Life at Colman’s and Eastern Counties Newspapers (original version)

Location : Norwich

I left school at 14, and started work at 14, and the first job I got was at Brett’s the cabinet makers; they had a little factory on Chapelfield; and going there with a load of tools my parents had bought me, very excited and I loved the smell of wood, it was lovely. Being a new boy I had to do all the chores, all the sweeping up, get the tea and buns at lunchtime for the people who worked there and it started very well. Through some reason or other I didn’t get on with the foreman and he criticised everything I did and one thing led to another and in the end I just hated being there.

How did you get there? You had lots of tools with you, did you walk?

Oh, you could leave your tools there, but I cycled there from King Street, it was just up Carrow Hill and along through the City there, which was only about 15 minutes by cycle. So I carried on like that, but anyway I had to leave because I really couldn’t stick it any more. Then I wondered what I was going to do, because I had always wanted to work in Colman’s, friends I grew up with and went to school with worked there, too. There was nothing available there, so I got a job at Halfords cycle shop in Brigg Street, which is pretty near Marks and Spencer’s. That was ok, it was different, you were serving behind the counter. Of course, the prank they played on you then was – the big thick chunky batteries they sold – was for you to do this dare of putting your tongue across the two terminals, which was a bit dire (laughs). Left an awful taste in your mouth! And it was going quite well, I was there for a few months and then I wanted to buy a new racing bike. I was keen on cycling, became a member of the East Anglian Cycling Club and asked if I could buy an Elswick, which was the bike I wanted. Because they only sold Halfords bikes I didn’t get the chance, and when they knew I wasn’t going to buy a Halfords bike things turned, and then I was picked on for everything.

But in the meantime a vacancy had come up at Colman’s, so luckily – my father worked there, my father was a fire- and policeman there – so being born at the bottom of Carrow Hill opposite the works which the fireman had to live in. There was always a bell in the house so if there was a fire or anything the bell would ring and my father would have to dress and go, it woke the whole house up.

So I got a job there, first of all in the messengers, and I would do errands then on a trade bike. Once or twice a week the janitor, who was sort of in charge of us then, got orders from staff to go into the City and buy things, and there was a lady who always wanted to buy gin – a bottle of gin – so I had to go in the off-license and buy a bottle of gin.

And they sold it to you in those days?

Yes, well I suppose I was a fairly big boy, 15 I guess … my trade bike fell over and of course I had put this gin in a brown paper bag and it smashed! It knocked the top off and I was mortified, I thought, I didn’t want to go back to work! So I went back and told them and the woman was very nice about it, strangely enough, she said, “That’s fine, I asked you to do it so it’s my fault really, it’s not your fault, throw the gin away.” But the janitor got some stockings and he poured the gin and the glass through this to filter out the drink. (Laughs.)

As you got a little bit older they moved you around the works, so I went on the starch department and that was ok, I worked there, it was nice. And from the starch to the sawmill.

What did you do in the starch department?

Just general labouring and the same in the sawmill. There were loads of women in the sawmill, it was very labour intensive, they used to make coffins there, for the employees, it was almost cradle to grave in those days. They made coffins.

In the sawmill?

Yes, in the sawmill department.

Did they make anything else in the sawmill department?

Oh yes, they used to make wood crates for packing stuff in, like mustard, and things like that. They used to export mustard to China.

So not only did they make the mustard they made all the crates to go with it.

Yes, every form of packaging they could make. It was quite a big place. There was a huge radial saw down there where they used to put these huge blocks of wood and sawdust used to fly everywhere. It was a big thing and the deals used to come up the river by boat and be unloaded at the docks and they used to be aired so they didn’t warp too much and used to make all their own things. They made anything wood-wise, in their own carpenter’s shop and whatnot.

Yes, that was good. Because being green then, a boy pushing a trolley around, taking things to various people, the girls always used to pick on you, because you were young. They used to make all sorts of comments and I used to go red as a beetroot. And we always had overalls there and one of the tricks they did, if they ever got you they would pull your zip down, they would throw sawdust inside your overalls and squirt some oil into it. (Laughs) So you go through these initiations … and from then on I met a girl who worked down there too. I got engaged at 17.

