Peter tells about his career with Birds Eye Foods in Lowestoft from the 1960s on. He gives details of development of frozen food processes through the decades. He travelled the world installing machinery for Lewis Refrigeration and became a well-known international businessman with his own company.
Apprenticeship with Unilever
Whilst I did achieve minimal GCE’s, the decision when I left school was based on two opportunities that came forward. I was offered a place at Lowestoft Technical College to join the engineering course which would have then led to the ONC and the HNC. At the same time a relatively new company in the town called Birds Eye Foods advertised apprenticeships in the Lowestoft Journal. I went along to the interview and was offered a placement to join Birds Eye Foods on a five year apprenticeship.
In Lowestoft there was an engineering apprenticeship and an electrical apprenticeship as other Unilever factories around England. The pay was four pounds eight shillings and zero pence as a starting salary – which at that time was even more of an incentive to join them, rather than going to the college. So, I started work at Birds Eye as a very young fifteen and three quarter year old apprentice and after one month went to the Unilever apprentice training school at Port Sunlight in The Wirral. All of the Unilever companies sent their apprentices to this training school, so that on the course we had probably 50 students overall from B.O.C.M, Port Sunlight itself, the Lever Sunlight Soap factory, Oil Vandenburg, and Jurgens which was a big oil company.
At Port Sunlight, Birds Eye (or Unilever to be precise) put us up in bed and breakfasts with Port Sunlight workers so we lived in a house for the six month period that we were there. Interestingly, that house had the first TV that I ever saw which had a tank on the front which you filled with water to magnify the screen. Black and white of course! But, the engineering school really was great because it was split into two sections. We spent the first three months in the woodwork department after which we went into the metalwork department where we were taught the skills of engineering and how to use all of the engineering tools. We were taught all of the various fixing and welding systems for this and that, and lo and behold very soon were fully trained! One of the exercises we had was to file a 1” square hole in a piece of metal and then make a square to fit in the 1” hole correctly within thousands of an inch. Some of us had problems! But the entrepreneurial ones found last term’s samples out in the rubbish tip, so certain of those that were presented for assessment were actually not made that term!
Birds Eye in Lowestoft
From the apprentice school we returned to our various factories around the UK. I came back to Lowestoft, where Birds Eye Foods were becoming a known frozen food company within the UK. Frozen foods in 1960 were taking off so Birds Eye were one of the main producers, the others being Ross Foods, Igloo and other smaller factories. Birds Eye at that time were on a very very big expansion programme at the original factory in Great Yarmouth. They wanted to grow so took on the old Eagle Brewery factory site at Rant Score, Lowestoft. Obviously within our local newspaper it was good news of big employment opportunities coming along. The Eagle Brewery on Rant Score had a very large wooden eagle outside the building, and one of my first apprenticeship jobs was to take the eagle down and put it into storage. I wonder where it is today?
Learning the operations at Birds Eye
I was then given the opportunity of a three, four or five month period in each of the engineering, electrical, packaging and project management divisions of Birds Eye Lowestoft. This gave me a good overall picture of the operation at Birds Eye. At that time we were mainly producing peas and beans, but also some fish. If we take the fish first, these would arrive in frozen blocks which then had to be thawed out. We had about one hundred filleters working on the fish to produce the various cuts of fish that were required for the products. Interestingly, we sourced and installed from Marconi the first dielectric-thawing unit ever used in the industry. It was a development project, which eventually thawed the blocks of fish five times faster than in a warm environment. That really was the first major development that I saw at Birds Eye. However, I did not work with the fish much! I got into peas.
