The oil man cometh: from Colman’s to tankers via home sales (original version)

Location : Norwich, Wymondham and beyond

I was born in 1931. I’m 79 this year. I started work at J & J Colman’s as it was then, in those days. It was at the time when the War had just finished and the men were coming back obviously for work. My father had to speak for me at that time to work at Colman’s because that was the family firm, and he wanted me to be an engineer, so that was going to be my vocation. Colman’s, probably as you know, were a very independent company inasmuch as that they had all their own employees, specialists and skilled workers all working under one place. But unfortunately the apprenticeships were ceased in 1945 for a duration, so unfortunately I had to go and work within the mills themselves, and I started on the old saw mill. At that time Colman’s produced all the wooden boxes and packaging for their mustard product, and, of course, the product was sent out all over the world – India, Africa, New Zealand, America – so all the packaging had to be made within their company. So the boxes were made, and, as I say, I started on the saw mill as a boy.

How old were you?

I was 14, and first jobs were sort of mundane jobs. You had to sweep up, look after the sawyers that were on the main saws or any sort of jobs that boys would be given at that time. And I suppose some of the jobs that we had to do were rather dangerous, inasmuch that they didn’t stop the saws when we had to go down and clear the sawdust away from them. Health & Safety would have a different idea nowadays about that. But sawyers did lose fingers and there were accidents within the mill itself, but I got through that OK, and I stayed on in the saw mill until I was 18, and at that time, of course, we had to do our National Service.

But during that time you learned how to make the boxes? I mean you moved up from sweeping floors?

Oh yes, that’s right. You went through the mill literally. You learned to work on the saws, on the printing machines and various other machines that were involved with making these packing cases. Yes. And I finished up, not as anyone in particular, just one of the sawyers on the saw mill.

What kind of hours would you be working?

We used to start at 8 in the morning and work through till 1 o’clock, and then you’d have a lunch break for half an hour, three quarters of an hour and work till 6.

Did they have a canteen?

Yes, they had a canteen, but I mainly, because we were working a fair way from the main entrance of the Works, I used to take my own lunch in. One thing of interest, at that time, and people may remember, that at 10 to 8 every morning there used to be a loud horn sounded. This was on the old power station and was used as an air raid warning during the War. So they kept this, so it would go off at 10 to 8, which gave you 10 minutes to get down and clock in.

So was that for all workers or just for Colman’s? This was for the City?

Yes that’s right, the City used them, Laurence & Scott, Boulton & Paul, which were surrounded, they used to use that as a time as well. As I say, it went off at 10 to 1, it would go off again at 10 to 2, which gave you time to get back onto your machines and then, of course, it didn’t go off at 6 o’clock, you would just clock out at 6 o’clock and go home.

It wasn’t a nice job as such and it was very boring, and by the time I got to 18 I was quite pleased about the fact that I was hopefully going to go into the Army. So my National Service came up, we had a Medical in Colegate, and if you were passed fit then you awaited your letter to say where you were going. I was in the R.A.M.C., which is the Royal Army Medical Corps, I duly got my letter to say to report to Aldershot, they sent a ticket to get there and some money to have a cup of tea or something on the way.

I was in the R.A.M.C. for two years, during which time I became an ambulance driver. I went abroad to Germany for a time, and then, of course, we came home.

So had you had any medical training before?

No, none at all. As a boy I did belong to the Red Cross, but, I mean, all they taught you to do was put an arm band or something round your head. No, we were taught. In actual fact I worked in one of the British Military Hospitals in Colchester, and that was where we did our training. So by the time you were efficient, you worked on wards, the Sisters and Doctors were also Officers of the Medical Corps. For a time I worked on the ward. Funnily enough I was on a Maternity Ward for a time (laughs), which was quite exciting.

Unusual for that time in history as well I would have thought – for a male nurse as it were.

