Colman’s 1969-1977. Beginning in Baby Foods at age 15
I left school in July 1969 aged 15 (the age went up to 16 in 1970) and I started work in the baby food department at Colman’s two weeks later. I was a very thin little girl and shy and nervous. My first instructions were on how to clock in at 8 o’clock in the morning at the clock-in machine. I was given health and safety advice and a uniform which was far too big for me, especially the turban headscarf which I had to wrap round twice. Then I was taken along to the baby rice line which was run by Albert Cushion who was the funniest man there. Because I was small I couldn’t reach the packing area so he had to go and find a box for me to stand on. I soon learnt the trade of picking up the boxes and putting them in the bigger boxes and that sort of thing; we were changed round every half hour. Because I was shy I used to hold back but I soon learned to come out of my shell and made friends – which we have been ever since.
Health and safety?
We were told to be careful on the packing lines when they were running and not get too close, and we had to make sure that any clothing item didn’t hang down and get trapped in the machinery. We couldn’t have dangling jewellery, stuff like that. We wore sensible shoes that were non-slip as obviously there could be baby food powder on the floor and we kept our turbans tied up. It was noisy but not noisy enough to wear headphones, however, before I left, it started to get much noisier so I did wear the headphones. In those days, health and safety wasn’t quite as strict as it is today, they just gave you the basic knowledge about being careful.
There were no major serious accidents while I was there. There might have been little cuts because of the paper or something like that, but never anything major. Loading stuff on pallets could be dangerous but obviously you were aware of it and two of us would work together on the packing. The men on the lines were brilliant – they always looked after you.
Most of my work was packing but when we were doing the triple packs where we had to fill up little bags we were swapped round every half an hour. There were three levels on the floor – the top level was where the baby food was made, the second level dealt with the food powders, and on the packing floor where I worked, the food came down the chutes into the machines. I enjoyed working there.
There was one chap running the machines, an elderly type gentleman, who didn’t like having pregnant women on his machines because he was always frightened that something would happen. It did for me one day, because I passed out on him! He had to carry me out to the loading bay.
Our main supervisor was Ernest Green and then there was Martin Wickes, Albert Cushion, Eric Sadd, Eric Lush and Jack Thompson. There was a little room for the engineers – Mike Dobell, George Barnard, Geoff Donald – and they’d be there on the spot if the machines broke down which they did occasionally when, for example, the glue was a bit too thick or the packaging jammed up or the powder coming down blocked things up. The engineers had to be there to deal with it.
There was probably a union but I didn’t have any involvement and as far as I can remember we didn’t have any problems or strikes – I don’t think there was any time for striking!
In the summertime they would close down the baby food factory lines for two weeks for staff holidays, and some of us would be sent to different departments. I used to go to the soft drinks department which was on the next floor up. I hated working there because it was all glass bottles then, and being so short, I really dreaded it because the bottles were heavy and the orange juice would squirt out at you and you’d be sticky. For some reason the people that worked there didn’t make you feel that welcome. You felt and they were thinking, “What are you doing up here? Get back to your own place.” But it was only for a couple of weeks.
We got about three weeks holidays and you could have two weeks in the summer and a week around Easter-time. It was all completely different to what it is today. I think you could have a week at Easter or a week at Whitsun and you got the fortnight in August whenever you wanted it.
When I first started I worked an eight-to-five job. I used to get there by eight o’clock and put my ticket in the clock-in machine to be stamped before putting it in its slot; I did it again at five o’clock when I left off. If you were late you knew you would be docked some money – it would only be a few shillings (it was all pounds and shillings then). I still had to clock in as all the weekly tickets would go up to the supervisor and they’d write down all the times.
I think my first week’s wages was five pounds, two and six which was a good wage for a fifteen-year-old at the time. You could do plenty with five pounds then and my first week’s wages went on a pair of new shoes for my cousin’s wedding. I could pay to go to the pictures or to go dancing at Samson and Hercules (a former nightclub in Norwich) or buy clothes. You’d think, “Yes, I’m in the money now!” I had to pay my mum ten shillings a week for board as well. I thought it was a good wage at the time.
I had a bike to go to work but when my sister Val started in the baby foods department two years later, I had to stop biking because she didn’t have one so we used to walk to work. We walked from Coke Road in Lakenham, along Martineau Lane and up through the Carrow Works and I did that until 1974 when I got married and moved to Normandie Tower in Rouen Road which was nearer.
In my first two years, before my sister Val joined me, I used to go and have lunch every day with my aunt in Stuart Road just off King Street. It used to be the same thing week in week out but my cousin Angela who worked in the mustard department used to go to my Mum’s for her dinner! However, when Val began, the canteen was opened and I said to my aunt, “Do you mind?” and she said, “No, no, you go and do what you want.” So I’d have lunch in the canteen with my sister instead!
When I first started, the canteen was very small but a couple of years later it grew to a great big one and we used to enjoy the meals there. They also used the canteen for meetings and talks and that sort of thing.
At half past ten we used to have a tea break and we would send a little lady called Hilda Elwood to get us either a cheese or a ham roll – which were delicious – and we’d have it with our cup of tea along with a fruit or cheese scone. We had to eat it all in ten minutes.
