The saw and flour mills: boy and man at Colman’s, 1945-1956

Location : Norwich

I was born in 1931 and started to work at J & J Colman’s, as it was then, when the War had just finished and men were coming back to work. My father spoke for me at Colman’s as it was the family firm and he wanted me to be an engineer – that was going to be my vocation. Colman’s was an independent company with their own employees, specialists and skilled workers all working in one place. Unfortunately the apprenticeships ceased in 1945 for a while so I had to work in the mills and started in the old saw mill as a boy. At that time Colman’s made all the wooden boxes and packaging within the company for their mustard products and sent them all over the world – India, Africa, New Zealand, America

I was 14 and my first jobs were rather mundane. I had to sweep up, look after the sawyers on the main saws and do any sort of job that boys were given at that time. Some of the jobs we did were rather dangerous inasmuch that they didn’t stop the saws when we cleared the sawdust away. Health & Safety would have a different idea nowadays about that. Sawyers did lose fingers and there were accidents but I got through OK and I stayed in the saw mill until I was 18 until I had to do National Service.

I learned to make the boxes and I learned everything that happened in the mill; how to use the saws, the printing machines and the various other machines involved with making packing cases and I finished up as one of the sawyers. I started at 8 in the morning and worked through till 1 o’clock, had a lunch break for three quarters of an hour and then worked till 6. We had a canteen but because I mainly worked a fair way from the main entrance of the Works, I used to take my own lunch in.

At 9.50 every morning a loud horn was sounded. It was on the old power station and was used as an air raid warning during the War. They kept it and when it went off, it gave you 10 minutes to get down and clock in.

Laurence & Scott and Boulton & Paul, which were nearby, they made use of the horn as well. It would go off again at 1.50 which gave you time to get back to your machine but it didn’t go off at 6 o’clock when you would just clock out and go home.

Royal Army Medical Corp 1950

It was a very boring job and by the time I was18 I was quite pleased to go into the Army. So my National Service came up and I had a Medical in Colegate, Norwich. I went into the R.A.M.C., the Royal Army Medical Corps, and duly got a letter to report to Aldershot. They sent me a ticket and some money to have a cup of tea on the way.

I was in the R.A.M.C. for two years and became an ambulance driver and spent some time in Germany. We were trained and I later worked in one of the British Military Hospitals in Colchester. When you judged efficient you could work on wards where the Sisters and Doctors were also Officers of the Medical Corps. Funnily enough I was on a Maternity Ward for a time which was quite exciting; it was unusual for a male nurse at the time.

It was a family hospital for British soldiers and I learned to take blood pressure and temperature which was interesting. And then I had a chance – they were asking for volunteers to become ambulance drivers. I thought it would be exciting and it meant another half a crown a week, in old money. So I was trained to drive the old Austin type ambulance and I would go round Colchester picking up patients and the wives of soldiers to take to hospital. I had several postings; one or two in London and then in Germany.

I actually went in for 18 months but they added 6 months when the Korean War started. Fortunately I hadn’t long enough service left to do so I didn’t go there. I was demobbed and at that time National Service boys also had to do 5 years in the Territorial Army so I did my 5 years in the Territorials.

It was a good experience to have as a young man. You didn’t have mum with you and when you were given a task you had to do. You grew up very quickly. Your Sergeant Major makes sure of that!

Back to Colman’s and the new flour mill 1952-56

By the time I returned home I was courting my wife-to-be and I went back to Colman’s because, at that time, the service with the firm continued during the two years you were away. They had just opened a new flour mill and I applied for a position in the mill as I didn’t particularly want to go back to the saw mills. I applied through internal transfers and got the job in the flour mill which I enjoyed and I stayed another 4 years.

In the flour mill I would receive the wheat coming in from the farms. It had to be moisture tested and if the moisture was over a certain amount we just sent the load away. If it was within the terms and conditions I would take it into the mill.

If we had to send it away the farmer wasn’t paid so it was up to them to make sure the wheat arrived in good condition. Once the wheat was put into the silo, it went through the milling process and came out as flour ready to be packed. When it was quiet in the mill I used to deliver flour around the county in a very distinctive, three ton, blue and white Bedford lorry. You couldn’t miss it. I felt quite proud because it was brand new and we used to go out to the small bakeries in and around Norwich to deliver the flour. Now, there was one drawback with delivering flour to a bakery: It had to be taken upstairs! So we had to carry ten stone bags up to the bins and put the flour into the bins for the baker.

When I first started at Colman’s I think the weekly pay was about £1 and 25 pence and it was £1 and 5 shillings in the saw mill. By the time I left I suppose I was earning somewhere between £12 and £15 a week. Wages had gone up but it was still a very low wage for what you were doing. However, Colman’s did have a scheme each year where you shared in the profits, so every August you would get a bonus which was helpful.

Colman’s was a marvellous firm to work for. They had everything. They had their own medical room, ambulance, fire service and police. If you kept your nose clean while you worked there, you had a job for life. My father worked there for 51 years. When I put in my notice people were very surprised and I always remember my manager calling me into the office and asking why was I leaving and if I wanted more money; was I not happy with my job and was there something they could do to make me change my mind? Right up to leaving on Friday night I didn’t know if I was meant to pick up my tax papers and money because once you were there they didn’t want you to leave.

