Working Lives

The Colman’s Tin Shop (1935-1940) Make-a-Meal and the Shop (1970s)

Location: Norwich

Alice first worked in Colman’s as a teenager and describes her many jobs there.

My first job was aged fourteen machining at Howlett and White’s [shoe manufacturer’s]. Things went slow so I got a job at Pell’s Handbags to do stitching and sewing; my sister Deli was hand sewing at Harmer’s clothing factory at the same time. Then my Dad, who worked on the soldering at Colman’s, said, ‘Deli’s been invited down to Colman’s but don’t worry, you go as well because they want as many people as they can get to do general work’.

Deli was a lot bigger than me. They wanted someone slim so they’d be active, so they picked me and not Deli. She wasn’t taken but I was because I could move. I went anywhere on the departments where I was wanted. One department might have gone low so they picked people to help and I went all over the place.

Tin Department and other jobs

One of my first jobs was shellacking. You had a pad in one hand and a paint brush. You’d dip the brush in a pot of shellack and draw it down the tin at the 4 corners and round the top. The shellack was done from tins from abroad to help preserve the contents longer. But we did no end of jobs; when one department went low you were sent to build it up. My pay would only be about one and sixpence [7½p].

I worked on the oval tins in the mustard department. A lady sat there. There would be two steps up to a hopper and a bin of mustard at the side. She’d come down off the steps, get a scoop of the mustard and put it through a funnel when it needed filling. Another lady stood there with the little oval tins and put the tins underneath; they would fill and she put them on the table. We had a girl stand either side of the table, lidding – everyone worked automatically.

I did the lidding when it went a bit low there. My main job was sitting at a machine in the middle of the room at a treadle. In front was a reel of sticky tape and there’d be about four little square tins. You’d put one foot down and clamp a tin; you’d pull the tape; the treadle would swing the tin round and the tape would seal the lid. And then you’d cut the tape, press it down with a finger. When I’d have a dozen tins, I’d put them in the bin. It wasn’t too noisy. I sat on my own in the middle of the room, taping the tins. There was someone at the back of me, putting lids on and there was a conveyor belt.

I wore a buttoned-up overall. The supervisor used to supply what you needed for the job. He’d have a buff coloured coat on. He’d always make sure that you had plenty to do, like if the tins were low, he’d make sure you’d get more.

One time I caught my finger; you can’t see it now; it was a long time ago. With lidding, you’ve got to have a rhythm and if the fingers are a bit stiff, you cut your finger. But we always had a nurse there. They’d look after you and tape it up; then you’d carry on working. We had protection on our feet in the drink and condiment departments.

I was sent to the Advertising department as well and put paper in envelopes; they might have been advertisements.

One very hot year they opened up another department for drinks. With the machine on you’d put a half gallon container underneath and fill it up; they’d be heavy so you had a bloke put them on the pallet. We’d also have litre jars for orange juice and we’d put them underneath to fill and we’d put them on the rollers that went down; they needed a man to palletise them as well. You’d tie a bin bag round your leg so it didn’t get orange juice on it!

In Condiments there’d be a conveyor belt going round the room. You’d stand and wait for the bottles to come and you’d take two and two and put on the lids, two and two, until you got twelve; then another conveyor belt would take them down to a little curtain. They’d go through the curtain and somebody on the other side would be palletising. And they asked me if I would palletise. So I’d wait for the boxes to come through, like the OK Sauce, and I’d palletise – fill the pallet – and then do it again the opposite way round for two or three layers. Then the supervisor would come along with a fork lift truck and take it away. I think I was about seventeen at the time.

I did every job there was in Colman’s – only a teenager I was.

Mrs Parke at home
Mrs Parke at home


I was about fifteen years old and the forelady would say, “What excuse have you got today?” So I said, “Well, I was going down Barrett Street (which is a hill) and a man had a dog, and I thought, ‘Oh, by the time that dog gets to the other side of the road, I’ll be past it’. But the man whistled the dog and it came back just as I hit it!I wobbled a bit but I got to work but she didn’t believe me. My Dad got me a racing bike and I didn’t like it – I wanted a sports model. It was summer and I went down to look at my brakes, and a bee went down my blouse. The forelady said, “What is it today?” So I told her and she said, “Come on, let’s have a look” so I showed her. “Oh my God,” she said, “you’ve been stung!” She told a girl to go to the corner shop and get a blue bag. So they rubbed a blue bag on the sting where the bee had stung me. [Colman’s made Reckitt’s blue at the factory].

I never had my pay cut for lateness but the forelady just said, “I’m going to tell your Dad to make sure you get here”. So my Dad had a long garden and he’d go down, get all the bikes, bring them up to the porch so all we had to do was get on them and away. He was ever so good, my Dad; when we started work we all had a bike bought for us.


Then [in 1939] the war started. I was going home for my cooked lunch and we heard the planes coming over and I said to my friend, “I’ll race you to the bicycle shed and then we’ll race to the lights”. Only kids, weren’t we? So we went to the bicycle shed, got on our bikes but when we got to the lights’ we heard the bombs drop. My forelady was bombed and they only knew her by bits in the trees. I said to my friend, “Get down near the wall”. We had boxes with the gas mask in and we hung them round our necks. So we hid down near the wall until the planes had gone over and then we went down Martineau Lane, up Barrett Road to Duckett Close; that’s where I lived.