The first season for me was a very interesting period. The shelled peas arrived from various sites around Lowestoft, within a twenty-mile radius. They were coming from Haddiscoe, Wrentham, and other various sites round and about where Birds Eye had installed static pea viners. This machine was a rotating drum a bit like a modern combine harvester, into which went the peas plus haulm, cut straight from the field. This shelling machine had an elevator that transported the peas into the viner. To get the peas from the BIG heap onto the elevator, the operator used a big “claw” suspended from above on a cable attached to a winch. The operator dug the claws into the heap, twisted a grip, the winch turned, pulling the claws together and lifted a small pile onto the elevator and into the viner. Out the other end miraculously came individual peas mixed in with a few other odds and ends of greenery. These peas were then taken on trailers to the factory in Lowestoft.
Even in those days, Birds Eye recognised that it was important to get the peas from the vines to the factory, processed and frozen in the shortest possible time, and set the target at one hour and a half. Ninety minutes was their timing programme for peas from podding to being frozen. And no doubt you can remember the Birds Eye advert – ‘as fresh as the moment when the peas went pop!’ And that was the whole ethos and concept of a Birds Eye factory in that things had to be done instantly. Any delays in the production meant that those late products had to be separated, frozen separately, and then sold off as a much lower grade of product around the UK.
We then moved into the green bean season. Beans in those days were manually picked wherever they were grown, in the small gardens, allotments, or by people with just one or two acres. These producers would grow the beans, pick them and get them into Birds Eye as this product was not as time conscience as the peas. I think the processors were allowed about fifteen or twenty hours between picking and actually freezing the beans. They then had to be sliced, but many growers were experimenting with the new variety of french bean which did not have any strings, so we then had to source equipment from around the world which would then slice these new beans. Sliced beans in a major production line are very difficult to work with because they all cling together, and just end up as a mat. But Birds Eye wanted them all to be individual and free flowing, so we then had to design and construct equipment that would produce what was called IQF – individual quick frozen products.
After the beans were finished we then processed brussel sprouts! Local farmers would deliver the stalks of sprouts into the factory. To reduce labour we once again we had to design and come up with automatic machines that would take the sprouts off the stalks.
So that was the end of the vegetable period, which went in this order – peas, beans, sprouts. We did process a little bit of parsnip and various other root vegetables, but overall the vegetable season lasted roughly 20 weeks and the pea season always started on June 26th.
Peas as we see them today come free flowing from a plastic bag. In 1960 things were very different. The start of the process for peas remains the same today, in that they are deposited in to a large tank from which the peas are fed into the production line, thereafter things those days were very different. Once the peas were in the production line they would go through an initial high velocity air blowing system, which blew out all of the little bits of unwanted material. The peas then went into a flotation washer where soap was added to the water, which reduced the viscosity on the surface of the water, so that all of the little split and damaged peas floated on the surface of the water. All of the Birds Eye peas sunk to the bottom, you would then wash off the surface water and you ended up with fresh clean peas coming out of the flotation washer. At the bottom of the flotation washer you had a collector for the stones, which fell down as well, so this really was a complete cleaning system.
From there the peas went into a blancher, which was controlled by automatic control valves so that the water temperature was always kept at 210 degrees Fahrenheit, 98 degrees Centigrade. The peas travelled through there for 30 seconds, during which period they were blanched. In the 1960s after the blanching process they were still hot. We then had to pass them through an ambient air-cooling system, which quickly cooled them down to a point where they could be handled. For the packaging we had a variety of machines, which were mainly made by the Norwich company Autowrappers. Another local company called Varley FMC based in Fakenham made a machine, which was basically a rotary table with pockets into which half a pound of peas fell. This half-pound of peas would then be deposited into a lidded waxed carton, which was folded down, the two sides closed in the lid. It was a Klick Lock machine. These waxed cartons then went into another big auto wrapping machine where they were then over wrapped with a waxed film, heat sealed and you ended up with peas in a carton, very hygienic, but they were still warm!