After having worked there for how long?

Oh, two years, then. Then I was called up for national service.

So did Colman’s keep your job for you?

Oh yes. Well, they had to then, it was law. And I remember going to the station and saying cheerio to your family for the first time – everyone was in tears. My mother had me when she was 40-odd, I definitely wasn’t meant! My mother died when I was 28 so I didn’t see too much of my mum.

Did she work at Colman’s?

She worked at Colman’s, yes, she worked in the blue department. Because a lot of that stuff went on to our sister company, which was Reckitt and Colman’s.

The blue department – what was that?

The blue is to put into your washing to make whites whiter. Almost translucent, you know. And yes, so I did my national service and my mother packed me some sandwiches up, saying goodbye and walking down to the station in tears! Went to the station to catch the train and this guy come up, who worked at Colman’s and he said, “Your mother sent me, you forgot your sandwiches.” (Laughs) So I then did my square bashing in Wiltshire, I did a signalling course in Wiltshire, had to learn Morse code at eight words a minute, which was hard. The navy do it at 22 words a minute!

For how long were you in the forces?

Two years, just two years national service. I spent two years in Germany, which I hugely enjoyed. Went all over Germany on manoeuvres and things like that.

When you arrived back in the UK?

When I arrived back in the UK my engagement had gone, then … that wasn’t really meant. I spent a fair bit of time with other people who worked there and most of them were sort of Colman’s fire- and policemen’s sons who I grew up with. And used to go to the Lido on Saturday nights you see, which was nice. We’d have a pint in the City, walk up to the Lido, have a dance, take a girl home more than likely, then come home together, and things like that. I met my wife there, she worked in the tin shop …

She didn’t work at Colman’s?

Yes, the tin shop in Colman’s. Yeah. B. was 19 when we got married. I was nearly 22 I think. My son A. was born in ’57. B. died ten years ago.

I’m sorry to hear that.

Now, when you went back after being in the forces, it must have been tricky then because there were a lot of men that were sent away, so the workforce must have suffered. Did they get a load of women in?

No, no really, not then. Because I did my national service ’51 to ’53 and coming back I always wanted to work in the trades department and my father kept asking and in the end I got the job. When I came back out of the forces in the trades department. So I then trained up to be a steam engineer, a steam fitter.

So Colman’s gave you that training.

Yes. And I worked there for 35 years. And when I was 50 they got a load of consultants in to try and ginger the firm – it was still making a fair amount of profit, but if you are making £30 million one year and a million pounds the next year, it is a disaster, because you have got to make more.

But in the engineering department, what kind of work did you do?

All pipework, steam and pipework. Because you had steam-driven things, the huge rollers, steam-fed rollers for baby food. They used to mix the baby food up, and used to drip onto these rollers which then went like that … and then that scraped it off and paddled it around into powder or flakes and then that came down the tubes to another floor and it was packed into little boxes, Robinson’s food. It was all Robinson’s baby food, you see.

So Colman’s did Robinson’s baby food?

They did Robinson’s fruit drinks, they did all the mints and horseradish and packet foods and things like that. They had their own printing works, too. They printed everything. They did everything. I enjoyed working. We finished up doing double shifts.

And you went back and forth to work on your bicycle every day?

By that time I had married, lived with my parents, and when my son was born we got the opportunity of this house. Because Colman’s owned so much property, they owned all the houses in Trowse, Bracondale, over by the football ground, way down in King Street; and of course in the end as things changed they sold the houses off at tremendous deals for the people who wanted to buy them. Of course then I got this with the right to buy, so I bought this house and lived in it ever since. At that time I did bike to work from here. I remember my wife saying “Oh it is a long way”. You’d think you were in the country – this was a country lane at one time. There was brambles each side going down there. And my son went to the two schools here and I got a bike – biking up Harvey Lane and things like that coming home. And then I got a moped – I went up a gear – and then I said, I’ll never be able to afford a car. But things transpire and you get things you never thought you’d be able to afford, things like that.

Did you do a lot of overtime work there?

I did a lot of overtime there.