When I did finally go, they said, “If you ever need to come back, just call”, It was a good part of my life and, of course, my dad could not understand why I wanted to leave.

Working for Courtauld’s

I had it in my head that I would like to be a salesman. 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 were no jobs going where he worked but I saw a job advertised by Courtauld’s which was a very old firm. They were into fabric and fashions and all sorts of things. They had a shop in Colegate near the Octagon Chapel in Norwich.

I got the job and was given a round and a supervisor went with me for the first three or four weeks to show me the ropes. I would start in Norwich on a Monday morning and work my way out to Ipswich on Tuesday, be back in Norwich on Wednesday and then return to Ipswich – I did the left hand side going out, right hand side coming back. Thursday was half day and I had Friday and Saturday in Norwich.

I worked 6 days a week and was responsible for the money I collected on house calls. People had accounts with Courtauld’s and my van would carry a selection of everything – shoes, coats, dresses… They could have £20 worth of goods and pay it off at a pound a week; then they could re-stock their account. We sold furniture as well, such as three piece suites and washing machines. It would be on what we called a 38 week account or hire purchase. I just took the orders and a lorry would deliver them. It was a very nice job and I did it for about five years. During that time I became a supervisor in charge of five or six reps and I would travel with them on a five weekly course and I’d make sure that their accounts were up to date. I was paid a salary with bonuses on top according to the sales I made.

I was promised a shop of my own but in the early 1960s the situation changed and people no longer had much money so it was decided to close some shops rather than open more.

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 the money. It was a lot of travelling but I always enjoyed driving, so that was a bonus.

Working with domestic oil meters across Norfolk 1970/71

Towards the end of that time I was offered a job by a good friend who worked as a manager for Farm & Domestic Oils Ltd in Wymondham, a subsidiary of May Gurney. He said that he needed another rep as business had built up and up and would I like to join; the job was to be advertised and I would be interviewed. I said no but when the offer of a shop of my own fell through I went back to Wymondham and asked the girl in Reception if my friend was available. Luckily he was and I explained that I had changed my mind and would like to join his firm. He said they were about to advertise for two people.

Because many houses in Wymondham were already using oil on a meter, the oil was delivered to a central tank and then fed out to the houses. It was a new idea and Farm and Domestic Oils were looking for someone to maintain the meters and do meter readings and for someone to be on the road. I joined them in 1970/1971 and I stayed with them for the rest of my time.

It was quite a large firm and it was expanding all the time. We ran seven oil tankers, delivering to houses and I did both jobs. I acted as a rep and I also went around the Estate in Wymondham reading meters and 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 and Gorleston and then I would go to Dereham, Swaffham and almost into King’s Lynn. So that was quite a big area.

We sold oil not only to householders but also to commercial outlets which meant that I would call on haulage firms, small blacksmith’s shops and anyone in industry that used oil or lubricants. I had my area and a supervisor. We worked a finger which means, for example, that coming out from Wymondham I would call in to, say, Loddon, Beccles, Bungay and probably work my way to Lowestoft. That would be one day’s work, and then the next day I would follow on from there to Yarmouth, then across to Dereham. So, at least once a fortnight I would be in the same place either making courtesy visits on people who were already on the books, or looking for new business.

I didn’t work on commission as that wasn’t May Gurney’s policy. We worked on a strict salary which was quite good and in 1971 I think my overall salary would have been about £113 a month. Perhaps receiving a straight salary keeps you honest as it were. By 1985, the company that we actually delivered oil for was called Gulf and I worked for Gulf UK through Farm & Domestic Oils. We were one of their bigger distributors selling somewhere in the region of two and a half million gallons a year. May Gurney took half of it as they were a construction company, so we were delivering to our own company as well. Gulf decided that, as we were doing pretty well selling the oil, it might be good to introduce the sale of lubricants such as engine oils, hydraulic oils, cutting oils – in other words oils for industry.

I went on a course and was one of the first to actually go out and sell. It was quite interesting because at that time there used to be Sunday Markets and they decided to send me to Snetterton – a market outside Norwich. I had to be up at 5 o’clock on Sunday mornings to load up a transit van in Wymondham with various types of oil to introduce and then go to Snetterton and find a spare stall. The Market Manager would slip me in and I would ask to be put me somewhere busy. Nine times out of ten I would be alongside of one of the auction stalls where they sold everything and I was able to introduce oils to the people waiting there. I stayed until about 4 in the afternoon; it wasn’t the best of jobs and I was on my own but we broke into the market which was good, and I think it helped with my promotion later on.

We had a specially designed van with sliding doors and shelves which I would load up and take out twice a week around my area. I then passed it on to a rep in another area. When that came in we did get a commission on what we sold which was quite lucrative, so people were happy.


In 1984 or 85 the Sales Manager decided to leave and I applied for the position and became Sales Manager for Farm & Domestic with five reps working for me. I had to order product for the next day to be brought in overnight, quite a responsibility. I actually finished up as General Manager, because the Office Manager retired and my boss became Managing Director of the company. We worked very closely together.