So how did we cool and freeze them? We had what they call plate freezers, which are four feet square hollow plates with a serpentine pipe inside. 18 plates were inside an insulated froster cabinet. On each corner of the plate there was an attachment where you connected steel cables to the top plate in the froster. The top plate was raised up or down by a hydraulic ram. This would then take the top plate up, and as it went up it pulled up all of the other plates underneath it, so you expanded the gap between all of the plates to the point where you could then put a tray of cartoned peas between the plates. These packets would be about one and a quarter inches thick. Packets were put onto 4 feet x 2 feet aluminium trays and two of these were slid onto each freezer plate. When you had all the plates full, you closed the hydraulic ram by pushing a button which hydraulically pressurised all of the plates, so that all of the packets were in very close contact with each other and the freezer plate. Ammonia refrigerant was then pumped through the pipes in these plates at minus 40 and obviously created a very cold environment, so hence the peas were then frozen in about one and a quarter hours. We would open up the hydraulic ram and tip the frozen packets out. Then they were sent to a cartoning area where about 48 packets at a time were put into a cardboard box, sealed up and off they went to the cold store, ready for distribution wherever around the UK. So that really was the early form of freezing.
Now it is interesting that at that time when I first joined Birds Eye, can you believe that the peas were blanched using steam that was generated by two steam engines. These were the steam engines that came from the farms, and obviously Birds Eye utilised the boilers on these to generate the steam, to blanch the peas.
Birds Eye fish fingers – the new product
During this time I was then going around the factory departments and looking at production of fish. It was announced that we were going to start manufacturing Birds Eye fish fingers. Now Birds Eye, where did the name Birds Eye come from? And fish? The relationship is such that the name Birds Eye is actually the name of the fellow in the United States who discovered fish froze well. He lived in the northern part of the country where it was very cold and he found that fresh fish he’d left out in the ice and the snow froze solid. When he took it back in after a period of five or six months the fish were still edible and in quite good condition. So he realised that freezing products was a way of preserving foods, and in those days populations around the world were changing. The lifestyles of everybody was changing and many of the ladies who normally would be at home had to go out to work. So they needed convenience foods to help their lifestyle. That would have been the 1950’s. Captain Birdseye, as we called him, was about in the late 1930s when he realised that freezing products preserved them, but it took until the mid 1950s early 1960s until the real frozen food business took off. Initially in the United States with the Birds Eye factories, but an entrepreneur in England saw the opportunity for the UK. He then formed a division of Birds Eye food in the UK, totally independent financially of the USA, and somehow managed to utilise the same name. Birds Eye Foods was then started in the late 1950’s and quickly grew into one of the leading frozen food companies in the UK. So, that’s where the Birds Eye name came from.
Back to Birds Eye Fish Fingers, this new product that was being generated. How are these ideas generated? Close by in Great Yarmouth at that time the Birds Eye Development Section, which was an office on the harbour front in Great Yarmouth. It was about a five-story building and that was where all of these new products were under investigation and solutions as to how they could be produced in a factory. The staff working there discovered the fish finger, which was a development on the American style of fish chunk, or something similar in name. So the Birds Eye Fish Finger was a uniquely developed product from England using cod and the process for making them was developed in Great Yarmouth. We, at the Lowestoft factory, were then nominated to produce this product and therefore had to construct a complete new building in the town on Whaplode Road. It was then called Deans No 2 Building (Deans No 1 being the original production building). We inserted lots of new equipment for producing these fish fingers in the new production building – the complete breading lines, the packing lines, etcetera.
Equipment for growing variety of products
So all of these new products were coming along and being accepted by the UK consumers and business continued to grow at great lengths. And all of this revolved around refrigeration because we had probably the largest installation of refrigeration equipment in England based at Lowestoft. Most of the equipment originated from a company called J&E Hall in Dartford who had manufactured the equipment that went on the ships that originally brought all of the frozen products back from Argentina and Brazil – mainly meat though.