That’s right. It was a family hospital, you see, for British soldiers. So, if I was on early shifts, we’ll say for instance, we had to go in and take blood pressures and that kind of thing, temperatures, which was, as I say, exciting. And then I had a chance – they were asking for volunteers – to become ambulance drivers. I thought that would be exciting. It meant another half a crown a week – old money I’m talking about – on your pay, so again I had training to drive the old Austin type ambulance, and duly became an ambulance driver, in which case I used to go round Colchester picking up patients and picking up wives of the soldiers to take into hospital. I then got posted. I had several postings; one or two in London itself and then, as I say, I went off to Germany, and then we returned to this country.

By that time … I actually went in for 18 months, but then they put 6 months on when the Korean War started, and I hadn’t long enough service to do, fortunately, not to go out to there.

I was duly demobbed and at that time National Service boys also had to do 5 years in the Territorial Army when they were demobbed from the Regular Army, so I did my 5 years in the Territorials.

Would you say – people now talk about bringing National Service back in some form or other – would you say that was a good experience to have as a young man?

Yes, I thought it was a marvellous idea. You didn’t have mum with you whilst you were there, and, you know, you were given a task to do and you had to do it. If you didn’t do it there were ways of making you do it. I wouldn’t like to see the National Service come back as it was in those days, but I think a little bit of training now for young boys of that age wouldn’t do any harm at all.

So you’re saying you grew up?

Oh you certainly do, yes, you grow up very quickly. Your Sergeant Major makes sure of that! (laughs) But all round I didn’t mind the experience. A lot of youngsters hated it, you know, and they used to go absentee and all this sort of thing. And they’d only be brought back and punished and still have to do their time, so you were there, you settled down and you got on with the job.

Presumably you also have to get on with all kinds of people, don’t you?

That’s right.

By the time I came back home I was obviously courting my wife-to-be, and I went back to Colman’s because at that time the service with the firm continued the two years you were away. So you didn’t leave Colman’s and then have to re-make a start. Your service continued while you were doing your National Service.

And your job was open?

Your job was open, yes.

So I came back to Colman’s, and at that time they had just opened a new flour mill and I applied for a job … for a position on the mill. I didn’t particularly want to go back onto the saw mills. I applied for that through internal transfers, I got a job on the flour mill and I enjoyed that. So I stayed with Colman’s then, I suppose, for another 4 years.

So what were you doing in the flour mill?

In the flour mill? I was receiving the wheat that came in from farms, which had to be moisture tested, so we had to test the load as it came in. If the moisture was over a certain amount . .. I can’t quite remember the exact numbers now . . . but if it was very, very wet then you just sent the load away. If it was within the terms and conditions of receiving the wheat I then saw it into the mill itself.

And presumably if you had to send it away the farmer didn’t get paid?

Oh no, that’s right. No, they didn’t get any money at all, so it was up to them to make sure the wheat came in in good condition. And once the wheat was put into the silo as such, it then went through the mill process and came out as flour at the other end. It was packed, and at various times, being able to drive, when it was quiet on the mill itself I used to go out and deliver flour in the country. We had a very distinctive blue and white Bedford lorry (laughs). It was a three ton lorry and very distinctive – you couldn’t miss it, you would see it anywhere. And I felt quite proud of it, because it was brand new, and we used to go out to the bakeries, small bakeries in and around Norwich or in and around the countryside, and deliver the flour. Now, there was one drawback with delivering flour to a bakery: It had to be taken upstairs, so we had to carry . . . they were ten stone bags … so we had to carry those up to the bins and then put the flour into the bins for the baker. That was another part of my life.

Do you remember what you were paid, if I may ask?

Mmm, yes . .. when I first started at Colman’s I think the weekly pay was about £1-25, so it was 1 pound 5 shillings.

That’s in the saw mill?

Yes. That’s right. By the time I left I suppose I was earning somewhere between £12 and £15 a week. Wages had gone up, but it was still a very low wage for what you were doing. Mind you, with Colman’s they had a scheme each year where you shared in the profits, so every August you would get some money . . .