That paid you extra money.

Yes, I used to go in all hours on the job. You had to keep it going, even in the winter time. We worked there through solid weekends when it was freezing to keep the steam going through the pipes and stop it freezing up. It was running 24 hours, yes, and your steam would have to go on 24 hours. You see, you had high pressure and low pressure steam to work with. You used to work autoclaves, you used to work all sorts, all your heating was done from our power station in house. Through our power station we even sold electricity out to the national grid. The extra. Yes, I had some terrific times there … I played football for the company obviously, and I finished up playing cricket for the company for so many years. And I captained that side for about 12 years. It was good cricket then, it was quality cricket. And we played against Yarmouth, Cromer, Norwich Union, all the big clubs, Lowestoft, all around. It was good class cricketing. We had these inter-company matches with Hull. We used to go up there for the weekend one year and stay in an hotel and play an all day match, have an evening dinner.

So this was also Colman’s?

From Colman’s to Hull. It was Reckitt’s against Colman’s. And they used to come down the following year and play us again. The rivalry was terrific, really terrific.

So you have a lot of friends, then, in Colman’s.

Yes, a huge amount of friends in Colman’s. Because I had the run of the company you see, because of the steam heating going into every building, into all the offices. Every morning my first job was to go round and make sure all the office radiators were ok. There were in about three different blocks of buildings. And any different steam jobs that come around, repairing pipework, flanges, reducing valves, all these things. Because the steam used to condense into water and then because it is pure it was pumped back again and used again, so they didn’t have to treat water as much.

So all the inter-departmental rivalry, playing sports and things, we even had sort of outing to London and things like that.

That was organised, what for different departments?

For different departments, yes. The engineers always went up to London yearly and we used to have a lot of fun. And things were going along smoothly until the consultants came in and everything changed.

But that was after a long time. So after twenty-five years, you were working in the steam station …

Thirty years, well I was there from when I was twenty to when I was fifty. Thirty years there, and doing some menial jobs at Colman’s before that.

So you knew the building pretty well!

I knew everything. In the end we had to do double day shifts, my mother died and my father couldn’t cook to save his life, and I used to go to the canteen. The carpentry shop made me a little box and you could slide the lid up and used to keep the dinner – every day, Monday to Friday, I got my dad’s dinner from the Abbey dining room …

It was called the Abbey dining room?

In the end, it was called the Canteen when it was in one place and then they moved it up to Carrow House where the Colman family used to live. Which is offices now. And I used to buy the dinner from there and take it to my Dad.

So you paid for it?

Yes, coppers – it was coppers. And of course in the earlier days when I came out of the forces and what not, we used to have an hour for lunch – before we went into the shift pattern. And I used to work Saturday mornings, you had to work Saturday mornings, it was part of your working week, 44 hours, and if they wanted you to do overtime there used to be a hell of a row through wanting to play sport instead of working because they wanted me to …

But when we had an hour for lunch, it was a long while. We used to get on our bikes and go down Lakenham swimming baths and have a swim. And come back again. So that was quite fun. And as I said the consultants came in and – they didn’t know how to do it – they gave everyone a projected figure for leaving. So you could leave on a sort of voluntary severance type thing. And they give the sheets of paper to everyone, which was probably the wrong way to do it.

And how old were you then?

I was fifty. Because when they used to cart stuff around the yards to the various departments, the tractor drivers … they got this huge piece of cardboard and they put MAC IS 50 TODAY, (Laughs.) I tried to keep that quiet, I really did. No chance! So you got this projected figure of what you could get when you left and in my case it was … I think with holiday money and all sort of things like that, I think even then when I was 50 it was about £28,000, a lot of money. And I had already lined a job up to work at Mulberry who make cricket bats, to be a rep and sell cricket equipment, because they didn’t have any outlet shops and I could then go round to schools and things like that and sell, and that would have suited me down to the ground because I love sport. And I asked if I could leave, and they said, well, there are only two of you, you do double day shifts, two till ten.

So there were only two of you?

