Working Lives

The Colman’s steam engineer (1948-1983)

Location: Norwich


Alan worked at Colman’s as a steam fitter and engineer and later at Eastern Counties Newspapers.

I was born in 1933 and left school at 14. My first job was at Brett’s the cabinet makers – they had a little factory in Chapelfield and I went there with a load of tools my parents had bought for me. I was very excited and I loved the smell of wood. Being a new boy I had to do all the chores, all the sweeping up, getting the tea and buns at lunchtime for everyone and it all started very well. I would leave my tools there and cycle from King Street, up Carrow Hill and along through the City – it took about 15 minutes.

For some reason, however, I didn’t get on with the foreman and he criticised everything I did and one thing led to another and in the end I just hated being there. So I carried on like that -but I had to leave because I really couldn’t stick it any more. I had always wanted to work in Colman’s because friends I grew up with and went to school with worked there too. There was nothing available so I got a job at Halfords cycle shop in Brigg Street, near Marks and Spencer’s. It was ok and it was different as I was serving behind the counter. Of course they played pranks on you. They sold big, thick, chunky batteries and they dared you to put your tongue across the two terminals – a bit dire and it left an awful taste in your mouth!

It all went quite well for a few months until I wanted to buy a new racing bike. I was keen on cycling and was a member of the East Anglian Cycling Club and I asked if I could buy an Elswick – which was the bike I wanted. They only sold Halfords bikes and when they knew I wasn’t going to buy a Halfords bike things changed and I was picked on for everything. Luckily a vacancy had come up at Colman’s.

My father worked there as a fire man and policeman, and I was born at the bottom of Carrow Hill opposite the works where the fireman had to live. There was always a bell in the house so if there was a fire the bell would ring and my father would have to dress and go – it woke the whole house up.

Beginning at Colman’s 1949

So I got a job there as a messenger and I would do errands on a trade bike. Once or twice a week the janitor, who was in charge of us, would get orders from staff to go into the City and buy things. There was a lady who always wanted a bottle of gin so I had to go into the off-license to buy the gin. I suppose I was a fairly big boy at 15 so I got away with it. One time my trade bike fell over and, of course, the gin was in a brown paper bag and it smashed! I was mortified and I didn’t want to go back to work! Anyway, the woman was very nice about it and said, “That’s fine, I asked you to do it so it’s my fault really, it’s not your fault, throw the gin away.” But the janitor got some stockings and he poured the gin and the glass through to filter out the drink!

As you got a little bit older they would move you around the works, so I went on the starch department which was nice. Then from the starch I went to the saw mill. I just did general labouring in both. There were lots of women in the saw mill – it was very labour intensive – and they used to make coffins there, for the employees. It was almost cradle to grave in those days. They made coffins!

They also made wooden packing crates for mustard and things like that and they used to export mustard to China. So not only did they make the mustard, they made all the crates to go with it.

They made every form of packaging – it was quite a big place. There was a huge radial saw which they used on huge blocks of wood and sawdust used to fly everywhere. It was a big thing and the deals used to come up the river by boat to be unloaded at the docks. They used to be aired so they didn’t warp too much. They made anything wood-wise in their own carpenter’s shop.

Being green and being just a boy pushing a trolley around taking things to various people, the girls always pick on us – because we were young. They used to make all sorts of comments and I used to go red as a beetroot. We always wore overalls and one of the tricks they played was to pull your zip down, throw sawdust inside your overalls and squirt some oil in! So we had to go through these initiations … Then I met a girl who worked there and I got engaged at 17.

I worked at Colman´s for two years and then I was called up for national service. Colman’s kept my job open for me – it was the law. I remember going to the station and saying cheerio to the family for the first time – everyone was in tears. My mother had me when she was 40 odd and died when I was 28 so I didn’t see too much of my mum. She also worked at Colman’s in the blue department – a lot of that stuff went to our sister company which was Reckitt and Colman’s. Blue was put into your washing to make whites whiter; almost translucent.

So I left to do my national service and my mother packed me some sandwiches, said goodbye and walked down to the station in tears! A guy who worked at Colman’s said, “Your mother sent me; you forgot your sandwiches.” I did my square bashing in Wiltshire and a signalling course in Wiltshire and I had to learn Morse code at eight words a minute, which was hard – the navy do it at 22 words a minute! I spent two years doing national service, mostly in Germany, which I hugely enjoyed. I went all over Germany on manoeuvres.

By the time I arrived back in the UK my engagement was over so I spent a fair bit of time with other people who worked at Colman´s – mainly fire and policemen’s sons I grew up with. We used to go to the Lido for a dance on Saturday nights and have a pint in the City. I met my wife at the Lido – she worked in the tin shop. She was 19 when we married and I was nearly 22 I think. My son was born in 1957.

