Cutting the mustard: Colman’s 1968-1992

Location : Norwich

Tony Gray worked for Colman’s for 24 years driving all kinds of vehicles. He is interested in Colman’s history and heritage.

I left school in 1962 and was among the last pupils allowed to leave at Easter. I got a job with a tobacco warehouse which nowadays is very frowned upon but they taught me how to drive and they taught me how to smoke. There were a massive variety of tobaccos there compared to what there are today but I did get a wonderful grounding because they taught me to drive. And once you know how to drive, the oyster is opened and you’re away? But their vans weren’t a lot of cop because the early Minis rusted after a bit and the hinges were proud on the outside of the doors so the rain got in. So if you slammed it shut they’d fall off. And I had that happen twice!

By ‘68 the tobacco trade was on the decline and they shut several branches of Palmer and Harvey’s in Ipswich and King’s Lynn so we were all in Norwich. So I thought, “Right, we’re going to be next”. They didn’t like it, but when I was twenty-one I handed my notice in, because I knew if I didn’t get to Colman’s that jobs were plentiful and I could at least get a job somewhere; which is the direct opposite to things today. So I went there.

Many members of my family worked at Colman’s and there were openings there but you had to be twenty-one because they wouldn’t allow you to drive Colman’s vehicles outside unless you were twenty-one. I got to Colman’s in 1968 because I could drive. I had the license which a lot of them didn’t have. At that particular time there were fewer forklift trucks and they let you drive them without a licence which nowadays would be absolutely criminal. So that’s how I got to Colman’s.

I worked in the “Yard List”. “The Yard List” is the very old, original title which became “The Traffic” when we had forklift trucks rather than sack-barrows – sack-barrows with one handle. The job was loading and offloading vehicles mostly by hand to start with. Incoming goods – outgoing goods. You name it; we had to unload it. All the raw materials and finished goods were loaded onto flat-bed lorries and then there was the rope and sheeting. They taught me how to “shunt”. We had our own power station, our own railway track and we had railway wagons for coal and seed and you had to learn how to shunt. You had to have three hands for shunting – you had to carry a torch, a pole and a flag. Now, how on earth can you carry them all at once?

They had a tractor – a fairly big tractor – a David Brown and they put a big metal plate on the front and they had to put a weight on the back – if not, that would tip forward. And then you used to “shunt” or push the wagons into position and then along the tracks up to the power station or the steam station and changing the points as you went. I was doing it practically all day some days when it was cold. And, of course, when the seed came – and that was seasonal – they had absolutely enormous seed trucks. And you had to shunt the seed up and they’d put it in the great big silos which are still there – I don’t think they’re used but they’re still there.

You had to find out where the opening of the silo was and if that side was on the wrong side you had to tow the wagon up to the turntable and then turn it round and bring it back again. There was an opening in the side and then you’d call, “Look out!” And whoosh – in it went! I used to walk alongside it with all the husk and dust flying everywhere. See, there was no protection and, course, they’d go crackers today. Yeah, health and safety has changed

For me, the biggest event with the shunting was the day they had the “Duchess of Sutherland”* – she was a steam engine with a wonderful livery of ruby red, black and gold. I didn’t have time to look at her because they say, “Right, right. We’ve got to put the steam engine in the yard.” Our yard – on our lines! Now, there was a big brass plate in the middle of the lines and on one side of that plate it was railway trouble and everything on the other side was our problem. A low-loader came in and a crane for lifting, so once the steam engine got to our side, there was me standing there saying, “Whoa. Whoa. Come on”. That was an enormous great engine but they gently loaded it on the low-loader and then they brought down a smaller low-loader for the coal-box. I didn’t think the coal-box was as big as that but it was an enormous, great thing. That was great!

Colman’s moved to the site they’re now on because of the railway and the river. They used to have barges and they had a tug called, “The Steam-packet”. That’d all gone by the time I went there but when we bought up Gale’s Honey, the honey came in by river so they opened up the river and the mooring again to take the honey drums off. But that was a lot later on.

So, along come forklift trucks and we were all taught how to drive them; then came the steel toecaps, hard-helmets, gloves and boots. You weren’t forced to wear them but if you had an accident without them, you couldn’t claim. They would say, “You’re not forced to wear ‘em but …” And of course we wore them.

