Working Lives

The oilman cometh. Colmans and after (1945 – 2010)

Location: Norwich

After a couple of stints at Colman’s saw and flour mills, Colin enjoyed driving around the county as a door-to-door salesman and later oil sales representative for a big construction company.

Colman’s sawmill

I started work in 1945 at J. & J. Colman’s, as it was called in those days. At the time the War had just finished, and the men were coming back for work. My father wanted me to be an engineer, so that was going to be my vocation. I was 14 at the time and he spoke for me to work at Colman’s because that was the family firm. Colman’s were a very independent company; they had their own specialists and skilled workers, all working under one place. Unfortunately, the apprenticeships program ceased in 1945 so I had to go and work within the mills themselves, and I started on the old sawmill.  At that time Colman’s produced all the wooden boxes and packaging for their mustard products, and, of course, the products were sent out all over the world – India, Africa, New Zealand, America…

I started on the sawmill as a boy, mostly doing mundane jobs. I had to sweep up, look after the sawyers that were on the main saws and do any sort of jobs that boys would be given at that time. These saws were massive things, maybe four feet in diameter and they were going around at great speed. I suppose some of the jobs that we had to do were rather dangerous – we had to go underneath these saws while they were whizzing round to clear away the sawdust which would clog up the saw. The sawyers were on what we call piece work, so they would not stop the saws because they’d be losing money! Health & Safety would have a different idea nowadays about that. Sawyers did lose fingers and there were accidents within the mill itself, but I got through that OK.

I went through the whole mill, learned to work on the saws, the printing machines, and various other machines that were involved with making these packing cases. I stayed on in the sawmill until I was 18 and I finished up, not as anyone in particular, just one of the sawyers on the sawmill.

We used to start at 8 in the morning and work through till 1 o’clock, have a lunch break for half an hour or three quarters of an hour, and work till 6. They had a canteen, but because we were working a fair way from the main entrance of the Works, I used to take my own lunch in. At 10 to 8 every morning a loud horn sounded, which gave you 10 minutes to get down and clock in. This horn was on the old power station and had been used as an air raid warning during the War. The City decided to keep this and Laurence & Scott, Boulton & Paul, which were close by, used that as a time as well. It went off again at 10 to 1pm and at 10 to 2pm, which gave you time to get back onto your machines. 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. By the time I got to 18 I was quite pleased about the fact that I was hopefully going to go into the Army. My National Service came up, we had a medical assessment in Colegate, and if you passed you awaited your letter to say where you were going. I was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and I duly got my letter saying 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.

National Service and the Royal Army Medical Corps

I was in the R.A.M.C. for two years. I had had no medical training at all. As a boy I did belong to the Red Cross, but all they taught you to do was put an arm band or something round your head. We were taught through work. I worked in one of the British Military Hospitals in Colchester, and that was where we did our training. We worked on wards with the Sisters and Doctors who were also Officers of the Medical Corps. Funnily enough I was on a Maternity Ward for a time, which was quite exciting! It was a family hospital for British soldiers. On early shifts, we had to go in and take blood pressures, temperatures and that kind of thing, which was exciting.

Then, as they were asking for volunteers, I had a chance to become an ambulance driver. I thought that would be exciting and it meant another half a crown a week in old money. So I had training to drive the old Austin type ambulance, and duly became an ambulance driver. I used to go round to Colchester picking up patients and the wives of the soldiers to take into hospital. I had several postings; one or two in London and then I went off to Germany for a time, and then we returned home.

I went in for 18 months, but they added 6 months on when the Korean War started. I hadn’t enough service time to go out there so I was duly demobbed. At that time National Service boys 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.

I thought it was a marvellous idea. You didn’t have mum with you whilst you were there. You were given a task and you had to do it. If you didn’t 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. You grow up very quickly. Your Sergeant Major makes sure of that! All round I didn’t mind the experience. A lot of youngsters hated it, and used to go absentee only to be brought back and punished and still have to do their time. I was best to settle down and get on with the job.