I did my national service 1951-53 and when I returned I wanted to work in the trades department – my father kept asking and in the end I got the job. So I then trained to be a steam engineer, a steam fitter, and I worked there for 35 years.

Steam Engineer 1953

It was all steam and pipework because many things were steam-driven like the huge steam-fed rollers for baby food. The baby food was mixed up and dripped onto rollers. It was then scraped off and paddled around into powder or flakes which went down tubes to another floor to be packed into little boxes. It was all Robinson’s baby food.

Colman’s also did Robinson’s fruit drinks as well as mint and horseradish sauces and packet foods. They had their own printing works, too. They did everything. I enjoyed working there and finished up doing double shifts.

By that time I had married and was living with my parents but when my son was born we got the opportunity to have this house. Colman’s owned a lot of property – all the houses in Trowse, Bracondale, over by the football ground and down in King Street. Of course in the end, as things changed, they sold the houses off as tremendous deals to people who wanted to buy them, and I got mine and have lived in it ever since. I biked to work and I remember my wife saying, “Oh it is a long way”. You’d think you were in the country – this was a country lane at one time with brambles each side. I would bike up Harvey Lane coming home. And then I got a moped – I went up a gear – and I thought I´d never be able to afford a car. But things change and you get things you never thought you’d be able to afford.

I did a lot of overtime and I used to go in all hours on the job. You had to keep it all going, even in the winter time. We worked through weekends when it was freezing to keep the steam going through the pipes and stop them freezing up. It ran 24 hours so your steam would have to go on 24 hours. We had high pressure and low pressure steam to work with. We used to work autoclaves and all the heating was done from our power station in-house. Our power station even sold electricity to the national grid.

Every morning my first job was to go round and make sure all the office radiators were working in the three different buildings. I had many different repairing steam pipework, flanges, reducing valves…

Because the steam used to condense into water it was pure and could be pumped back and re-used so they didn’t have to treat the water as much. There was a steam station in the centre of the works where we generated the steam. They were coal fired and at times, when coal was scarce, we used oil as a backup because if the temperature went below a certain temperature in the workplace, people were not allowed to work.

The steam station generated two types of steam – high pressure and low pressure steam. High pressure steam drove equipment in the manufacturing areas and low pressure steam heated the buildings. So my job basically was to make sure everything was working both heating-wise and production-wise. If there was a leak I just had to go and sort it out. There were times when I had to replace sections of pipe, reducing valves: all sorts of things. It kept me busy.

All the pipework leading from the steam station either went overhead or underground. Most of it went overhead and then locked into buildings – there were miles of pipework on stanchions. It was asbestos lagged to weather-protect it because frost caused a lot of damage. And, of course, as the years went on, asbestos became a nasty word. We used to throw it at each other and play around with it – we didn’t know the danger. So in the end all the asbestos was taken away bit by bit by specialised firms and replaced with an alternative.

My job helped to keep the firm going. If you had a problem with the Baby Food’s heated roller, for instance, production was lost which meant losing several hundred pounds an hour – the baby food was dripped onto the roller and turned into powder before the scrapers scraped it off. We would sort it out as a priority, just to keep things running. The mustard mill had the same sort of thing; they had autoclaves and all sorts of steam equipment that was used for sterilising. Steam in the autoclaves was our job and anything mechanical was done by other trades. We had engineers, electricians, carpenters, builders – we had the lot.

By the end I was doing a double shift so, if I worked the two-to-ten shift I then had to be on call for anything that came along on the next shift. The fire and policeman who manned the gates would phone, “Can you come in?” So I’d either go in using my own car or I’d call for a taxi to put it right. We had one or two horrendous winters. We had a winter once when the return water that went back to the steam station froze in the pipes and expanded, and the huge flanges buckled. I think they took a chance and had turned something off one weekend, but it was the coldest weekend in years!

We had mobile electrical generators and we clamped two sections of pipe and put electrical charges through to thaw the ice but if the pipework was damaged or if the heat damaged the flanges, we had to replace the section. That work was very heavy as some of the pipework was really big. So, the work was very varied, you got some nice little jobs and you got horrible jobs and it was so easy to be burnt with steam, so easy. I have several scars on me I’ll probably never lose.

I worked there for thirty years from when I was twenty to when I was fifty – thirty years, and I did some menial jobs before that. I knew everything about the job. I had to work Saturday mornings as it was part of the 44 working week but when they wanted me to stay and do overtime, there used to be a hell of a row because I wanted to play sport instead.