I got a promotion in 1979. I was made a charge-hand – not a supervisor but a charge-hand – the next one down.

They had a massive, massive hangar out at Shipdham where the US Airforce was based and they introduced “Ready Drinks”, those little square boxes with the straw on them. These were the early ones which didn’t go very well because they didn’t seal them up properly, so all the problem ones were sent out to Shipdham. And I walked in there one morning – one minute later I would have been dead! I tell you I had a near death experience because those boxes crashed down – all the seals were leaking. They’re lovely now but you have no idea the problems we had!

So the early cartons were not that reliable but they were a lovely cleaner for concrete floors; they were as pure as driven snow. It was the acid, I suppose, that was in the drinks. I had six glorious months out there with deaf and dumb people. And I learnt sign language and they said that was lovely. And we sorted all the good cartons out from the bad ones; we would give them a shake and renumber them. That was a lot of work but we enjoyed it. It wasn’t done under a Spartan system – more sort of, “When do you want to stop? Do you want to work right through? Do you want to have an hour’s dinner? Do you want a half-hour’s dinner? Or, do you want to work right through and go home early?” We put our hands up for the last one – so we never stopped and worked right through and went home an hour early. And that was that.

Colman’s made me a temporary supervisor for the duration of the work. Well, I seemed to be good at sorting muddles out and boy, there were plenty of those! The company there, Pledgers, organised the place and they just wanted someone to work in collaboration with them. They were a big lorry firm – light blue lorries – the lightest colour on the road, they were. As a supervisor I was on extra pay and that’s how I got my first new car.

Well, I came back to the Works and the mustard. When they’re making the mustard – the mustard flour, actually – there’s a lot of waste so they used to have off-shoots of mustard. The bran has oil in it and they used to export it to California to go round the grapes. If you put it around our plants it would kill them but it was good for grapes. They used to take some of the oil to make mustard oil which went into embrocations like athletic rubs and Algipan, that sort of thing. It’s the ingredient that makes your skin sting. What’s left of mustard waste became cattle meal so there’s no waste at all in mustard, only waste that’s left on the plate! Jeremiah Colman made his fortune from what was left on the plate.

Then they had a big clear out of people – they had redundancies galore in the mid-1980s. They had both compulsory and voluntary ones but I was put into the “new” soft drinks department. They had more problems in the new department than they had in the old one because they were trying these plastic bottles which didn’t meet in the middle – same as the packet drinks – they weren’t sealed enough. The bottles were made in two sections and welded together but they tried to make them cheaply and it didn’t work – especially the barley water because barley water had the acid in it and it used to pour everywhere. Mind you, that was another good thing that made the floors white!

They sent me out to M and H Plastics in Beccles every day in the company car. They had a list of the palettes of bottles – a thousand bottles on each palette – all numbered. I was told that some were good and some not and my job was to go through the whole lot. So I said, “I’m not going to ‘assure’ anything, because if I send these back and they still leak, you’re going to blame me, aren’t you?” They said “Oh no, no, no. You’re not Quality Assured, you’re just Quality Control”. So I was responsible for sorting the good numbers out from the bad; if the bottle had an “F” it was alright but any with an “E” were no good and they were melted down. So again, there was no particular waste, but what a job that was.

I think “The Yard List” was the lucky department. You had people who worked all their lives at Colman’s and they had no idea what went on except in their own department. We had access to all the departments, all the offices and all the outside. It was lovely outside on a nice day but when we were shovelling coal in the snow that was a different story. We were the only department to have overcoats or Parkas as I think they were called. I’ve still got mine in the car but I took the name off! So we were the only department who had outside clothing to compensate for the weather.

One of my happiest memories of Colman’s was being able to get out and about and being introduced to several important persons up at the Show Ground, like the Minister of Agriculture, Lord Cledwyn, a Welshman I think. I met the Princess Royal and the Lord Lieutenant who might have been a Colman, I’m not sure, and I met other minor royals – that’s not work, at all, is it?