A bonus?

That’s right, yes, so that was helpful. So I suppose they really made up that weekly average pay rise.

And they were good employers? They had a good name.

Oh they were a marvellous firm to work for. They had everything. I mean, they had their own medical room, they had their own ambulance, their own fire service, their own police. So it was a very independent firm, and whilst you worked there and kept your nose clean you were there for life. As I say, my father worked there for 51 years, so that just shows that, if you looked after yourself then you could be there for ever. When I put my notice in, I mean, people were very, very surprised, after being there that time, and I always remember my manager, a gentleman called Mr L. called me into the office and said why was I leaving, did I want some more money, was I not happy with my job, was there something they could do to make me change my mind? And right up to the Friday night of leaving Colman’s I didn’t know if I was meant to pick up my tax papers and money even then because they were like that – once you were there they didn’t want you to leave.

Well, they’re making it clear you’re a valued employee, aren’t they?

Yes, and when I did finally go they said “If you ever need to come back just a phone call or just contact …”, so that was a good part of my life. I enjoyed it. Of course, my dad could not understand for one moment why I wanted to leave.

I had it in my head that I would like to be a salesman. Don’t ask me why! That’s just something that came up. A friend of mine was a salesman, and he worked for a Credit Drapery firm in Norwich, and sometimes on a Saturday I would go out with him to see what he did, and I rather liked it. There wasn’t any jobs going where he worked, but I saw in the paper a job advertised by Courtaulds. Courtaulds were a very old firm. They were fabric, fashions, all this sort of thing. So I applied, and they had a shop in Colegate near the Octagon Chapel, and I went for an interview and I was successful, got the job, had a round to go on, I had a supervisor with me for about three or four weeks, showing me the ropes and where the round took me. I used to start from Norwich on a Monday morning and work my way out to Ipswich, on a Tuesday I would be in Norwich itself, on a Wednesday again I would be doing Ipswich from the other side of the road – I did the left hand side going out, right hand side coming back, and Thursday was our half day, Friday and Saturday, Norwich.

So I’d be working 6 days a week. I was responsible for the money which I’d collected. It was house to house call. People had accounts with Courtaulds and on my van I would have a selection of everything – shoes, coats, dresses, you know .. . .

So, you mean, rather than going to a store to buy your outfit and your shoes, you could actually get the salesman to come to you?

That’s right. They could have £20 worth of goods for a pound a week, and then they would pay for that and then re-stock their account. We sold furniture as well: Three piece suites, washing machines. That would be on what we called a 38 week account, hire purchase.

And you took those out on the van as well?

No. I had those delivered. I took orders for washing machines or three piece suites and we had a lorry that would deliver. That was a very nice job. I’ve enjoyed most of the jobs I’ve done. It was good experience for what I was doing, and I did that for near enough five years, and during that time I became a supervisor with a promise of a shop of my own. But then for some reason the money situation changed. People didn’t have that much money, so they decided rather than to open more shops to close one or two.

Whereabouts in history are we at the moment, roughly?

Let me see now .. . I’d be coming up to 30.

So we’re talking turn of the ‘50s into the ‘60s?

Into the ‘60s, yes. The shop that I was attached to was in Cambridge, so I used to go over to Cambridge every Wednesday to re-stock, take my money in, but I would work from Colegate on a daily basis.

A lot of travelling.

A lot of travelling. I always enjoyed driving, so that was a bonus . . . as I still do. I love driving!

So I did that for about 5 years. As I say, at the end of that time I was a supervisor and I was in charge of five or six reps, and I would travel with them on a five weekly course to make sure that their accounts were all up to date.

And were you paid on a commission basis?

Yes. We had a salary, but then we had bonuses on top of that according to what sales you had. Coming towards the end of that time a very dear friend of mine who worked for May Gurney, a gentleman called F.H. – he was at that time a manager for May Gurney – and I saw him on the road one day and he asked me, he said “Are you happy in what you’re doing?” I said “I think so, F., yes, thank you. Why?” “Oh, I was going to offer you a job.” “Oh,” I said “that’s very kind of you. Like doing what?”