Generally UK made equipment was installed in the Birds Eye factories and as with most things, as developments took place more modern equipment was needed. So we then started to buy in equipment from a company called Grasso in Holland as well as other companies around the world that were producing up to date modern refrigeration machines. But, in any system using ammonia there are ammonia valves which are special valves with what they call a white metal seat. The white metal is like aluminium in that you can put considerable pressure on it. This white metal is in the seat of the valve and it crushes it to the shape of the valve, which means that you can safely – and the word is safely – stop ammonia escaping from open pipes or open valves. So the valves in the whole of the system were an important part for safety, but obviously they became worn. The only way to overhaul and repair them was to evacuate the ammonia from the system, vent the whole system to atmosphere, and then take the valves out, at which time you could do what they called re-metal the seats. For this job you would put the seats in a lathe and get them flat, then put them back in the valves where they were then ready for another twelve to eighteen months of use, before it all had to be done again.
Because of the seasonal aspect of the work at Lowestoft, all of this work took place over the Easter Bank Holiday period, but in actual fact we started to prepare for this work probably the week before Easter by getting all of the liquid ammonia into various storage vessels. And by the Thursday most of the vessels that had contained liquid ammonia had very little left in them. However the problem was that there was a residual quantity of oil which was used for the lubrication of the compressors and this found its way into these vessels, and you ended up with these tanks being partially filled with oil into which the ammonia had been absorbed. We had to remove this quickly! It would take days if you left it to vent to atmosphere, so we ended up by being in Birds Eye factories like 2 o’clock on Good Friday morning for the first operation which was to open up the valves on these big tanks and remove all of this oil. And often there was liquid ammonia still left in there. Deadly! You can die easily if you get any on your hands, and at minus 40 it will burn your skin.
It is a very dangerous job. I remember one of my supervisors, Ted Bartholomew, with buckets of ammonia/oil, one in each hand and him pouring them down the factory drains to get rid of it with copious quantities of water. You could absorb the ammonia in the water so once you’d got the ammonia and the water mixed the intensity of the ammonia was reduced. He had worked on the MTB’s in Great Yarmouth during the war, and it was reported that he worked up to his waist in petrol getting these MTB engines ready to go back to war. He used that expertise in Birds Eye by carrying these ammonia buckets and putting them down the drain! Sometime, often, during the Good Friday period, we would hear the fire engines in the distance coming, arriving at Birds some saying ‘have you got a major leak because everyone’s reporting a bad smell of ammonia’! No, no, we haven’t got a leak! It was a way that we were able to expediate our access to the valves which gave us the rest of the Easter weekend to repair all these valves and get everything ready in preparation for start of the vegetable season which was coming up on June 26th. The vegetable season was the highlight of all of our activities at Birds Eye really, and certainly at Lowestoft.
Fluidised freezing revolution
As my apprenticeship then continued I had been through each of the various operations within the factory and I then had to select which section I wanted to finish my final two years of apprenticeship. The services/refrigeration section with the engines, boilers, air compressors, and all the equipment within that department interested me. I decided to join the services division. We looked after refrigeration systems, those producing steam and all of that type needing service in the factory. In my final year’s apprenticeship as a fitter, as the job was called in those day, I was responsible for the design of the services for a complete new pea line that was needed as the production increased. We had to put in increased capacity equipment. So I was given responsibility for building what was called Sea Gem in Birds Eye Deans 2 building. Sea Gem was so called because this was in the days when they were building all of these big rigs for the North Sea. It was a water tank that held about 40,000 gallons of water and it was elevated in the air to a height of probably 60ft. We had to construct this tank on a big platform and all of the water used in a production line, a significant amount, was then distributed from this Sea Gem to all of the various machines.
