Mixing it up in Colman’s Baby Foods, 1979-1992

Location : Norwich

Tony Woodward was a painter and decorator and worked in the shoe industry before joining Colman’s wine department 1979 and Baby Foods in 1980. Then he worked for Kettle Chips and Grampian Foods.

First job – R.G. Carter’s

I left Earlham Secondary Modern School in 1967 and got a job with R G Carter’s as an apprentice painter and decorator. I took my drawings along and I think I got the job based on my artwork. What that had to do with being a painter and decorator I have no idea. I did a year’s trial and was then supposed to start an apprenticeship but was sacked instead. I wasn’t taking the job very seriously. I was only fifteen and the trial meant I was given the rubbish jobs on site like all the priming work. I never the fancy stuff just things like preparation, black-jacking drains and tarring the drain covers. I was the gofer; doing all the dirty work.

I think they put you through the mill to see if you could stick it and I couldn’t, so I used to mess about quite a bit. I used to be shop boy for the site as well taking everyone’s order for cakes and sandwiches before going to the local shop near White Woman Lane.

Shoe trade – Norvic and Sextons

I had started work in the summer but then went through the winter outside, it was freezing cold, so I thought for my next job I needed a better paid job, indoors. I got a job at Norvic to start with at the industrial estate where they had a shoe factory, and worked for a few months before I was transferred to the children’s division in St George’s Plain in Norwich.

I worked in many departments there including the clicking department. Clicking is when they cut out the shape of the shoe from the leather then put it over the last to make the shape of the shoe. One of my jobs was to cement the sides of the leather uppers to go over the shoes; I did bits of roughing which involved roughing the edges of the leather ready for the sole to go on, and I moved rolls of leather about. After six months I moved to Sexton & Everards, another shoe factory, and worked there for four years. There were so many shoe factories in Norwich then; Sextons was just across the road from Norvic.

I returned to Norvic again and in the end I did a total of 12 years working in the shoe industry. From Norvic I went onto Colman’s.

Colman’s Moussec 1979

Much of the shoe work was quite hectic; it was piece work so you were paid for how much you did. I wanted a steady job with more money and without the cut-throat pressure. Colman’s was advertising at the time so I thought I’d try my luck there; it was better money. You could pick and choose jobs in those days, not like nowadays. Luckily I got the job and started doing night work, however, I really wanted a day job and managed to switch after a few weeks.

I spent a year in the Moussec wine department sorting bottles and found it was actually another form of piece work. We were paid for each box of bottles we sorted. Dirty bottles would come in from the breweries and pubs and I had to sort through them for cleaning and reuse; some of the bottles were pretty messy, it was a really dirty job. I started at the bottom but managed to work my way up to being on the production line and a better job.

A year later I heard of an opening in the baby food department and interviewed for the job. In Colman’s you interview for each department within the company. Luckily I knew that the manager doing the interview somehow knew my father so I did a bit of name dropping. I just said ‘I’m Lenny Woodward’s son’ – I’m not sure what the link was. Perhaps it was the football coupons which my father was involved with or perhaps the manager knew him from the railways where he worked. Anyway, name dropping got me the job which I did for the next ten years and it was my best period at Colman’s.

Baby food department 1980

I began on the packing line in the dried baby foods department and then moved up to its manufacturing section. A new meat plant had been set up where all the meat was cooked. Slabs of meat such as roast pork were used for the baby food dinners. Proper meat was used and we would also cut up blocks of cheese and cook vegetables like cauliflower, peas and carrots in stainless steel trays on racks. All the baby food was cooked in the plant.

We bought all our meat from Brookes of little Melton – frozen meat joints which we kept in our own freezers in Colman’s. The meat department had a ‘cooked’ and a ‘frozen’ side. On the frozen side there were two people in red overalls. One prepared the vegetables and put them in trays on the racks while the other sliced up blocks of frozen meat, weighed it out and put it into square trays on a rack. The racks were secured and the big ovens turned on.

I worked at one point on the cooked side taking out the cooked meat and vegetables. I used to unload the large racks from the ovens using great big levers. A barrow was put underneath and I would pull out the rack of boiling hot gravy and meat onto the barrow, so it was all quite hazardous.

We had our own health department at Colman’s so if you had any accident you didn’t have to go far. There was even a fire service on site with its own fire engine.

Big mixers in giant mixing tanks were used to mix all the ingredients together, but not liquidise them. They also mixed all the flours and sugars for the desserts like strawberry dessert, strawberry delight and so on. We used to mill the fresh strawberries into a puree when they came in; it was mainly strawberries but other fruits came in boxes filled with foil bags full of puree. We used to open large tins of pineapple crush or apples and put them in large 30 kg tubs to be weighed.