Well, he worked, as I say, for a subsidiary of May Gurney called Farm & Domestic Oils Ltd at Wymondham on Ayton Road , and he said “I’m now taking on another rep. Business has built up and built up, so I’m taking on another rep. Would you like to join? The job will be advertised, you’ll have to have an interview.” At that time I said “No, I don’t think I do, F.” I said “I’m quite happy where I am.”

Well, as I was saying previously, I had been offered a shop of my own with the other company, and then, of course, that all fell through. I said to my wife, I said “I wonder if there’s still anything going at Farm & Domestic Oils?” She said “F. offered you a job, you turned it down. I wouldn’t think there is.” So I said “No, that’s fair enough.” But anyway, I made my way out one day to Wymondham and I found Farm & Domestic Oils, and I went into Reception, and I asked the girl whether Mr H. was available and luckily he was, and we had a chat, and I said “I’ve changed my mind, F.,” I said “I think I would like to join you now.” So he said “Well, you’ve come at the right time, or could be the wrong time.” He said “I’m now going to advertise for two people, but only one may get both of those jobs.” So I said “Oh.” He said “One of them would be repping and the other one would be maintenance.” Because we had big fills at Wymondham where the houses were already on oil and they had a meter, so the oil was delivered to a central tank and then it fed out to all these houses. It was a new idea. So what they were looking for was somebody to do the maintenance on the meters, meter reading and that sort of thing, and one to be on the road.

I had an interview with the Managing Director at May Gurney, and he said “If Mr H. is happy with you then .. you know, fair do. I wish you luck.” And that was the interview I had with them. So I joined them. That would be 1970. .. . 1971, and I stayed with them for the rest of my time. It was quite a large firm and it was expanding all the time. We ran seven tankers, oil tankers, out of there, delivering to houses.

So you were doing both jobs?

Yes. In between time of my repping I had to go around the Estate at Wymondham reading meters and then taking the figures into the Office and then they would be . ..

Very different combination, isn’t it?

Yes, it was! Again I enjoyed it because I had quite a large area. From Wymondham I went out as far as Lowestoft, Yarmouth, Gorleston and then I would come back again to Dereham, Swaffham and almost into King’s Lynn. So that was quite a big area.

So this is selling oil?

Selling oil, not only to householders, but we had then gone commercial, which meant that I would call on haulage firms, I would call on small blacksmith’s shops, anyone in industry that used any oil or lubricants.

And is it up to you to, as it were drum up trade and use your initiative about where you’re going?

Yes. You would have your area, you would have a supervisor watching you to see how you worked your area, and we worked on a finger . .. say I would do, coming out from Wymondham I would call in to, say, Loddon , Beccles, Bungay, probably work my way into Lowestoft. That would be one day’s work, and then the next day I would follow on from there to Yarmouth, then across to Dereham. So I worked my area – at least once a fortnight I would be in the same place and either call in courtesy visits on people who were already on the books or looking for new business. We didn’t work on a commission basis. We worked on a strict salary which was quite good. I know you’re going to ask me what I started at, and I think I started ….. in 1971 I think that my overall salary would have been about £113 a month.

Is it unusual not to work on a commission basis in a job like that?

It just wasn’t May Gurney’s policy to work that way.

It almost feels to me that commission could encourage people to sell in the wrong place . .. you know . .. .whereas a straight salary keeps you honest as it were.