Sport at Colman’s

I had some terrific times there … I played football for the company and I finished up playing cricket for the company for many years. I captained the side for about 12 years. It was good quality cricket and we played against Yarmouth, Cromer, Norwich Union, Lowestoft and all the big clubs around. We had inter-company matches with Hull and we used to go up there for the weekend alternate years and stay in a hotel, play an all-day match and have evening dinner. It was Reckitt’s against Colman’s. They used to come down the following year and play us – the rivalry was terrific, really terrific. There was a lot of inter-departmental rivalry as well playing sports. We even had outings to London – the engineers went every year and we used to have a lot of fun.


My mother died and my father couldn’t cook to save his life so I used to go to the canteen at lunchtimes. The carpentry shop made me a little box with a sliding lid and Monday to Friday I used to buy my dad’s dinner in the Abbey dining room! I paid coppers – it was coppers.

In earlier days, when I came out of the forces, we used to have an hour for lunch and could eat in the dining room; this was before we changed to doing shift work. So when we had an hour we used to get on our bikes and go down to Lakenham swimming baths and have a swim; it was fun. Later the dining room was called the Canteen; then they moved it up to Carrow House where the Colman family used to live – it is offices now.

Voluntary redundancy

Things were going along smoothly for me until the consultants came in and everything changed. I was 50 when they arrived to try and ginger up the firm – it was still making a fair amount of profit, but if you are making £30 million one year and one million pounds the next year, it’s a disaster.

When the consultants arrived they gave everyone a projected figure if they left – which was probably the wrong way to do it. We could leave on voluntary severance.

I remember I was fifty because the tractor drivers who used to cart stuff around the yards to the various departments, put up a huge piece of cardboard saying MAC IS 50 TODAY! I´d tried to keep it quiet. No chance! So we got a projected figure of what we would get when we left and in my case, including holiday money and being 50, it was about £28,000 – a lot of money.

I had lined up a job with Mulberry – makers of cricket bats – to be a rep and sell cricket equipment as they didn’t have shops. I was to go to schools and other places to sell it. It would have suited me down to the ground because I loved sport. So I asked Colman’s if I could leave but they said that there were only two steam fitters to do the work. I said, “You’re going to decimate the plumbing section but plumbing is pipework too. Why can’t you train someone up?” They wanted a couple of days to think it over and then they let me go. Unfortunately, that same day, the cricket bat firm said they couldn’t take me on.

I didn’t know what to do but in the end, I suppose I did what a lot of people did, I got a van and moved stuff around. In fact, I got a lot of work from Colman’s to take their goods all over England. I was self-employed, of course, but because they knew me, and I knew the transport section, if there was any short-notice work I used to do it and I’d go to the docks in Felixstowe perhaps. I’ve been down to Bristol and up as far as Carlisle and Chester making deliveries for Colman’s.

There was a printing firm in Norwich which printed a weapon´s training programme for the Ministry of Defence. It had to go to the other side of Manchester and I did that on short notice and I remember going over to Holmfirth (where Last of the Summer Wine was filmed) and then over the moors until I saw the lights of Manchester. It was magical as the sun dipped and it started to turn dusk. My wife travelled with me then.

Eastern Counties Newspapers – Caretaker to Service Coordinator

I enjoyed driving but I was always rushing back to play cricket – that took precedence over everything! But in the end it was lonely – you’re balancing a thermos flask of coffee and a map and you’re in traffic jams. I couldn’t stand the loneliness because I like being with people. I used to sit on the patio waiting for the telephone which sometimes never rang. In the end I had an interview with a double glazing company and was told, “Well, you’re well qualified, my only problem is you’re older than the majority of the workforce and I just wonder if you’ll fit in.” I said I could fit in with anyone. But in the meantime I got a job as a caretaker at Eastern Counties Newspapers – I knew the chief executive at the newspaper had been a student engineer at Colman’s.

I rang and said I knew him. He returned the call and I recognised his voice right away because we had played in the departmental cricket final and had opened the batting together and won the match. As we were playing there was a telephone call to say my son was born and after the match he drove me to Drayton maternity hospital

So when I phoned the newspaper about the job and asked if he remembered me, he replied, “How could I ever forget you?” We had some terrific times playing sport. He came from a family that was way above my station but we were mates – there was no side. He explained that they had unions and that I couldn’t go in feet first but he would put in a word. The personnel manager phoned and asked me in for an interview saying it would be all to do with my own merit. I got the job and I was able to work up to being a service coordinator.

I started as a Caretaker because they had some big boilers in there for the heating and no-one knew about it all so I was very handy for them. I worked days but I still did overtime and I used to go in on Sunday mornings and some Saturdays.

The job was with Eastern Counties Newspapers, now Archant. They had offices in the City at the top of Rouen Road, near Castle Mall and the factory was up on the Thorpe Road. There were two huge presses in there costing two and a half million pounds each.