Back to Colman’s in a Bedford lorry

By the time I came back home I was courting my wife-to-be. At that time your service with the firm continued while you were doing your National Service, so you didn’t have to start again. So I came back to Colman’s and I didn’t particularly want to go back onto the sawmill. At that time they had just opened a new flour mill and I applied for a position on the mill through internal transfers. I got a job on the flour mill and I enjoyed that, so I stayed with Colman’s for another 4 years.

At the flour mill I received the wheat that came in from farms, which had to be tested for moisture as it came in. If the moisture was over a certain amount which was very wet, you sent the load away and the farmer didn’t get any money at all, so it was up to them to make sure the wheat came in in good condition. If it was within the terms, I then saw it into the mill. Once the wheat was put into the silo, it went through the mill process and came out as flour at the other end. It was packed, and at various times when it was quiet on the mill, I used to go out and deliver flour.

We had a very distinctive blue and white three-ton Bedford lorry – you couldn’t miss it! I felt quite proud of it, because it was brand new. We used to go out to small bakeries in and around Norwich and around the countryside, and deliver the flour. The one drawback with delivering flour to a bakery was when it had to be taken upstairs. We had to carry ten stone bags up to the bins and then put the flour into the bins for the baker.

When I first started at Colman’s sawmill the weekly pay was about 1 pound 5 shillings. By the time I left I was earning somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds a week. Wages had gone up, but it was still a very low wage for what you were doing. Colman’s had a scheme each year where you shared in the profits, so every August you would get a bonus which was helpful. They were a marvellous firm to work for. They had their own medical room, their own ambulance, their own fire service, and 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.  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 people were very surprised. I always remember my manager called me into the office and asked 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. When I finally left they said, ‘If you ever need to come back just give us a phone call or a 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.

Birth of a Salesman

I had it in my head that I would like to be a salesman. Don’t know why, it’s just something that came up! A friend of mine was a salesman 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 weren’t any jobs going where he worked, but I saw in the paper a job advertised by Courtaulds so I applied. Courtaulds was a very old firm that produced fabric, fashions, and all this sort of things. They had a shop in Colegate near the Octagon Chapel and I went for an interview and got the job.

I had a round to go on and a supervisor came with me for about three or four weeks to show me the ropes and where the round took me. I used to start from Norwich on Monday morning and work my way out to Ipswich. On Tuesday I would be back in Norwich and on 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. Thursday was our half day, and Friday and Saturday I was in Norwich.

It was house to house call. People had accounts with Courtaulds, they could have £20 worth of goods for a pound a week, and then re-stock their account. On my van I would have a selection of everything – shoes, coats, dresses. We sold furniture as well, I took orders for washing machines or three-piece suites and we had a lorry that would deliver those. I’d be working 6 days a week and I was responsible for the money which I’d collected. The shop that I was attached to was in Cambridge, so I used to go over to Cambridge every Wednesday to re-stock and take my money in, but on a daily basis I would work from Colegate. It was a lot of travelling but I always enjoyed driving, so that was a bonus.

That was a very nice job, the one I’ve enjoyed most of all the jobs I’ve done. I did that for nearly five years, and during that time I gained experience and became a supervisor with a promise of a shop of my own. 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. We had a salary, and we had bonuses on top of that according to what sales you had.

A friendly offer

Coming towards the end of that time I saw a very dear friend of mine on the road one day and he asked me, ‘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. Doing what?’ Well, he worked 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.’

I had been offered a shop of my own with Courtaulds, but then for some reason the situation changed. People didn’t have that much money, so they decided rather than to open more shops, to close one or two. I said to my wife, I said ‘I wonder if there’s still anything going at Farm & Domestic Oils?’ She said ‘You were offered; 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. I went into Reception and asked the girl whether the  was available and luckily he was. We had a chat and I said ‘I’ve changed my mind, I think I would like to join you now.’ And 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 jobs for one person, one of them would be repping and the other one would be maintenance.’