Yes. We never had a commission for selling the oil. What did happen latter part of the time, after I’d been there .. . . by 1985 the company that we actually delivered the oil for was called Gulf – you may have seen some of the stations about now. I worked for Gulf UK through Farm & Domestic Oils, and Gulf decided that their bigger distributors, of which we were one – I mean, we were selling, I suppose somewhere in the region of about two and a half million gallons a year, because May Gurney were taking half that, being a construction company, so we were delivering to our own company as well. They decided that, as we were doing pretty well in the oil itself, that it might be good to introduce lubricants into the companies. These were engine oils, hydraulic oils, cutting oils, you know, industry oils. And I went away on a course for this, and they were introduced to Farm & Domestic, and I was one of the first ones to actually go out and sell, and it was quite interesting, because at that time there used to be Sunday Markets, so they decided to send me to Snetterton. (laughs) Can you imagine? You had to be up at 5 o’clock in the morning – Sunday morning of all times, you know! You had to go to Wymondham, load a van up that would be there for you – it was a transit – load this up with various types of oil to introduce, then go on to Snetterton, find a spare stall . .. . you’d have to see the Market Manager and he would slip you in, and you would say “Please put me somewhere where they’re fairly busy”. And he would put you in, nine times out of ten I would get by the side of one of these auction stalls where they were selling everything. But that was good, because I was able to introduce oils to people that were waiting there, and, of course, I would be there until about 4 in the afternoon. It wasn’t the best of jobs (laughs), and I was on my own.

Very intensive.

Yes it was. But we broke into the market, which was good, and I think that sort of helped me with my promotion at a later time. So, yes, we then had a specially designed van, with sliding doors and all the rest of it, shelves put in, so that you could actually load the van up, and I used to take this van out twice a week onto my area, and then I’d pass it on to a rep on another area and he would take it. And we started to sell – and when that came in, yes, we did get a commission on what we sold. And that was quite lucrative, I mean the commission basis they gave us was quite good, so people were happy.

After I’d been with the firm I should think . . . . it would be about ’84 / ’85, the Sales Manager then decided that he’d like to leave and to go on to another vocation, and I decided to apply for the position, which I got. So I became Sales Manager for Farm & Domestic, and I had five reps working for me. I had to order the product for the next day to be brought in overnight, so it was quite responsible, and I actually finished up as General Manager, because the Office Manager had already retired, my boss, Mr H., he had by that time become Managing Director of the company, so we worked very closely together.

So, did that take you off the road?

It took me off the road as a regular thing, but I was still on the road following up enquiries from the reps. If a rep came in and said “I went to so-and-so yesterday, but I hadn’t got the right price. Obviously you can give a better price. Would you mind going along and seeing them”, then I would take over that particular call and go out. We did a lot of the large . .. I supplied Anglian Coaches at that time – I don’t know if the company still does – and people like them. We were into the bus market with the lubricants and what have you, and all the big haulage firms.

Big contracts there!

Yes, they were, because they wanted the very, very best prices, so you were working, you know, head to head with . . .

Was there a lot of competition?

Oh yes, certainly! Yes, you only have to look in the Yellow Pages. At one time I think I was up against about 14 other companies, CPS, Shell, Esso, Charringtons that were. So you were up against competition from all those, and they all had reps, and they were all fighting for that particular account. So it was a very important job and it was a very scheduling job, you know, to keep tabs on everything. But I enjoyed it.