An opportunity arose about the time when my hips were going from playing so much sport over the years. When they said they were having air conditioning put in and would need to have a service cleaning contract, I said I could do the majority of it – all I needed was a few hours a week and I could clean the filters out or replace them if things were more serious. It was a tick in my box! The personnel manager called me in and asked me to take over the job of looking after the branch offices – all the fabric and fittings, the security and that sort of thing. It covered a wide area in the Fens – into Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and all around the coast. There was lots of work.

Every few weeks I used to visit them all to see what was needed and check if there was any trouble. We had break-ins so I had security alarms fitted. We worked to a budget so if there wasn’t enough money they had to wait until we could afford it. I had a nice rapport with everyone in the branch offices and I enjoyed the work. I took it on simply because I knew the job – the salary was better than mine, of course – but I didn´t get overtime. When I said this I was told I couldn´t rely on overtime, which was true enough. And I knew I would be going into hospital to have an operation and would be away quite a few weeks and that the money would be a lot better than the basic I was on with the other job. It was a challenge. When you go into management it is a big step up. I had to wear a sports jacket or a suit and tie and carry a briefcase, which I always found embarrassing!

I was about 51. The personnel department was really nice – like a little family – and I had an office. The assistant personnel manager gave me a computer which frightened the life out of me! Fortunately, I got on well with all the top managers’ secretaries and they used to come in and help me! They did all my typing which was great.

I was really struggling with my hips by this time and couldn´t pick up anything – you could hear my bones going creaking – so after the Norfolk and Norwich let me down twice my doctor said, “If you are prepared to go within a radius of 100 miles I’ll get you in fairly quickly.” So I went to Mount Vernon on the Middlesex/Hertfordshire border, near Rickmansworth. I wanted the surgeon to do both hips together but he hadn´t done it before but then because I was slim he decided to try. “I am going to cancel my operating list because you are the first one on it”. It was a five and a half hour operation and I lost five pints of blood. I was off a few weeks and was asked to go back for a couple of days to see how it went. They were very good to me. So I went back, got better and began to travel around a lot.

In the end they turned personnel into human resources and they began to push things. I was called in one day to a high level meeting and was told they were extending the branch offices to the outskirts of London and I thought, “I don’t want this.” I asked for a private meeting and said that I´d like to retire a couple of years early. I suggested that my former assistant caretaker could take over and I spend an extensive amount of time teaching him what to do. That was the deal. I taught him to handle everything in the branch offices in terms of fabric and fittings and the security.

My pension was extended as if I had worked all the way through and it was a good pension. I also got a commission because, at the same time, they began moving the presses from Rouen Road to a new place in Thorpe – huge presses printing 60-odd thousand papers an hour. This was 1996. Carter was the main contractor and they subbed out parts of the work such the air conditioning, which was really high tech. They had a thousand defects with it all and wouldn´t pay until everything was sorted out. I was asked to spend six months sorting it out so I used to go two days a week. So I had a five-day weekend and I enjoyed it! I had a little office and people came in with troubles and problems. I got contracts signed with the people doing work for us and recorded everything so it was there for others to take over. After 18 months I was still there and I was just over half way through. When I pointed it out they said they would get someone else to take it on. So that’s how I finished working, I was 64. By then I´d got some money together and we went to Canada for our first holiday. It was beautiful.

Looking back

I think without a shadow of a doubt that the highlight of my working life was working at Colman’s. It was a family and you got away with absolute murder although I did work hard as well. We all had walkie-talkies and if a job came up, you would drop whatever you were doing and do it, and the double-day shifts meant you were on from two till ten and on call until five in the morning. I was often called out at two o’clock in the morning to do a small job. Once I came out from Colman’s at the big roundabout in Bracondale, tired as hell, having been called out and someone came round the roundabout the wrong way and I honestly thought it was me! I guess it was an American driving on the other side of the road – weird.

I had a huge number of friends in Colman’s because I had the run of the company as the steam heating went into every building and all the offices, and the friendships I’ve still got with Colman people are fantastic. At Colman’s we were a unit; we were brothers. And the fun we had there – everyone was happy! Now it’s changed completely. It’s been taken over by a couple of companies – and yes, the money is good but it’s horrible. For what they pay they want every pound of flesh. I feel I worked there at the best time.

I was lucky too because I was too young for the war – I remember all the bombing obviously. And you could easily get a job then. I worked at a place that was gorgeous, the money was quite good, the perks were good and so were the pensions.

Alan (b. 1933) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 16th August 2010. This edited version was prepared in 2015 for WISEArchive’s Heritage Lottery Colman’s Project.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.