Tons of tins, Colman’s 1959-1970

Location : Norwich

Colman’s 1959-1970.

Margaret Mickleburgh tells the story of her eleven years working in the Tin Shop at Colman’s.

In 1959 I started work at Colman’s at the age of fifteen in the ‘tin shop’ which was where all the mustard tins were made. We had one afternoon off each week to go to the social club. I think it was because at that age we were only allowed to work so many hours a week.

I couldn’t believe how noisy it was in the tin shop with no ear defenders to wear. It’s amazing that my hearing is still good. My first job was working on the conveyor belt checking and packing two ounce mustard tins. They were packed into heavy wooden trolleys which were very hard to move about and then they were taken over to the mustard mill to be filled and labelled.

At sixteen I was able to go onto a machine making the tins and there you had to concentrate on what you were doing and be fairly quick to keep up with the machine because it was all on piece- work. Some of the older workers didn’t want you to slack. The work was very repetitive but I enjoyed working there – lots of lovely people.

The tin shop was mostly big wheels in the ceiling, with huge leather belts everywhere driving the conveyor belts to take the mustard tins over a bridge into the mustard mill. The tin shop was very, very old and really dark and had tiny windows and loads of noise. We used to have the tin delivered to the basement in great big stacks and we had a railway truck outside for all the waste to go on. One man worked on the truck and he used to tip on all the waste and then the truck was taken away. Most of the tin came from Wales and when the waste was taken away I think it was melted down again. All the railway lines were still round in the yard; it was all quite ancient really. Definitely the mustard mill was much more modern than our department and so was the soft drinks department – they had new buildings.

I must just comment on the uniform – a not very flattering royal blue heavy cotton cross-over overall, with a royal blue turban. I met my husband in the tin shop. He was on contract from W.S.Lushers doing painting and decorating. He must have thought I looked OK in my outfit because we’ve now been married for forty-eight years.

My next job was when I was chosen to be a messenger for the department and got another fetching outfit with a matching green nylon net turban. The messengers had various duties and I had to pick up orders and mail from my department to take to various other departments. I went every hour to the counting house, taking money, also collecting any mail from pigeon holes. Other tasks were to get people’s lunches from the canteen and I used to go to the post office run by Mr. Catling at the bottom of Carrow Hill and there were two lovely people in there. A few times I was called to take flowers to Mr. Starling’s wife – they lived on Carrow Hill. He was one of the directors and he was a very nice man.

We had two canteens at Colman’s; there was one for the workers and one for the staff. The staff one was called the ‘staff luncheon club’ and the other canteen cooked very good meals at very cheap prices. We had lots of lorry drivers and others come in and they’d all get very good meals for little money for which all were very pleased.

After my time being a messenger I went back on to the tin department and to the oval mustard tins on the machine again and we had to wear thick leather gloves for protection. We used quite a lot of these because the tins were so sharp.

Another department in the tin shop was the ‘press room’ where lids where stamped out for various sized tins. I didn’t like this job much. I had a sheet of tin slip out of the clips onto my foot. I got quite a nasty cut and ended up at the medical centre. I don’t remember that we had much health and safety but later on we had shoes with steel toe caps as well as the gloves. There were no ear defenders so really there wasn’t much protection at all. I still have the scar on my foot today. I don’t remember any major accidents or anything but there was a lot of cuts; obviously the tin was very sharp. Some ladies worked on machines with great big sheets of tin, pushing them through a machine to cut them up so they were obviously slipping around quite a bit. They also wore these big heavy leather aprons to protect themselves but lots of people got cuts but nothing too major. People went to the medical centre – I think Colman’s was one of the first to have a resident nurse – and we’d go and see the sister and she would patch you up and do whatever. If it was really bad, you went to hospital.

Sometimes if the work was a bit slow we were sent to other departments like soft drinks, mint and so on. We were even scrubbing floors in the tin department at one point. It wasn’t very nice – very hard work on the knees. The soap we used to clean the floors was like a brown jelly – it was in great big tubs and we had the big scrubbing brushes. The cloth we had to wipe it up was cotton waste, all pieces of cotton. Because the department was so old and they had all the conveyor belts in the ceiling on wheels, oil would come off the wheels onto the floor so we had to clean around and scrub it off. That was on a rota basis, thank goodness, so we didn’t have to do that very much.

I then got a promotion. I went onto the bigger tins with a team of four girls, all very nice to work with. It was very heavy work but more money which was good.

Several girls from different departments were tour guides as well and I’ve done this also. We took visitors around the factory to see all the products we made; sometimes it was twice a week, depending on how many visitors came to the factory. The people who came to look round were people from the W.I. [Women’s Institute] and schoolchildren – they’d come from all over the country just to have a look round. They were given tea and biscuits and cakes in the staff luncheon club afterwards, so that was very good. It was very nice and you met a lot of different people.

Another thing they had at Colman’s was a tasting panel. That was in the soft drinks department. It was a good chance to get outside for a little while in the fresh air and get half an hour’s grace away from the noisy tin department. You just had to taste all the various products. They brought things in as well so it wasn’t all Colman’s produce and that was good too. There were a lot of people on that rota because it was very popular with getting time off.

My mum also worked for several years in the sauce department; she was a shop steward and we all belonged to the same union which was very nice. I don’t remember any industrial actions while I was working there. There might have been on other departments but we didn’t get to hear of anything. My mum was a very good shop steward and looked after her girls. If there was any trouble, she would sort it out.

To get a job at Colman’s you either had to have friends or family already working there and we were well looked after. I don’t remember how much pay we got but when we clocked in for work, wages and bonuses were on the wall on a sheet of paper, so everybody could see what people were earning. And they were pretty strict on clocking in – if you were a few minutes late, you lost a quarter of an hour’s pay.

Colman’s was also a good place to work because several women who left to have children came back later to work on night shift. I left Colman’s in 1970 when my daughter was born but I didn’t go back to Colman’s because I’d moved and I was on the other side of the city. I later got part-time work elsewhere.

We used to have an annual dinner-dance at the Colman’s social club which usually entailed a beauty contest, and one year I came third. I think we just had to walk across the floor but I can’t remember much about it and I don’t honestly remember if I got a prize. I know I didn’t have a sash or ribbon round me because the photograph was put in the Colman magazine which was distributed all over the country, to Reckitts and everywhere. I must have gone quite a long way with my photograph.

Most of the activities at the social club were really for the men. I never went up to do anything. I think the men used to have bowls and darts and different games like cricket but most of the women didn’t do any of that.

I don’t know what it’s like in the tin shop now; I’d like to have a look really. They’re obviously still making the tins there because they’re still doing the mustard.

Margaret Mickleburgh (b. 1944) was interviewed for WISEArchive in Norwich on February 23rd 2015

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