I became one of the ‘mixer men’. We might weigh out 40 kgs of pineapple and 60 kgs of apple and do the whole recipe in the 100 gallon mixing tank before pumping it into another big tank in the same plant. From there it would go onto driers which had hot rollers underneath. The liquid would go between the rollers to be rolled flat. It would come out as a dried sheet and then go to the tubbing off machine which had a beater on top which chopped the sheets into flakes. It looked like an arm going around. We’d put a coned shaped sieve underneath and the cone determined the size of the flakes produced. They had different sized holes for different sized flakes, the finest being almost like dust. The ‘dust’ was put into sacks and the bigger flakes went into various size carton boxes which were put onto trays, shrink wrapped and sent off to the supermarkets. It was a meal which could be re-liquidised as it was needed.

Each mixer man had a prep man working with him whose job was to get the many different flours ready for each new batch. There would be bags of smaller items or ‘part bags’, pallets of rice flour and pallets of soya flour and so on. If you wanted six bags for the batch, six full bags were put on a barrow and wheeled round to your mixer. The prep man also brought any part-dries or ‘dries’ as we called them as required for the recipe.

We had three mixer men and three prep men in the department and each mixer man looked after two huge mixers set in tanks in the floor and two huge storage tanks. They would run water from the water tank into the mixer first and then add the ingredients from the recipe card and pump it all into the storage tanks.

I’ve known men do 80 odd hours in a week; there was plenty of overtime going and it was common place to do 60+ hours. It was good money. I think I was getting about £15,000 a year then.

When manufacture of the baby foods was slow we might work on the packing floor for a bit, but we were regarded as being higher. There was more prestige being in the manufacturing department rather than being on the packing floor. Most of the packing was done by women and we didn’t like having to work on the line with them.

The drier men in baby foods were the elite. We were the top rung of the baby food department because the machinery was very delicate and precise and required three months of training. We had to be able to set up the drier so that the product sheet had the correct density for example and it was a very demanding and dangerous job. Drier machines were massive and noisy with lots of valves, pipes and hot steam and the knives which kept the product sheet forming properly were razor sharp and could cut your fingers off. They had to be changed several times during a shift.

If there was a minor breakdown you were encouraged to fix it yourself rather than call the engineer because you knew your own machine. The engineers knew the mechanical side of the machinery but we knew the little tweaks that could often put things right. It was very satisfying to fix a problem yourself without an engineer.

Drier men were responsible also for keeping the product at a high level, with many quality control checks for weight of flake, the look and colour of the product and the taste test. When everything was running smoothly, it was a good feeling. We were looked on better, and had a better reputation if we could sort out a lot of the problems instead of running after the engineer and pulling him off another job. There was prestige involved and it made the job so diverse and so enjoyable.

Working in other departments

All the printing was done on site and they used to print the labels for the jars and bottled goods, so we were totally self-sufficient. They also made their own boxes.

When production in your own department was slow you would be placed in other departments, so rather than make you redundant you would be assigned to another department that was busy. Colman’s made use of their workforce.

We used to work sometimes in the Deal Ground where all the large pallets were kept. It was a large area on site with stacks of useable pallets and also stacks of pallets in need of repair. We had to sort them and take out the broken ones and if they weren’t too badly damaged we would refit them so the pallets were usable. The really damaged ones were used for firewood.

One time there was a slack time in many departments so they had several of us sweeping the yard and clearing the snow, which didn’t go down too well. We used to hide up in the Deal Ground where they had fires to get rid of the really bad pallets. We would sit in a little hut and play cards and warm ourselves before going out again to show our faces and have a sweep up before nipping back in again. So I saw that side of things as well.

If you were caught doing something like that now you’d be sacked but they were a lot fairer there. If you got your job done they didn’t mind you doing other things like sitting and reading your paper. If you read in the rest room or went for a cuppa, it was only after you checked that there was plenty of product going down from the tank to the drier, otherwise you would get a severe reprimand.

Changes in the workforce 1980

In 1980 a firm called Metra Proudfoot was brought in to do a time and motion study of the workforce and they thought that the company could do away with the three prep men and have the mixer men do their own prep. The lift man who brought the pallets of flour up from the warehouse also lost his job which meant the mixer men had to collect their own flour and ingredients as well, so the work became much harder. We ended up working by ourselves doing it all.