They had big fills at Wymondham where the houses were already on oil and each had a meter. The oil was delivered to a central tank and then it fed out to all these houses. It was a new idea and what they were looking for was somebody to do the maintenance on the meters – meter reading and that sort of thing – and to be on the road. I had an interview with the Managing Director at May Gurney, and he said ‘If the manager is happy with you then I wish you luck.’ That was the interview so I joined them in 1971 and I stayed with them for the rest of my time.

Repping for the oil business

It was quite a large firm, and it was expanding all the time. We ran seven oil tankers, out of there, delivering to houses. 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. I enjoyed it because I had quite a large area, from Wymondham I went out as far as Lowestoft, Yarmouth, Gorleston and then come back again to Dereham, Swaffham and almost into King’s Lynn.

I was selling oil not only to householders, but by then we had gone commercial, which meant that I would call on haulage firms, small blacksmith’s shops and anyone in industry that used any oil or lubricants. You would have your area, you would have a supervisor watching you to see how you worked your 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. In 1971 my overall salary would have been about £113 a month.

By 1985 the company that we delivered the oil for through Farm & Domestic Oils was called Gulf. We were one of Gulf’s biggest distributers, selling somewhere in the region of two and a half million gallons a year – May Gurney were taking half of that, being a construction company, so we were delivering to our own company as well. Gulf 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 industry oils; engine oils, hydraulic oils, cutting oils…

I went away on a course for this, and when they were introduced to Farm & Domestic I was one of the first ones to actually go out and sell them. It was quite interesting because at that time there used to be Sunday Markets and they decided to send me to Snetterton! I had to be up at 5 o’clock Sunday morning of all times! And I had to go to Wymondham, load up a transit van with various types of oil, then go on to Snetterton ad find a spare stall. You’d have to see the Market Manager and you would say ‘Please put me somewhere where they’re fairly busy’. He would slip you in, and nine times out of ten I would get a stall 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. I would be there until about 4 in the afternoon on my own. It wasn’t the best of jobs!

We broke into the market, which was good, and I think that sort of helped me with my promotion at a later time. We then had a specially designed van, with sliding doors and  shelves put in, so that you could load the van up. I used to take it out twice a week onto my area and then pass it on to a rep on another area. We started to get a commission on what we sold and that was quite lucrative – the commission basis they gave us was quite good, so people were happy.

Off the streets, onto management

Around 1985 the Sales Manager decided that he’d like to leave and go on to another vocation, and I decided to apply for the position. 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 responsive. 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?’ So I would take over that particular call and go out.

We did a lot of the large orders. I supplied Anglian Coaches at that time and all the big haulage firms with the lubricants. They wanted the very best prices and there was a lot of competition. At one time I think I was up against about 14 other companies, CPS, Shell, Esso, Charringtons… and they all had reps, and they were all fighting for one account. It was a very important job, and it was a very tightly scheduled job to keep tabs on everything.

I finished up as General Manager and so worked very closely with the Managing Director of the company,. At the time of my retirement, at the age of 65, my boss who was a couple of years older than me, decided he’d had enough and that he was going to retire as well. 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’.

By then oil prices had come down which meant May Gurney could go out to any oil company and get more or less the price that they wanted without having the need for a provider of their own. The Chief Executive of May Gurney came over to see me and said, ‘I believe you’d like to stay on…’ and I said ‘If there was a chance I certainly would.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘because you two managers are of age to retire, May Gurney has decided to sell the company. In due course you’ll see the heads of one or two other companies coming in to give us a look over.’