I was happy at Colman’s at the time and I never had any problems, they always treated you well, but from what I hear now, there’s not much of the old Colman spirit left.
There was always a nurse on duty if you had a problem and we used to have a yearly medical – I don’t know when that stopped – and she would check eyesight, do hearing tests because of the noise and check any physical problems, especially hands, because everything was done with your hands. I had three medicals during my time there but they never found anything wrong.
I worked at Colman’s from 1969 to1977 and left when I was expecting my first child. I left Colman’s in January and she was born in April.
In those days you weren’t really given the choice of going back, not like you have today. You had the baby and you stayed at home to look after it – most of us didn’t go back and I think women generally didn’t until the eighties.
Changes in working conditions
I would not have returned to work after the baby anyway as, at the time, I was on the verge of leaving because things were beginning to change. Instead of a normal eight-to-five job, they wanted us to work shifts from six till two or two till ten. Obviously when you’d got a family you have to juggle your hours but if I could have gone back to what I was doing, with the same girls, I probably would have done it. However, most of the girls I knew at the time were becoming pregnant and we were all leaving!
There were rumours that certain parts of Colman’s were going to be closed down and that they wanted changes in staffing and working hours. Stricter rules were coming in as well such as no music – before we used to have the radio blasting out and we would listen and sing along but the new rules and regulations didn’t allow it. Tea breaks were also being limited.
Directors and management was changing too. You didn’t really see much of it unless it was in your own area but we saw that the older men were retiring and they were bringing in different men who weren’t quite as jolly as the ones we were used to.
The working atmosphere did alter too. At certain times of the year they would have groups of people coming round such as school children or pensioners. They’d be shown how the place worked and what went into packets of baby food. All that stopped in the late seventies which was a shame, because those were the times when Albert Cushion would put on his little antics. He had a telescope and a black eye which shot into a bag and he had a bell he used to ring – we always knew Albert was about when we heard the bell – and he used to sell tights and stockings, jumpers and cardigans. I hadn’t seen Albert since 1977 when I left until six months ago in 2015 – a long time and he hadn’t changed a bit!
Socialising with the girls
I often went out socialising with the other girls. Some of them would arrange weekly raffles and we would take pensioners out for parties or the pantomime and we made up big harvest festival baskets of fruit to send to the elderly. We also helped underprivileged children and children in care, taking them to the panto amongst other things. And we went to party nights in Yarmouth or to Broad Farms at Filey for Christmas meals, and we had hen nights when someone was getting married.
At work, when a girl was getting married, we always made sure that the girl was kept out of the cloakroom so we could dress her coat or cardigan with balloons, banners, streamers and what have you. That happened to me – I had to walk all the way home from Carrow Road, along Bracondale, to Coke Road in Lakenham with balloons and banners and GETTING MARRIED! Those were the sort of antics we used to get up to. They would throw confetti as you walked out of the floor rooms and the men would chant, “You don’t know what you’re letting yourselves in for!”
There was a good social life at Colman’s especially in the summer. When it got hot on the floor the shutters were put up and as we were by the river, we used see the boats go by. When we saw the Regal Lady we would try and stop the machines and stand and wave but say we were cooling off. Great fun!
My uncle Sidney Capps worked in the flour mill and my cousin Angela Capps worked in the mustard department. My mum, Thelma Blower, worked in the Barley & Groats department before and after the war. She was one of the Colman girls who worked during World War II and was there when the bomb dropped on Carrow Hill – she was one of the lucky ones who were two minutes behind the girls who were killed. Mum actually went back to Colman’s during the eighties to do some cleaning.
My sister Val joined me in the baby foods department in 1971 which was nice, and in 1977 my brother joined Colman’s working in the Moussec department. He finished up working on fork-lift trucks at Fibrenyl and left around 2000.
In those days you had a choice of either Colman’s or Caley’s (before it became Mackintosh’s), Laurence and Scott’s, Boulton and Paul’s and the shoe factories. My father worked at Laurence and Scott’s, the building across the river from Colman’s and my older sister Carol went to Mackintosh’s.
I recently found out that my uncle, Albert Blower, worked in the Colman tin department and that my father Ralph Blower also worked briefly on the tins. Both my mum’s parents worked at Colman’s in the 1920s and 30s – I’m not sure what they did. So my family has quite a few connections with Colman’s.
In the fifties, sixties and perhaps the early seventies, your job was dependent on the kind of schooling you had. If you didn’t pass the 11-plus you went to the ordinary secondary school but if you were lucky enough to pass, you went to the grammar school. I was in hospital when I took the exam and was unlucky. I was a poorly little girl from the time I was born and at six months of age I caught whooping cough and polio which left me paralysed on the left side. Fortunately 1954-55 was the time when they were experimenting with polio vaccinations and I was lucky enough to survive and I came through it all.
I had a hospitalized sort of upbringing in my younger days but mum and dad were always there for me as well as my sisters and brother. We all had a good upbringing. Mum was always there. Dad was out working. We were always well looked after.
Marion Burton (b. 1954) interviewed in Sheringham for WISEArchive on 20th July 2015