Steam fitters, yes. And I said, Well why can’t you? … you’re going to decimate the plumbing section, plumbing is pipework too, why can’t you train someone up to do that?” He said, “Well, give a couple of days to think that one over.” Anyway, they let me go, so I was quite … but the day they let me go, the cricket bat firm said they couldn’t do it.

So I didn’t know what to do. In the end I suppose I did what a lot of people did, I got a van and moved stuff around. In the end I got a lot of work from Colman’s to take their goods all over England.

So you got another job with Colman’s?

No, I was self employed then. But because they knew me and I knew the transport section, if there was any short notice work I used to go down to the docks at Felixstowe, I’ve been down to Bristol, I’ve been up as far as Carlisle, Chester, making deliveries of Colman’s’ goods and things like that. Other work, there was a printing firm in Norwich – I forget what they were called now, and they printed all the stuff up for the Ministry of Defence, it was a weapon training programme, which had to go to the other side of Manchester and I did that on short notice. I remember going over where Holmfirth is (where Last of the Summer Wine is filmed). Then you go over the moors and you can see the lights of Manchester. It was magical. My wife came with me then. And as it started to dip and get dusk, it was lovely.

So you enjoyed driving?

I did then. And I had to get back because I was playing cricket. And that took preference over everything! But in the end it was lonely, you’re balancing a thermos flask of coffee and a map and things like that, you’re in traffic jams. The loneliness did me. I couldn’t stand the loneliness because I like being with people. I thought, I can’t do this any more, because I used to wait on the telephone. I used to sit on the patio waiting for the telephone that sometimes never rang. B. was working over there at Tom Smith’s, part-time, because after A. was born she never went back full time to work; it was handy, because she worked over there. She’d say, have you got any work? I’d say no, and she’d say, you’ll have to do something about this…. (laughs).

And in the end I looked around and I had an interview at a double glazing company, and he said, “Well, you’re well qualified, my only problem is you’re older than the majority of the workforce and I just wonder if you’d fit in.” “Well, I can fit in with anyone.” So I said yes to that job, and in the meantime I got a job as a caretaker at Eastern Counties Newspapers, the option… And I knew that the chief executive at the newspaper was somebody who was a student engineer at Colman’s – G.C. -his family had a grocery business around Norfolk. I thought, I am going to see if I can phone G. up and I phoned up and said “Can I speak to Mr C.?” and they said “Who are you?” I said, I am an old friend, he used to work at Colman’s with me.” Of course secretaries are very protective of their bosses, aren’t they? So she said, “He’s at a meeting, I’ll talk to him when he gets back, and get back to you.” She must have phoned me up about quarter past five. “I’ve spoken to Mr C., if you like to ring at half past five.” Which I did. I recognised his voice right away because we were playing in the departmental cricket final, and we opened the batting G. and I, and we won that match. And as we were playing that match somebody took a telephone call to say my son was born! And after the match, I got in G.’s car – I didn’t have a car then I don’t think – we drove down to Drayton maternity hospital, that used to be there, and he drove me down there, Mr C. did, and I changed out of my whites into my ordinary clothes on the back seat. I just got there in time to see B. and A. and come back again.

And so when I phoned G. up at the newspaper about the job, I said, I don’t know if you remember me, G. – A.M.” He said, “A., how could I ever forget you?” because we had some really terrific times playing sport and what not. I know he came from a family that was way above my station but you know, we were mates, you know. There was no side. When you get to that quality of people there is no side, it is these little jumped up local managers who try to wield all the power. And so he said, “We have unions and things like that, I can’t go in feet first, but I shall put my special mark to this.” At that time it wasn’t human resources, it was personnel, wasn’t it? So the personnel manager phoned me up and said “Would you like to come in for an interview?” and he said to me,” I know you know Mr C., but it isn’t about that, you go on your own merit.” And I thought to myself, “I’ve got that job.” And I did get that job. And from there I worked up to services coordinator.

You started as ?

Caretaker. Because they had some big boilers in there for the heating and things like that and nobody knew about all that so I was going to be very handy for them. And then when the air conditioning came in I was still going to be handy because I knew about that too.

So this was ?