It was rather interesting because, at the time of my retirement, at the age of 65, my boss was also about a couple of years older than me. He decided that he was going to retire, he’d had enough and he was going to retire, and he said “What do you want to do?” And I said “I don’t particularly want to retire, to be honest. I’d like to carry on.” “Oh,” he said “I don’t think there’ll be any chance of that”. Anyway A.K. was the Chief Executive of May Gurney then and he came over to see me, and he said “I believe you’d like to stay on”. So I said “If there was a chance Mr K. I certainly would.” “Well,” he said “because you two, F. and yourself, are both more or less the same age and you’re now retiring, or age to retire, May Gurney has decided to sell the company”. The reason for that was oil prices had come down, there wasn’t so much sticking to one company. I mean, May Gurney could go out to anywhere and get more or less the price that they wanted without having a place of their own. “So,” he said “we’ve decided to sell the company. In due course,” he said “you’ll see the Heads of one or two other companies coming in to give us a look over.” And, of course, being in the business for that length of time I knew most of the Heads of other companies, and people involved with other companies, one of them being Q8. They were based at King’s Lynn, on the docks there, and they had already a lot of garages within the city itself, and R. came over to see me from there, and he said “We would rather like you to stay on.” I said “Well, that’s very nice of you, R.” He said “Because we would like you to take over the transitional change-over. You’ve probably got the database in your head of customers. You know what they are like, you know what they have,” he said, “and I think that it would be important…. you would have the same running of the office staff, the reps as you already enjoy, but we would ask you to take it on as a self-employed person.” So I said “Well, I’ve never been self-employed,” I said, “and I don’t really like the idea of having to get into tax and all the rest of it, but,” I said, “I take your point”. He said “Well, over the next couple of weeks we’ll have meetings and I’ll offer you, and you tell me . ..” It worked out quite well that I would still have company car and the enjoyment of telephones and all the rest of it, and run the office . . run the staff until they had actually taken over, so in the finish I said OK. So I signed a contract for a year with them and it went well. It did go well, the transition. We became Q8 and it all went very well. After I’d done it for a year my wife used to say to me “You know, we can’t go anywhere, you’re still working long hours and all the rest of it”.

This is the second half of the ‘90s?

Yes. She said “I’d like you to be at home, so that we could go out.” I mean, she was working then, she’s been in fashions more or less all her life, but she was then thinking about coming out of it herself. So I decided “Yes, I’ll retire.” That was quite an interesting part of my life. From there . .. I mean, I’ve always done voluntary work, because then I’d become involved with the Parish Council, which was another part of my life. The first stint I did with the Parish Council was from 1985 to 1995 in the village here, and I became Chair . . . I was Chairman of Trowse for some time, and then in 2002 I was asked to set up a charity for the Village Hall. The Village Hall, which you came past – the lovely building on the left hand side – it was then derelict. The Parish Council couldn’t afford to put it right because it was going to take so much money, so what was happening at that time, roundabout 2000, most of the Village Halls in the County were being taken over by a management committee, a Village Hall Management Committee, and this was what they asked me if I would like to set up. So I set up a committee in 2002, and got around me quite a nice little committee, people who . . . for instance an architect. I had a lady secretary who was in the legal world, I had a fund raiser who was already fund raising for someone else, so between us we sort of built up. . . we wrote away for grants and all sorts of things. I’ve got some memorabilia there. And we set about this .. . .

It’s really time-consuming, isn’t it?

Oh, it was! Yes, would be have meetings after meetings after meetings, because we came up against lots and lots of legislation and things that we couldn’t do and things that we could do, but we stuck at it and we saw it through. And in 2006 it was opened. We raised just over £150,000. A lot of grants were available, say, from Norfolk County Council, people like that . . . recycling companies, they would put money into it. I know, for instance, that we had £10,000 from Norfolk County Council, we had £10,000 from somebody else, we had £5,000 from a recycling company to put in a kitchen, and even department stores would give you washing machines and all the equipment to go with it. You had to work hard to get it and you had to prove that what you were doing was for the good cause of the residents of Trowse. Finally we were able to do this, and we had a lovely opening for the Village Hall.