As we were dealing with 10in pipework I had to install these pipes from this tank as main distribution headers. Around that time plastic pipes started to be used and I think I probably was the first fitter to use plastic pipes within Birds Eye. Obviously stainless steel pipes being hygienic were mostly used up to then, but plastic gave us yet another option. They were relatively lightweight but they were still damned difficult to build a 10” pipeline with. However it worked well, and at the same time we installed a completely new freezing system, which was called a fluidised system. If you remember at fairgrounds, you could see ping-pong or table tennis balls dancing on the top of a water jet and you shot them off. That’s fluidising. So we were using air in a vertical form, generated by big fans, so that the air was going up vertically through a conveyor belt. I’ll use the peas as an example to explain the method. Peas would sit on the conveyor belt in a level of about four inches thick. And as you increase the velocity of the air through the peas, they would gradually expand and they would individually dance in the air. At minus 40C! So you can see that the peas were frozen very very quickly. And this concept of change from block freezing to fluidised freezing was the start of a complete new industry – Fluidised freezing. It meant that instead of one and half hours for freezing a pea you were freezing the peas in about 4 minutes. They would exit the freezer minus 18C and free flowing, in that they would be just like stones coming out of the back of a lorry. This brought in big opportunities because we could then transport these frozen peas across to the cold store using can you believe it -air, cold air at minus 40 again. And we would blow these peas across into the cold store where they could be stored in very big 10 ton tanks.
This meant that Birds Eye didn’t have to pack the products only at the time that the vegetable was grown and harvested in the fields. It expanded their operations to the point where they could store frozen product and then bring it out in the wintertime for the packing. And the whole concept for the frozen food industry changed immediately. It was a revelation when you saw these peas going through. We started out freezing probably two or three tons of peas per hour, but by this time five years later, we were then freezing forty and fifty ton per hour of product. And this would be processed on probably five production lines each with seven, eight, nine ton per hour capacity. It was a 24/7 operation for about a six week period, during which time all of those peas would be frozen, stored, and then ready for the packing. Then the same with the sliced beans! Sliced beans being such a tangled mess were probably one of the most difficult products to freeze, but we generated different ideas of how you could freeze and free flow the beans, and also brussels sprouts perfectly.
At this time I was then coming out of my apprenticeship and I took a position as a full time fitter within the services division. I continued another year within that division, during which time we had a pea season, working from probably March right through to November, on 12 hour per day shifts, seven days a week. It meant that, being single, I earned a significant amount of money: we were paid triple time on bank holidays, double time at weekends, and extra money for 12 hour shifts. And at the end of that period in 1966 I went out and bought myself a brand new E Type Jaguar. So there I was rolling up at Birds Eye Foods in my E Type Jag, and the factory manager was rolling up in his Ford Consul. Caused quite a lot of laughs!
Birds Eye around the country
I was then hunted out by Birds Eye head office down in Walton-on-Thames, and was offered a position within the project management team with extra responsibilities. By this time Birds Eye had grown to having six factories around the UK. One in Liverpool, one in Grimsby, one in Hull, one in Yarmouth, one in Lowestoft, and the final one at Eastbourne. Each of these factories really had vegetables in common, but they also had their own specialities ie. the Eastbourne factory was the producer of the Arctic Roll which was another Birds Eye delicacy from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yarmouth was the factory for meat, so they were producing all the Birds Eye hamburgers. Hull were into fish products as well.
I had responsibility for Grimsby, Yarmouth and Eastbourne, for the selection and installation of the various freezing systems that were required for the new production lines. To go back a little, most of this new fluidised freezing technology was emanating from the United States, from a company called Lewis Refrigeration based in Seattle. That’s where the machinery was manufactured, and obviously with the dock strikes and other delays happening the delivery of this equipment was subject to the crossing of the Atlantic. Birds Eye told Lewis to set up a manufacturing facility here in England or they wouldn’t place any more orders with them. I came across Lewis Refrigeration at Eastbourne when we installed one of their machines for green bean production.
Lewis Refrigeration – travelling the world
I wanted to move back to Norfolk as I was getting married, and along came Lewis Refrigeration who offered me the position of chief engineer in their newly set up division in the UK and it would be based in Norwich! I joined Lewis Refrigeration in 1967 and it was a whole new venture because it then led me to travelling the world initially installing and supervising the installation of the Lewis machines, or attending sites when there were problems, and eventually getting into the sales of the equipment to frozen food companies. This took me into many of the countries around Europe and around the world. I was very happy.