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 from Q8. They were based on the docks at King’s Lynn and they had a lot of garages within the city itself. One day the Q8 head came over to see me and said ‘We would rather like you to stay on and take over the transition. You’ve probably got the database of customers in your head, you know what they are like, 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, that’s very nice of you. I’ve never been self-employed, 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’. It worked out quite well, I would still have company car and the enjoyment of telephones, and I would run the office and staff until the take-over was complete, so in the end I said ‘OK’. I signed a contract for a year with them, we became Q8 and it all went very well.

After I’d done that for a year my wife said to me ‘You know, we can’t go anywhere, you’re still working long hours…’ She said ‘I’d like you to be at home, so that we could go out.’ She’d been in fashions more or less all her life and as still working then but she was thinking about coming out so I decided I’d retire. That was quite an interesting part of my life.

Giving back

At the end of my retirement a very dear friend of ours met my wife in the street one day and said ‘You know, they’re always looking for volunteers with Age Concern. Tell Colin to pop along and just have a word with Brenda.’ So I went down to St. Giles, near the Market Place, thinking I’d deliver meals for Meals on Wheels but she said ‘Oh no, that would be a waste, I’d like you to come into the Office.’ I thought that sounded interesting, so this is what I did.

When computers first came out, I picked most of it up with an instruction book. When I went to Age Concern, Brenda did ask me whether I would you like to do a refresher and so I did a six-week course, which was very interesting. In my work I had worked on maybe one or three stations and that was it, but with Age Concern I was working on spreadsheets and surfing the web and all this sort of thing which I hadn’t done before.

Then we moved into a bigger office on Redwell Street, a lovely place to work. We had some lovely volunteers and the staff were wonderful people. You meet 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 their stories and the things they are unable to get. 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.

Going right back I had a marvellous childhood, I had a lovely mother and father, and I’ve got a brother, five years younger. Money was tight, but we always had a good meal, we always sat up the table and you didn’t get down from the table until Dad had finished his meal. We always had a Sunday suit and Sunday shoes – you didn’t really go out to play on a Sunday. I went to Church in the morning, Sunday School in the afternoon and then some marvellous old people who lived opposite us used to ask if they could take me to the Salvation Army Citadel on Sunday night.

The Parish Council

Between us we wrote away for grants and all sorts of things. We had meetings after meetings after meetings, and we came up against lots of legislation and things that we couldn’t do, but we stuck at it and we saw it through. We raised just over £150,000 from Norfolk County Council, recycling companies, and even department stores who would give appliances and equipment to go with it. It was done in 2006 and we had a lovely opening for the Village Hall.

I’ve always done voluntary work; I’d become involved with the Parish Council, from 1985 to 1995. I was Chairman of Trowse for some time, and then in 2002 I was asked to set up a charity for the Village Hall which was derelict, and the Parish Council couldn’t afford to put right because it was going to take so much money. Around 2000, most of the Village Halls in the County were being taken over by a management committee, and this was what they asked me to set up. So, I set up a committee in 2002, and got around me quite a nice group of people including an architect, a secretary who was in the legal world, and a fund raiser who was already fund raising for someone else.

Between us we wrote away for grants and all sorts of things. We would have meetings after meetings, and we came up against lots of legislation and things that we couldn’t do, but we stuck at it and we saw it through. There were one or two people against it, who thought the place wouldn’t be big enough and wanted to rebuild rather than refurbish, and we had quite a few fights. The building was a café at one time, run by the Parish Council, and I remember finding within the Parish Council cupboard one day big ledgers in lovely handwriting. Because we refurbished, we haven’t lost this literature – all our stuff is in the Museum – but in a lot of cases this has all gone.

We raised just over £150,000 in grants from Norfolk County Council, and help from recycling companies, and department stores who would give you appliances and the equipment to go with it. It was done in 2006 and we had a lovely opening for the Village Hall which is still used every day. There’s a wonderful Management Committee that run it and all sorts of lectures and events are taking place there. The place is actually alive!

Colin Steward (b. 1931) talking to WISEArchive on 26th April 2010 in Trowse, Norwich.

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