pay was good and every year we got an increase of £3 something for the men and £2 something for the women. Every year also we got what we called ‘prosperity’ which was a share of the profits or bonus – in the summer I think. The idea went back a long way.

When I got engaged to my wife I’d had my prosperity the day before. We used to have to go down to collect it, so I went and then bought the ring. I’ve still got the bill for it now – it was £17. My prosperity was just over £20 so that paid for it. We were paid in £5 notes and when we went on holiday I’d take the £5 notes with me. Well they were rare at that time and they wouldn’t take them in the hotel. They said, “We can’t take that!” I told them all about it – but that was how it was with £5 notes, they were very rare and working people usually never earned them.

When I first started at Colman’s I earned fourteen shillings a week and I finished up with a supervisor’s salary of £1800 a year – that was a good while ago. It was good money and if I worked extra hours I’d get overtime.

When I was the supervisor I lived nearby at Lakenfields worked the day shift from eight till five, however, the machines would run until ten. So I would go home and have my tea and nip back to give them a look over for the evening shift. That would be overtime for me and it bumped up my money. I used to take my little girl with me and she’d go on the machine and start packing all the stuff. She hasn’t forgotten it, “You took me down there!”

Colman housing

Colman’s looked after their employees and rented out company owned houses and I got the opportunity to rent one. Then I moved to another in Lakenfields, a lovely four bedroomed one and I was in it for forty years.

We paid a rent of twelve shillings and six pence when we first moved in and in 1966 they asked if we wanted to buy. It was at a time when they started to go down as a company and wanted to get rid of everything. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll buy it.” Several of us bought our houses for £1500 – a big discount – and the mortgage with the Norwich Building Society was arranged by Colman’s on our behalf.

Colman’s had a lot of cottages just off Bracondale in Corton Road called the Nightingale Cottages. They had a house in the middle for the manager looking after them, a nice house that’s still there. They offered me the job but I was in Lakenfields by then and about to have my boy and my wife said, “No, they’re all older people there and we’re going to have a baby.” So I turned it down. They tried to persuade me to have it but I said no, and I’m glad I did, because later they sold us the Lakenfields house.

The Colman shop and canteen

As a supervisor, the management gave me a free hand and I was able to make my own decisions – funny decisions sometimes. One time we were making baby food and the bloke on the hopper feeding the machines put in the wrong product – it was an hour before we noticed! We had a whole pallet of baby rice which should have been groats! I didn’t say anything just, “I don’t know how I‘m going to get rid of it apart from cutting all the cartons open and I don’t have any girls to do that”. So I arranged for it to be sold in the staff shop.

We had a big works shop then – another good amenity – which sold a lot of things. I knew the manager who ran the shop and I said, “Do you want to take these and sell them? But you’ll have to put on the cartons that it’s baby rice”. I didn’t tell anyone about it – never told the manager. The girl who worked for me in the office said, “Cor, you make some funny decisions, don’t you!” Well, it was better than getting the girls to cut all the cartons open. Anyway, the shop manager sold them off cheaply – it was all good stuff, just the wrong name on the packet.

The shop was owned by the company and later they built a bigger one up near Carrow Abbey. All the Carrow employees – there were a lot of them then – used to shop there regularly. It’s still there, I suppose.

The original canteen was just inside the gate at the back of the factory but it was part of the bombing. It was small and only supplied soup. They put a new canteen in the paper mill yard where a building had burned down but the frame was still there. They put a floor in and at the top they built a big canteen which we used for years.

Entertainment

When I first started at Colman’s, the BBC would send down free entertainers every so often to record Workers’ Playtime. Morecambe and Wise came when they were young boys and just starting and I went to see them every time. We used the canteen which could seat perhaps a hundred people and we used to have dances there as well. I was involved with it all.

We already had the big Lakenham Cricket Ground and then two big units were brought up from the Norfolk coast and one of the carpenters erected them and they became the first social club. It was a smallish affair but a good social centre with a long room and another room at the side. It was very popular and I did a lot of entertaining there, playing music for the firm. The social side was an important part of working at Colman’s.

After two or three years they decided to build the new club which opened in 1958, so with that and the cricket ground we had all the amusements at hand. They got everyone involved. We played football, cricket and bowls, we used the club and we had outings – I think that was the peak time for the company. It was the real Colman’s then.

In 1979 Cilla Black visited Colman’s. She was preparing to do a show and she may have been looking for talent, I don’t really know. But because I was involved with music they asked if I would play the banjo and sing with Cilla Black – she was only a young girl then. They photographed me on the mustard floor and Cilla gave me a ticket to go and see the show in London a couple of months later in the Television Centre. “Bring your banjo,” she said. I did bring it, but they decided they didn’t have time for it, so I didn’t get to play.

Cushion and Cilla

With Cilla Black

I was a good banjo player and I’d been playing for years. From the fifties on I was in a banjo band in Norwich called the Banjoliers. There must have been about eight or nine of us in it and we entertained in the Colman club quite a bit and in many other places. When I first started playing banjo my brother was only a little boy, and when I got a new one he got the other one and picked it up just like that. He finished as a top musician. We formed a duo and he would play guitar and we’ve been doing it for the last fifty years. In 1974 we worked in Mundesley Holiday Camp – I have a picture of me and my brother doing the act. I can still do it with my eyes closed.

On the night of 23rd September 1991, I heard a crackling noise about one o’clock in the morning. I walked to the stairs and saw the club ablaze and I sat for three hours and watched it go down – I’ve got photographs of it. Someone had driven a car into the social club and it burst into flames setting the thatched roof alight. The firemen didn’t arrive until the roof fell down and when I went over the next day it was still smouldering.

Voluntary redundancy

I finished ten years early in 1984. They wanted three supervisors to go and I think I had a bit of heart trouble; I was 55. People said, “You mustn’t go, that’s a silly thing to do.” I thought about it but decided to leave and I left with my redundancy money, an extra sum because I was a supervisor, and my pension. At that time it was a lot of money, however, I only got a small monthly pension because I’d finished early, but I knew musically I could earn some money. I went on the dole for a year then got a part-time job as a salesman in a furniture shop. I’d never done anything like that before.

I missed Colman’s but once I’ve make up my mind to do something, I’m happy with it. There was an incident about two or three months before I left – I was walking through my old department when one of the blokes caught his hand in the machine I used to manage. I was no longer the supervisor of that department but just happened to be walking past having a look around. I took him over to the nurse and reported it to the manager and superintendent, saying that I had seen it happen and because I used to run the machine, I knew why it had happened. There were guards around the machine which could be opened and this bloke did just that and put his hand in – he shouldn’t have done it. A few weeks later when he was out of hospital and on the Club, the accident people tried to say that I was responsible for the accident. I said, “No, I witnessed it, it had nothing to do with me.” They didn’t like it, and when I went along to see one of the directors on my last day, he didn’t say, “You’ve had a good career here,” or anything like that. He said, “You’re responsible for that accident.” I said, “No, I can’t accept that.” I left and didn’t have any regrets; I was sure I’d done the right thing.

Pensioner club

We’ve got a Colman’s pensioners’ club and meet four times a year at the Trowse White Horse Pub. Our numbers are diminishing now – I’m 87! We used to get 30 women and men turning up and we’d have some entertainment and talk and have lunch. It’s our only link with Colman’s now.

Albert Cushion (b. 1928) interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on 27th April 2015.

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