With a prep man you could get ahead, which was to our benefit really. We had to do perhaps ten dries for each batch per shift and we would try to get them done within the first couple of hours so you could take it easy for the rest of the shift! That’s what did for us; we used to get too far in front. We should have been craftier and paced the job out more!

Obviously it didn’t go down too well with the work force because we had to work a lot harder for more or less the same money.

From baby foods to condiments

I worked ten years in baby foods and then it started to really slow down. The death knell for us was because of issues to do with milk and bacteria which caused us to lose a big contract with Boots. Things began to drop off and we lost quite a few contracts so they had to thin out the workforce. Even though I’d been there ten years, there were men who’d been in the department twenty or thirty years and it was a case of ‘last in first out’. That’s when I got moved around. At the time I didn’t like it very much, but looking back it meant you saw a lot more of the departments on the site. I did a stint in the tin shop for a while where the tins for powdered mustard were made and saw the big pressing machines pressing out all the different shapes for the tins – big powerful machines.

I then did a stint on cartons in the ready drinks department before I was moved on a more permanent basis into the condiments department and I ended up doing the last of my time there.

New processes and new demands

I started off on the line again packing jars of mint sauce, horseradish and mustard but in the end a job came up in manufacturing and of course I jumped at it reminding them that I’d been in manufacturing for ten years in baby foods. That had a lot of sway as I’d done manufacturing and worked with all the technical machines. So I got the job; I’d spent about six months on the line which I’d hated and ended up manufacturing all the condiments. There was more to learn because it was all computerised so I had to learn about computer operated valves and pipes and tanks. When you sent stuff along pipes into the tanks or took it out of tanks to go to another area it was all done by pushing buttons on the computer. It was very similar to the baby food’s mixing and drying plant but computer operated.

I had to learn the new technology and just as I’d really got proficient at it they started coming round and advising me of redundancy or being moved to other departments as the business was to be sold to two different firms. By then I was sick of being moved around.

When Colman’s made you redundant you received a very generous redundancy package. They followed what they called the blue book agreement which meant the basic redundancy payment as required by law but then Colman’s paid half of that again. I think I turned down two voluntary redundancy schemes but when the third one was offered I thought I could see the writing on the wall. I thought, “Is the next firm going to be as generous as Colman’s?”

Perks and benefits

I used to do some wine making at home as a hobby and when I’d finished my shift in baby foods I used to fill my drink bottle from the tubs of fruit we had filled. I’d say, ‘Can I take some of the juice home’ and they’d say ‘yeah go on’. So it was done – sort of – with permission, a perk of the job really. I used to get my sugar for the wine from there as well – they weren’t gonna miss a little tub of sugar! We also used the sugar for our cups of tea in the rest room next to the mixing plant. The rest room had a large window so people could monitor their plant by looking out of the window. Even the supervisors used to do it; it was like an unwritten rule of the job. Anything taken was on a very small scale – a bit of sugar for tea, or a small lump cut from a block of cheese to put on your toast or a few pieces of apple or pineapple from the fruit tin you were opening.

Apart from a good rate of pay they also provided others benefits such as a good pension. My plan was to retire at age fifty five because it was such a good pension scheme, but in the end I took voluntary redundancy at age 50 with a generous pension of £90 a week even though I was only there for 13 years.

We had a shop on site where we could do our shopping. Colman’s would do deals with different factories so we had cleaning and pharmaceutical products produced by Reckitts in Hull. The shop also sold the products we made on site like dessert toppings, mint sauce, horseradish, jars of mint, mint jelly, seafood sauce… There were tinned goods, jars, bottles, wines and beer, the lot. It was just like a mini supermarket. They even had a stack of wire baskets as you went in.

Grampian chicken factory

I took voluntary redundancy in the end after 13 years and 9 months of service there. I was unemployed for two years and then took a job in Grampian’s chicken factory in Attleborough. My niece worked in the personnel department as a secretary and told me they had a vacancy. I got on really well with the interviewer and got the job there straight away.

I stayed about five and a half years starting off yet again at the bottom but ending up as the team leader for process control. Starting at the bottom meant I learned many of the other jobs there. One department I didn’t like was Multipack – packs of nuggets, kievs, gujons, breast and so on. I was sent to do frozen packing quite a lot where you pack all the frozen goods like nuggets and also to the place where they cooked all the kievs. I went on the line which actually moulded the kievs before they were cooked in the ovens and went into the area where they were frozen and packed. I did it all but I hated it; I used to like the frozen preparation department best.