Eastern Counties Newspapers, which is now Archant, they are called Archant. They had offices in the City at the top of Rouen Road, near Castle Mall. It is there, and the factory is up on the Thorpe Road. Several million pounds, two huge presses in there, two and a half million pounds each.

So I worked there, and then this opportunity come along and it was a time when something was going wrong here. I played so much sport over the years and my hips were going.

So how long were you with the newspaper?

I was with the newspaper twelve years.

And you were doing the boilers?

I was doing the boilers and the caretaking and things like that. I had keys for everywhere again!

What sort of hours did you work?

Days, but I still did overtime, I used to go in Sunday mornings and things like that. Used to go in Saturdays. Yeah, that was interesting, because I knew about air conditioning, and they said, well, we are having these in and will need to get a service cleaning contract. I said, I can do the majority of that, all I need is a few hours a week and I could do that, clean the filters out and things like that. If things got more serious, of course, I could put them in. So that was a tick in my box and then of course, they called me in, the personnel manager called me in. He said, “We have been talking, and we would like you to take over this job, looking after all the branch offices, all the fabric and fittings, and security and that sort of thing.” It covered a wide range, in the Fens, into Cambridgeshire, you’d go into Suffolk, and all around the coast, there is loads…

We used to go there every few weeks to all of them. We used to go round and see what they wanted, any trouble, we had break-ins, so I got the security alarms and things like that fixed up. You were working within a budget so if you couldn’t afford it they had to wait until they could afford it. But I had a nice rapport with all the people at all the branch offices and enjoyed that. I took it on simply because I knew – the salary was better than mine, of course – but my money was better with my overtime. When I said that, they said, “Well, you can’t rely on your overtime.” Which was true enough. But I knew if I took this job on I was having to go into hospital to have this operation and I was going to be away quite a few weeks, and that money would be a lot better than the basic I was on on the other job. It was a challenge. So you went into management, and that is a big step up from working to management, and I had to wear a sports jacket, or a suit, and a tie, carry a briefcase, which I always found embarrassing …

How old were you then?

I was about 51, 52. And the personnel department there was really really nice. It was like a little family. And I had an office and the assistant personnel manager brought me a computer in, it frightened the life out of me! It absolutely frightened the life out of me. But I got on well with all of the top managers’ secretaries. They used to come in and help me!

They actually taught you how to use the computer.

They did all my typing and things like that, which was great. So taking that on I was really struggling then. If I had a bath and I dropped the towel on the floor, when I bent down to pick it up you could hear my bones going creak, creak, creak… and in the end the Norfolk and Norwich let me down twice and my doctor said – that was when the surgeries were self funded then, he said to me, you are really being mucked about. You’re on painkillers and you can’t get comfortable wherever you are.

And they allowed you the time off to go to hospital?

Oh absolutely, with full pay. So my doctor said, “If you are prepared to go within a radius of 100 miles I’ll get you in fairly quickly.” So I went to Mount Vernon on the Middlesex/Hertfordshire border, near Rickmansworth. The surgeon was a Norfolk man, Mr B., and I said “Can you do them both at once?” and he said, “Well, I’ve never done it.” “Well, they do it at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital.” “Yes, I know, they pioneered it there” he said. “Never thought I was going to have you in.” “Do one, then wait a couple of weeks and do the other one.” So he said, “Let me think about that.” And he said, “I’ll book you in at so and so and so and so.” The day came and the night before I went down to Cambridgeshire, St Ives in Cambridgeshire, where my nephew is, which is half way house, and then R. was going to drive us down to the hospital and you have to ask early if there is a bed available. And they said, yes, come. And we waited there for hours and in the end I saw him and he said “take your trousers off”. He said to the senior nurse, “There isn’t much fat on that, it’s good.” So he said, “I have decided to do them both. I am going to do one – because you lose a lot of blood with that – and swing out over and if you are ok I’ll do the other one.”

So how long were you off work?

Six weeks. At least, and I only came back on two days a week for another two or three weeks just to get the feel of it again. And the surgeon turned round and said “I am going to cancel my operating list and you are the first one on. If we do you I may be able to do one or two other things.” I was sitting there, and they brought sandwiches, and all the other people waiting for this operation. And I heard one of them say “He’s cancelled the list!” I thought, “I’m keeping quiet about this.” But he did it, a five and a half hour operation, and I lost five pints of blood.