Also during my stint on the Parish Council, of course, we opened the Southern Bypass, which was quite exciting inasmuch that Trowse had its own bypass, and we were able to have a street party, of which I invited the Lord Lieutenant, at that time Timothy Colman, because he’s very much involved with this village, and he said “Yes, I’d love to come along.” We had music, minstrels and refreshments and everything, and we closed the street up and everybody thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Also at the end of my retirement a very dear friend of mine, of ours actually, met my wife in the street one day and she said “What’s C. going to do now that he’s retired?” So my wife said “I don’t know. He’ll find something. (laughs) He’ll get involved with something.” And she said “You know, they’re always looking for volunteers with Age Concern, and B. A. is the person to go and see”. So she said “Tell him just to pop along and have a word with Brenda.” So I did. I thought “Yes, that’s interesting!” So I went down to … we were in St Giles then, near the Market Place, and B. said “What would you like to do?” I said “I don’t know. Deliver meals, Meals on Wheels?” So she said “What did you do when you were at work?” So I ran through what I’ve just been saying. “Oh no”, she said “It would be a waste. I’d like you to come into the Office, on Reception.” I said “That sounds interesting”, and this is what I did. So I went and for a time I did a bit of putting papers away and all this sort of thing, because it was a very small office there. But then, of course, we moved into Redwell Street, and that’s quite a massive office, a lovely place to work. It’s good to see these old buildings . . . I mean the architect was Bignold and he really did make a lovely job of that, and it’s great to see these places being used rather than let them fall down into dereliction. So we moved from St Giles down to Redwell Street and I continued on the Reception, and we’ve got some lovely volunteers . .. and the staff there, they’re wonderful people and the jobs that they do. I mean, you meet and greet people coming in to the Office and suddenly you realise you’re a very lucky person in the life that you’ve had when you hear some of the stories that they’ve had, and the things they haven’t got and are unable to get. So, yeah, it was a worthwhile job, and I look at it as putting something back that I’d had the fortune to have in my life. You know, I’ve never had to do that sort of thing, so you realise how lucky you were.

Going right back I had a marvellous childhood, I had a lovely mother and father, and I’ve got a brother. He’s five years younger than I am, and the childhood that we had, I mean, we didn’t have the things that children have nowadays. Money was, I suppose, tight, but the way I always look at it and how I talk to my grandchildren – I’ve got 8 grandchildren – when I sometimes see what they have and they’re so lucky and I say “We always had a good table, we always had meals”. And we always sat up the table, ‘cos there’s a lot of children don’t sit up at table these days. So we always sat up at table. Dad was in charge. He was the man who you looked to and when you’d finished your tea or your dinner, you didn’t get down from the table until dad had finished his meal and then you got down. We always had a Sunday suit and Sunday shoes. You didn’t really go out to play on a Sunday. I know in my case I went to Church in the morning, I went to Sunday School in the afternoon and some old people who lived opposite us . .. ‘cos I was born in Rupert Street, which is the Vauxhall area . . . there was two old people by the name of Mr & Mrs J., marvellous people, they were Salvationists, and they used to ask if they could take me to the Salvation Army Citadel on a Sunday night. So, three times on a Sunday I would go to Church, Sunday School and what have you, and, I mean, we’re members of our Church here, St Andrew’s, and we have a Sunday School, but they seem to get to a certain age and then they’re too old to go any more.

But, yes, I did have a very good childhood. I was brought up during the War. The War started in 1939, and I was at Crooks Place, which is Bignold now, and I suppose we spent a heck of a long time in the shelters during the War, probably all day at some times. Although nothing really happened you’d be down there. Occasionally there’d be a bomb dropped or something like that, but a lot of school time was spent in the shelters. But I always say whoever I’m talking to, that didn’t really make any difference to what I did in my life, because I always think that I got the best out of what life I had, and I’m sure that if I had to apply for the job that I successfully got without any paperwork, there’s no way would I have got it. You know, paperwork is very important to children starting life, and I think it goes over the top a little bit. I think a child can achieve probably without all the paperwork, because not everybody is good at both sides. You know, head or hand, you can get the same from both. So I think that when we were brought up in that era, from the Thirties up to the Sixties, I think that was a good time. That was my favourite time. I was growing up then and I had more or less achieved, I suppose . . . I hadn’t set out to do this . .. it had happened to me, so I was doubly lucky.

Do you think that in the period that you worked working conditions improved?