I went in the Wrens at age twenty. After the war I was in Manchester and eventually returned to Norwich and in the ‘70s, I went back to Colman’s and into the Make-A-Meal department.

Make-A-Meal Department 1970s

At Make-a-Meal we sat at a table which had three containers, one had coconut containers, one had spaghetti – little bits of spaghetti in a sachet – and one had sauce sachets, I think. The supervisor used to come and fill up the containers and we’d put them in a make-a-meal box. Once I picked up a sachet with little bits of spaghetti in it, about inch long, and there was a dead mouse in there! Ooh! It had found its way in, eaten all the spaghetti bits, got itself filled up and then couldn’t get out. I called the supervisor and all was kept quiet, very quiet! It was given to the cat – we had the odd cat running about to catch mice.

But they were hygienic. Different shops we used to sell to would come and make sure that everything was clean. In one area we had steps that went over a conveyor belt so we didn’t have to walk around the room; we’d go up the steps and then down the other side. One of the shopkeepers said they didn’t like it because the steps were open, and dust coming off the shoes could contaminate the food, so the meals were made where we went around instead.

Working in the shop

I loved working at Colman’s. I could do anything there and then they said, “Would you be able to go in the shop?” So I said I’d love to. Colman’s had a shop on the premises for employees which we called “Budgie” – after the home time buzzer. And when the hooter went the girls would come in and choose whatever they wanted. They’d queue up at the till and we’d price up; we never gave a receipt, we’d just sort the money and give them the change. In between times I’d go round the shelves and tidy them up and then they’d come in and mess them up again!

There were some other people working with me in the shop – there was a Spanish bloke and a girl who thought she was the boss; then there was me and another one, so there were four of us. We’d all wear an overall.

Different shops used to come and sell us things. One brought crates of wine and they used to put the stuff anywhere there was a space so you never knew where anything was, you’d look all over the place. I used to sort the goods out alphabetically so you could go to a space and know what you’d find. I think the shop was the job I liked best.

The Pony Run

They had what they called the “pony run”. In the old days they used to have a horse and cart to take the stuff from Colman’s – like mustard – down to the Mustard Shop in the city.

They knew that I could drive and had a car so they asked me to do the pony run and I used to take the mustard tins and that down to the city. They didn’t pay for my petrol though!

Dad, the Colman’s City Hall model and other stories

My Dad worked at Colman’s on the soldering and he was photographed and used as a model for one of the plaques on the City Hall doors*. The plaque shows how the tins went down the conveyor belt and he would pick the tins up and do the soldering.

Norwich City Hall doors, the solderer
Norwich City Hall doors, the solderer


The model for the plaque and his wife
The model for the plaque and his wife


He used to solder his neighbour’s buckets and I used to take them back for a penny. He would say that I mustn’t take any more than a penny but I could keep it. Those pennies were very useful – our wage packet there was only one and sixpence (1930s). So if somebody had a metal pail and the bottom was worn they’d ask him to solder a bit on the bottom and he’d say, “You go and take it back and you might get a penny for it.”

I didn’t belong to a union at Colman’s but my Dad was strongly Labour and he’d pay thruppence a week to the Labour Union and somebody on the estate used to come and collect the money.

I had four brothers and two sisters and one time when my Mum was having a baby, my Dad – the man had a baby as well as the woman – he was on the mustard plant and he was sick in it and they had to throw the mustard out! Later on he became a policeman at Colman’s. He would walk about to see if everything was okay, I don’t know what else he did.

When I went back to Colman’s in the ‘70s and was on a tea break I saw my father’s Wellington boots in one of the spare rooms there and they had his name “George Porter” on the top. He’d already died; he’d had a stroke when he was cycling up Barrett Road. He was 57.

Dancing and Cricket

They asked if I’d like to go to a do at the social club [run by Colman’s]. “Would you like to go?” they said and I said “Oh yeah”. I was only a teenager. They taught me to dance; the ladies would stand in front and say “left, right, left right left”. Then they said, “Would you like to play cricket?” So I said “Yeah, don’t mind anything”. They then said I’d be playing with the men”. Cricket! But the men would get fed up with batting all the time so they’d turn the bat around so they were hitting with the handle. So we had a sports club and we either played cricket or danced.

Once when I was little and my Dad worked there, children were invited to a show. There was a curtain with a man behind in silhouette; I remember he pulled a watch chain out of his mouth. We used to play about on the hills as well, rolling up and down the green slopes.

*The Norwich City Hall was opened by George VI in 1938 in front of a huge crowd. The bronze doors have 18 plaques designed by James Woodward to illustrate the history and industry of the city. The two outer pairs of doors have plaques showing Norwich trades such as mustard, chocolate, silk weaving, shoes, aircraft and wire netting and tin making.

Alice Parke (b. 1921) talking to WISEArchive on 22nd April 2015 in Norwich,

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