So it kept you off work for some time and you went back to work just on a part time basis then.

Just for a few weeks. They said, “Why’d you come back? Just come back for a couple of days to see how you are.” And they were very good, I mean two of them came and visited me all that way away. When I came home they brought a lot of flowers and whatnot. In fact, the personnel manager now, I still meet, and the general secretary, about once every month, in Caley’s tearooms in the Guildhall and we have coffee.

Did you need to train up someone to replace you?

No, they didn’t. I think they tried to hold back on things until I came back again. So I came back and I got better went around a lot. And in the end, they turned it into human resources and they got another human resources – push push push… and I got called in one day (B. had retired by then, she retired at 60, I was two and a half years older) and I thought to myself “I’d like to go now.” So they called us in to this high level meeting and they said, “We are extending the branch offices down to almost the outskirts of London.” And I thought, “I don’t want this.” So I asked if I could see him privately and I said, “Is it possible to retire early – just a couple of years early?” He said, that’s stumped me.” I said, there is another job, he’s assistant to me… he was an assistant to me, caretaking. You could then move up – and I went through an extensive time of teaching him what to do. And that was a deal. If I taught him.

And what were you teaching him, exactly?

How to deal with everything in the branch offices – the fabric and the fittings in the newspaper, and everything branch office-wise. Security, you were then in charge of the security people that you had looking after…

You would have meetings with them, and this type of thing.

Yes. So that was that. And they said, “Yes I’ll get some figures for you.” They predict roughly how long you’re going to live, and things like that, don’t they? And he said “We are going to extend your pension as if you had worked all the way through.” Which was good. So then I got a commission and so on and was quite happy, a good pension and so on. The other deal was, they were then moving the presses from Rouen Road to this new place up at Thorpe. Huge presses, 60-odd thousand papers an hour they printed.

What year would that be?

That would be -about 14 years ago [i.e.1996]. But the thing was, Carter was the main contractor up there, and they subbed all these things out. And they said to me, “We are now up and running …” (The air conditioning, that was really high tech!) … we have got a thousand defects here, and although we’ve kept money back, (because you are not stupid enough to pay up-front) we will not pay this money out until all these jobs are done. Now, could you spend six months up here so we can sort it out?” So I used to go up there two days a week. So that was good – a five-day weekend then! I enjoyed it, it was just up Thorpe, there, I used to drive up there, I had a little office there and whatnot, people came in with all the troubles and problems and I got contracts signed for people doing work for us and put it all down, so it was there for other people to take over. And you know I was there, I went from two days a week to a day and a half a week and after 18 months I was still there and I had only gone just over half way through them. “And I said !” and he said “I understand, we’ll get someone else to take this on.” So that’s how I finished working and then by then we’d got some money together and we went to Canada for the first holiday. It was beautiful.

So you finished work and you were how old?

Well in the end, I was only a year off normal retirement. Or probably fractionally just under …

So how old was retirement then?

Sixty five. So from then on we enjoyed holidays and I mean within three years B. had died, out of the group of people we used to go around with she was the fittest by far …

To summarise your working life … what would you say was the height of it?

I think the highlight was working at Colman’s. Without a shadow of a doubt. It was a family and you got away with absolute murder.

But you worked hard there?

But we worked hard there. From that point of view we all had walkie-talkies and things like that. If a job came up you dropped whatever you were doing and did it. And of course the double day shifts, when you were on two till ten, you were also on call, till five in the morning. So I have often been called out at two o’clock in the morning to do a small job and come back again. I came out from Colman’s at that big roundabout at Bracondale once, tired as hell, having been called out after working, and somebody was coming around the roundabout the wrong way round, and I honestly thought it was me, but I guess it was an American, driving the other side of the road, weird. All in all Colman’s and the friendships I have still got with Colman’s people, was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. We were a unit, we were brothers. And the fun we had there – everyone was happy. Now it’s changed completely. It’s been taken over by a couple of companies. Britvic has taken over the drinks side of the business.