Oh, most certainly! Yes! Yes, as I was saying earlier, when I was working on the saw mills, to be sent down . . . these saws they were massive things . maybe two foot, three foot, maybe four foot in diameter and they were going round at a vast rate. Now the sawyers were on what we call piece work, so they would not shut that machine down, because they’d be losing money, but you’d have to go down underneath these saws, and they were whizzing round, to pull away the sawdust which would clog up the saw. So, yeah, it was dangerous, and of course when Health & Safety came in, I mean there’s no way they’d be allowed . .. well, I don’t suppose half the mills that Colman’s had at that time would be working under those conditions now. I was involved with Health & Safety in my work. I think Health & Safety in some ways has gone over the top and I do think that there’s a lot of silly things. I also remember – just came to me! – we used to have, in my job in the lubricants, we would either have 5 gallon cans or 45 gallon cans and when Health & Safety first came out I got sent a load of stickers to put on these cans: “Do not drink”! You know! I mean, how long has oil been in existence? Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, and I don’t suppose anybody had ever tried to drink the stuff, unless they were mentally unbalanced. But to have to put these stickers on there to prove .. . . that to me was a little bit .. .. .

Did computerisation materially affect what you were doing, or did you leave before most of the computers got into the workplace?

There was a lot coming in at that time. Legislation was changing on a daily basis. Every day there would be an email that something would have to be changed or something that you don’t do any more.

And that was something in itself when computers came in. In the first instance I think, when computers first came out they were completely low grade to what they are today, and I think I picked most of it up with a book. You know, you had an instruction book, this is your machine and here you are, you get on with it. It was interesting, when I went to Age Concern, Brenda did ask me whether I was I.T. committed, and I said “Well, yes, I use a computer. I wouldn’t say I’m I.T. committed, not right the way through.” She said “Would you like to do a refresher?” and I went to, is it Bell, on Prince of Wales Road, where they do the typewriting and that sort of thing, and I did a six week course, which was very interesting, because in my work I worked on maybe one or three stations and that was it. But getting involved with Age Concern I was on spreadsheets, everything, and surfing the web and all this sort of thing, which I hadn’t done before, so that was interesting.

But what I think we lost with computers – and I remember finding within the Parish Council cupboard one day, longhand written ledgers, because the building down there at one time was a café and it was run by the Parish Council, and they would . . . . in very big ledgers in lovely handwriting, it would be “Bought 2lbs sugar, 1lb tea :1/4d” and then calculated up at the end. This is what we’ve lost. We haven’t actually lost this literature, because all our stuff is in the Museum, but in a lot of cases this has all gone. But this was the idea of refurbishing this Village Hall. There were one or two people against it, who didn’t want it done, and we had quite a few fights.

That’s surprising. On what grounds would you not want a Village Hall?

There was one or two people who said that the place wouldn’t be big enough and what they wanted to do was to rebuild. They wanted to build a new Village Hall. I went out to see two Village Halls where it had cost nearly half a million pounds to set up these Halls, and there was no way that we were going to do half a million pounds. One I went to see at Bunwell, it was built and within a year it was not being used, so half a million pounds down the drain. But we fought against it and we had no end of residents’ meetings and we called people together and finally we won over the people, because we had a vote of confidence in the village itself and we came out on top.

And is it well used?

It’s used every day. I went to the AGM only a fortnight ago, because I’m still interested – I’m not involved with the Village Hall at all now, because I stepped down and went back onto the Parish Council, but there’s a wonderful committee that run it, Management Committee. I went to the AGM a fortnight ago and I was really thrilled. I felt as though I was still involved with it, and, yes, it’s used every day. It’s just had a re-paint, the guttering has all been renewed. As you go out of the village just look to your right and you’ll see it. It’s used by mums and tots, and all sorts of lectures and events are taking place there. It’s alive. The place is actually alive. It’s jumping. We had a nice little garden put on the back, and there’s a nice patio. People can hire the Hall, take a bottle of wine, sit in the garden, and it’s good. Quite an achievement! Quite an achievement!

Colin (b. 1931) was interviewed for WISEArchive on April 26th 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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