When it was slack I used to do the sweeping up in the department and I got to know the chap who ran the prep room where all the frozen meat was minced and chicken skin emulsified. “Fred”, I said, “is there anything going in your department there?” He said, “Yeah, we can fit you in here”. So he gave me the job and I ended up doing all his paperwork because he didn’t like it. After that he said I could be his process control chap logging all the bins that came in and out and recording all the bin numbers and their weights. I had to weigh them all, do the paperwork and add up the total number of kilos of meat we processed during the shift.

In the end, because we got on really well, and he knew I picked up other aspects of the job like running the machinery and supervising other people running the machinery, he asked “Do you wanna be my stand-in team leader in the department, when I’m on holiday?” He said I could just give it a go the next time he was on holiday and be a stand-in Red Hat. I agreed and was his stand-in for quite a while until they moved him on to another department and I was given the job permanently. So I took over the whole department in the end. I ran it and had a red stand-in under me. I was a Red Hat in charge of meat prep for a year and then I just did it as a stand-in. Red Hats were supervisors of either a production line or a department and they wore red hats or sometimes hard hats whilst the normal workers wore blue hats so that’s where you got the name.

I gave it up because processing about 15-16 tonnes of meat in a shift meant lots of paperwork and sometimes it took longer than I thought so I would miss my bus. I’d run out and they’d be gone so I would have to find a lift back to Norwich. There was a lot of pressure around getting the paperwork done and making sure everyone was doing their job properly and in the end the travel and pressure got to me. I continued doing it on a temporary basis, to help out when they were short.

I heard about a job going at Kettles Chips which is on the Bowthorpe Industrial Estate and really close to home and I realized that the wages for normal factory work there were the same as I was getting for the Red Hat team leader job at Grampians. I got the job and started at the bottom again working in the warehouse.

Kettle chips

My job was to palletise boxes of chips. Obviously crisps don’t weigh a lot unlike the packing at Grampians which involved 20 kilo slabs of meat. I was relieved, although the machines and the packing were really fast. The warehouse was quite light work but quick and I stayed there for about seven years.

Nowadays they rotate you every two hours when you’re packing but we had to pack all day, sometimes 60 bags a minute. We would sometimes pack on different lines but you were still packing. The bigger bag line was slightly slower but we still kept to quite a good pace packing the crisps into boxes. A box would come down the line and you have to pull the box off the line, open up the flaps, put twelve bags or sometimes 25 in a box while the line was flipping past you, then you had to fold the flaps up, shove it down the conveyor belt and get the next box. It was all done in so many seconds with the bags coming down continuously.

You had to earn ‘score points’ at Kettle’s. For each job you learned you were awarded a score point and you got £20 per point extra on your basic wage. It was a good scheme and it encouraged you to learn new stuff and get more pay. But by then I’d done years of running machines, in baby foods and process control and being older I didn’t need the money so much. Kettle’s encouraged the younger ones to earn more money but for me the basic wage was enough and I didn’t want to start running machines again with all the hassle that involved. They had appraisals every year and they would ask what I wanted to learn the next year. I used to say, “Nothing”, which didn’t look so good on your appraisal. I’d say that I was happy as I was and didn’t want to learn anything else. They knew my age and that I was getting on a bit and they knew I wasn’t really ambitious any more.

Kettle’s ran a three shift system running more or less continuously all day and night, including Saturdays, and just used Sundays for cleaning. They wanted to change to 12 hour shifts. I was opposed to it as 8 hours were enough for me. On the other hand it did mean that there was more time for me to do my art work. So in the end I thought I might as well go with the times and do the 12 hours although I knew it would be a struggle. As it turned out it was a struggle because of my back. I had a back problem which got much worse when doing the 12 hour shift so in the end they retired me.

Retirement

As I couldn’t garden any more I have time now for my old hobbies of drawing and painting and making military figurines, which is what I always dreamed of when I was on the monotonous packing jobs.

I used to be in the Model Soldiers Society and go to competitions all around the country. Models were judged on artistic and historical accuracy and I won a few awards including second place at national level. I’ve got an online art gallery and I’ve sold quite a few on the internet worldwide. My best ones are on there and I’ve sold to Europe, America, Canada and Australia. So that’s quite interesting.

Of all my jobs, I definitely enjoyed baby foods the best. There was the camaraderie with your work colleagues; we used to have such a good laugh and they would stand by you. If you made a mistake they didn’t ‘tittle-tattle’ to the supervisor, something I think has changed in recent times.

Anthony Woodward (b. 1952) was interviewed  in Norwich for WISEArchive on 16th April 2015

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