So it’s been split into different divisions?

The drinks side is one side and the food side another, by one of the big concerns and they say, yes the money is good but it’s horrible, for what they pay you they want every pound of flesh.

So you feel as though you worked there at the best time …

It was lucky because, I was too young for the war. I remember all the bombing, obviously. You could easily get a job then. And I worked at a place … that was gorgeous, the money was quite good and all the perks of it was good, and so were the pensions.

But the physical demands were reasonable?

Oh, very.

This is more pertinent about the actual physical work you did and how you went about that.

Reflecting back on everything I have said, I have probably forgotten the actual things I did work in there. If you can imagine, there was a steam station in the centre of the works where you generated the steam. They were coal fired and at times when coal was scarce they had a backup of oil, to make sure that everything worked. Because if you didn’t have any heat in the buildings you couldn’t employ people because you have to be above a certain temperature for people to work and if it goes below that they are allowed not to work. So the steam station generates steam. It is high pressure steam and low pressure steam. High pressure steam went through all vessels and manufacturing areas and the low pressure steam went to heat all the buildings up. All the radiators, all the offices, so my job basically was to make sure everything was working ok, heating wise, production wise and if you had a leak you just had to go and sort it out. There was times when you had to replace sections of pipe, reducing valves, all sorts of things like that. So it kept you busy.

All the pipework leading from the steam station either went overhead or underground. Most of it went overhead and then locked into buildings as you got there. There were miles of pipework on stanchions. All the pipework had to be asbestos lagged, with a covering, to weather protect it because frost can damage pipework and water so much, really deep frost. And of course as the years went on asbestos was a nasty word. We used to throw it at each other and play around with it. We didn’t know the danger of it. So in the end all the pipework bit by bit had to be taken away by specialised firms – bagged – and you couldn’t put it on tips or anything. It had to go into special areas to get rid of it and then replace it with an alternative to asbestos.

Did you do that?

No. It was done by large companies coming in but if anything went wrong and you had to take that off to get at a pipe because there was a leak and you had to replace sections of it and whatnot, yeah, we had a store where you had the alternative to asbestos to put back on the pipes and that.

And so, basically you had to keep the firm going … because if you had a problem with steam, for instance to the baby foods roller which was heated up and baby food was dripped on it which then turned it into powder, and the scrapers used to scrape it off. So if that went wrong you were losing production and if you lost production you are losing several hundred pounds an hour so you had to get that done as a priority, just to keep things running. The mustard mill had the same sort of things, they had autoclaves, they had all sorts of steam things that were, I suppose really, used to sterilise.

You meant in the autoclaves, or was that the engineers?

Well, steam into the autoclaves, it was our job. Anything mechanically outside that was other sections of the trades – engineers, electricians – we had electricians – engineers, plumbers, carpenters, builders, we had the lot. And so that was the job. You had to be at the job – in the end we did a double day shift working and then if you worked the two to ten shift you had to be on call to anything that came along, anything that broke down. The fire- and policeman who manned the gates used to phone you up, “Can you come in?” You either went in by your own car or called for a taxi, and put that right. We had one or two horrendous winters. We had a winter once when the return water that went back to the steam station – the steam condenses into water and it is pumped back – and I think they turned something off on one weekend and took a chance and it was the coldest weekend in years, and the water in pipes as it froze expanded and huge flanges were buckled. At that time we got these mobile electrical generators. We used to clamp two sections of pipe to try and thaw it out in between. You put electrical charges through to thaw it out and then if there was any damage to the pipework – the heat damaged the flanges, you had to turn that section off and replace it and some of the work there was very heavy. Some of the pipework was big, really big, so you know it was very varied, so you got your nice little jobs and you got your horrible jobs. It is so easy to be burnt with steam. It is so easy. I probably have several scars on me I’ll never lose. So that was the job basically.

Alan (b. 1933) was interviewed for WISEArchive in Norwich on 16th August 2010. An edited version was prepared in 2015 for WISEArchive’s Heritage Lottery Colman’s Project and can be found in the Colman’s section.

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