I spent lots of my time in what was then the Communist area, travelling into Moscow and various other places I do remember one occasion in Moscow when you had to procure hotels, flights and everything by what was called the Intourist Operation. You’d arrive in Russia, get your visa authorised and off you went. And ending up as I did one night at the hotel which was theoretically reserved for me to find ‘nyet’. This was probably late in the afternoon, so I went to The English Embassy, and told them I hadn’t got a hotel room or anywhere to go. After a bit they let me you can sleep in the library overnight. So, they put me in the library and about 2 o’clock in the morning I heard this kerfuffle, and I peeped out of the library. And there was the Ambassador drunk as a lord trying to get himself up the stairs to his bedroom.
I visited Australia and New Zealand, Brazil and everywhere. I liked Yugoslavia the best but this was obviously before the war. And being a Communist country, every purchase of our type of equipment was controlled by a Government body. I became very friendly with quite a few of the hierarchy of that organisation, and most of the meetings that we had were done via a translator; in those days very few of the engineers and the purchasing managers spoke English. We often had female translators who would come into the meeting and interpret. I invited several of them across to England, which got them a visa. and they still remain family friends.
At that time in 1969/70 Lewis then went into sort of liquidation and so I was nearly without a job. The bosses had seen all of this money coming in from the magnificent sales they were making, and took most of the money out of the company as bonuses and what not, and left basically a liquidated company behind.
I then made the major decision to set up a new company called Hardy & Lucas which is a combination of a couple of names of technology that I used. I set up Hardy Lucas in my house here in Tharston near Long Stratton and one of the first orders that I received for the new machines that I had designed, developed and drawn up came via a phone call from the owner of the MacCain company, the famous chip people. He placed a significant order with me on the phone in my front lounge. Little did he know that we were a little tin pot company. This was close to a million pound project and started the company. It was for freezing equipment for 20,000kg/hr of french fries at their new factory which was being built at Whittlesea in Peterborough.
After various problems, including an expensive court case, which I won, I’d lost heart in that company. So I started a new company, Starfrost, in 1984.with a sales agent from Germany, a company called Frederick Justus & Co. A German company, Heinen, who were very involved in the tobacco industry but were looking for a new product, financed us. I had the technology and Justus had the sales outlets in Communist Europe. We all joined together, one third each, and formed the company. Off we went again around the world and were selling equipment into 54 different countries. All of that equipment was manufactured in Lowestoft at our facility in Newcombe Road. It employed up to 50 people at any one time. We had up to 26 people based within Starfrost at Newcombe Road. Unfortunately due to a major problem with a contract we had to go into administration but I was able to buy the company back next day, this time on my own. So I was now 100% owner of Starfrost.
I continued Starfrost until 2008 by which time I wanted to retire. I engaged a company who marketed the Starfrost Company around the world who found a purchaser who bought Starfrost in 2008.
My older son Richard had been working for me for 20 years, the last 14 years in Santiago, Chile. He set up a Starfrost company in South America manufacturing and installing machines and continued to work for Starfrost after I sold up. He’s now back in England and has started work for the Heinen German company, who was my original partner as well! So it’s a full circle, he is now back in the industry working for one of my original friends and partners.
Whilst I was at Birds Eye Foods on the night shift I was able to build go-karts and actually raced go-karts in East Anglia for ten years. I then had to work forty years earning a living, but when I retired I started racing again. Since that time I’ve built three racing cars and I’m now hopefully building my last project in my workshop. I have really enjoyed all those years of the engineering and the engineers – people I’ve met along the way. But it’s all down to that one first decision, and what a decision, you make in your early life – What job are you going to do for your working life!
Peter Hubbard talking to WISEArchive 25th January 2018 at Tharston.