We had a marvellous time at the Royal Norfolk Show and Colman’s had its own stand. One day at work I was asked to go home and put a suit on and then take the director’s Jaguar to the showground. I never chauffeured anyone but I did take their cars to put fuel in them and kept the Green shield stamps – well, you might as well! One time I was told to take the car and then enjoy myself at the show and have a look round. However, I thought I’d better not try the beer tent if I was driving the car back. When I saw the Director he told me that he was going to drive the car home so I said he’d better take the keys. “Yes, good idea”, he said.

So off he went and I thought I’d sample the beer – it was when the little, miniature breweries were up and coming. Then I thought to myself, “How am I going to get back?” I supposed I’d have to catch the bus or something. But then the director’s secretary came up and asked if I was Tony (I was never known by my surname at work) and would I like a lift back with her? She said, “Here it is”. It was the Colman helicopter! We had a yellow helicopter and we had a yellow plane as well that went up to Hull; both mustard coloured.

“Oh”, I said. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah”, she said. “Get in the back”.

“Oh, that’s good. Where are we going to land?”

She said, “On the Colman’s cricket ground, can you make your own way back from there?”

“Yes, certainly. Thank you.”

She said, “Here’s the key”.

“What’s this for?”

“You go in the director’s entrance”.

“Wow!”

So, of course, I had to go past the guy who said “You look smart boy, you look smart. How’re you going to get in?”

“I’ve got the key”.

“Oh, my God”, he said. Well he saluted me!

It was all in fun. There was no nastiness. There was lovely camaraderie. You got the ‘wee wee’ taken out of you but they meant it kindly.

That was the highpoint; the director’s helicopter. I was in line to go up to Hull in the plane but that fell through but, never mind, I did one. The cricket ground has now been pulled down and redeveloped. It’s a shame, really.

I remember that there were a lot of factories around in the same area – Boulton and Paul, Laurence and Scott and Colman’s – so they used to stagger the leaving times so one lot got away before the next one. We were ten past the hour; another was five past the hour and the other was twenty past the hour; so you didn’t have a big rush, all at once. This went on while I was there. It was the same idea at lunchtime: we left off at ten minutes to one and went back at ten minutes to two – that’s when you had an hour off for lunch. New people used to ask why we had such funny times but it stopped the roads from getting over-crowded. We had over a thousand workers when I was first there but, of course, automation and redundancies and all sorts came in.

In 1992 I took voluntary redundancy to look after my parents who were both ill, so that finished me with Colman’s. However, later on I was asked to join the Pensioners’ Association and I had the privilege to lay the wreath at the war memorial in the old Carrow House. The memorial is for both wars and includes those who were machine gunned on Carrow Hill: a German aircraft, a lone raider, came over and just emptied his machine guns on Carrow Hill and a lot of people were killed.

I was also involved with the Mustard Shop because they wanted information about people who worked in the Mustard Shop. I had known the first manager so I told them about him and that’s how I got my reward, a blue pot. Of course, the Mustard Shop is a different set-up now since Colman’s sold out and it’s run as a shop and museum with all the different mustard tins and mustard pots including silver and china ones. They’ve got everything … all the old advertising like the ones sending goods to the Antarctic for Captain Scott.

It seems Scott’s hut – the famous hut – is lined with Robinson’s Patent Barley crates. Barley was put in all Colman foods both for children and adults to add bulk, and in the Antarctic it helped to keep them warm. The barley was put in wooden crates so our crates, our Patent Barley crates are wall liners; insulation! Ben Fogle found the hut and everything has been itemised and the hut has been sealed up and left to freeze for ever more.

So, quite a history and of course, it’s all gone now. Part of the history was a convent on the site called Carrow Abbey. It’s a canteen now but there used to be a convent there. An interesting thing happened while I was still working at Colman’s – I was again in the wrong place at the right time – having my wisdom teeth out at Attleborough. They brought in a man in I thought I recognised – he was one of our directors and I thought, “Oh, no. I can’t get away from “em”. We were done on the same day. We came round on the same day. “Ah”, he said, “You’re interested in history, aren’t you? When we get back to work, you come and see me in my office. No need to worry about what your manager says, I’m a director”. So I did and we went to the convent site and I saw all these people “sieving” – like Tony Robinson on TV but less noisy. I thought they had found a skeleton of a nun but it was the skeleton of a man. They found both sexes in those graves – and that was a big surprise.

Tony Gray (b. 1947) was interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on February 15th 2015

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