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 didn´t have the right price. Obviously you can give a better price. Would you mind going along and seeing them?” Then I would take over that particular call and go out.

We supplied a lot of the large companies such as Anglian Coaches and sold lubricants to the bus market and all the big haulage firms. It was all big contracts and there was a lot of competition. At one time I think I was up against 14 other companies – CPS, Shell, Esso, Charringtons… They all had reps and they were all fighting for the same accounts. So, it was all about scheduling and keeping tabs on everything, but I enjoyed it.

I was due to retire at the age of 65 when my boss, who was a couple of years older than me, decided that he was going to retire and asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I didn’t particularly want to retire and I’d like to carry on. “Oh,” he said, “I don’t think there’ll be any chance of that”. Anyway, the Chief Executive of May Gurney came to see me and asked if I’d like to stay on. So I said, “If there was a chance, I certainly would.” “Well,” he said, “because you are both more or less the same age and you’re at an age to retire, May Gurney has decided to sell the company!” The reason was that oil prices had come down and buyers didn’t stick to one company so May Gurney could go anywhere and get more or less the same price without having to own the company. “So,” he said, “we’ve decided to sell the company. In due course,” he said, “you’ll see the Heads of one or two other companies coming in to give us a look over.”

Being in the business for a long time, I knew most of the Heads of the other companies and the people involved. One of them was Q8. They were based in King’s Lynn, on the docks, and they already owned many garages within the city. They asked me to take charge of the transitional change-over because I probably had the database of customers in my head and knew what they were like and knew what they had. I was to have the same running of the office staff and reps; however, they wanted me to take it on as a self-employed person. I said that I’d never been self-employed and didn’t really like the idea of having to get into tax and all the rest of it. Anyway, it worked out quite well as I still had a company car and I ran the office until they took over the business. I signed a contract for a year and the transition went well and we became Q8.

When the year was up my wife told me that we could never go anywhere because I was working long hours. This was the second half of the 1990s. So I decided to retire.

Voluntary work

Since then I’ve always done voluntary work and became involved with the Trowse Parish Council. My first stint was from 1985 to 1995 and I became Chairman for a while. 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 it right. Around 2000 most Village Halls in the County were being taken over by a Village Hall Management. Committee so I set up quite a nice little committee. We had an architect, a lady secretary who was in the legal world and a fund raiser who already knew about fund raising, so between us, we were able to apply for grants.

We had many meetings and came up against a lot of legislation but we stuck at it; we had to prove that what we were doing was for the good of the residents of Trowse but we saw it through and in 2006 we had a lovely opening for the Village Hall. We raised just over £150,000 from grants available from the Norfolk County Council and people like recycling companies. It’s used by mums and tots and for all sorts of lectures and events. The place is actually alive. We have a nice little garden in the back with a patio and people can hire the Hall, take a bottle of wine, and sit in the garden. Quite an achievement!

During my stint on the Parish Council, the Southern Bypass was opened, which was quite exciting as Trowse was given its own bypass so we had a street party. I invited Timothy Colman who was Lord Lieutenant at the time because he was very much involved with the village. We had music, minstrels and refreshments, and we closed the street and everybody thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

I heard that Age Concern was always looking for volunteers and I went along to volunteer for “Meals on Wheels” but I was invited to work on Reception. For a while I did some paper sorting in a very small office and then we moved to Redwell Street, and into quite a massive office – a lovely place to work and it’s good to see old buildings being used rather falling into dereliction – the architect was Bignold and he really did make a lovely job of it. I continued on Reception, meeting and greeting people coming into the Office, and I realised I’d been very lucky in the life. It was a worthwhile job and I look at it as putting something back.

Looking back

Going right back, I had a marvellous childhood, I had a lovely mother and father, and a brother five years younger than me although we didn’t have the things that children have nowadays. Money was tight I suppose but when I talk to my 8 grandchildren and see what they are lucky enough to have, I say, “We always had a good table, we always had meals and we always sat at the table”. Dad was in charge and when you’d finished your dinner, you didn’t get down from the table until dad had finished his meal. We always had a Sunday suit and Sunday shoes. We didn’t really go out to play on a Sunday; we went to Church in the morning and Sunday School in the afternoon. Two older people who lived opposite us were Salvationists and they used to ask if they could take me to the Salvation Army Citadel on a Sunday night so I went to Church three times on a Sunday.

I was brought up during the War living in Crooks Place – which is Bignold now – and I suppose we spent long spells in the shelter, all day sometimes. Although nothing happened you’d be down there and a lot of school time was spent in the shelters. Occasionally a bomb dropped. I always say that it didn’t really make any difference to what I did in my life, because I think that I got the best out of the life I had. I’m sure that if I had had to apply for my job with paperwork, there’s no way I would have got it. It´s very important for children now but I think a child can achieve without so much paperwork, because not everybody is good at both head and hand. Growing up in the Thirties through to the Sixties was a good time and my favourite time. I was growing up and I achieved everything I hadn’t set out to do! It just happened, so I was doubly lucky.

I saw working conditions improve. When I was working in the saw mills I was sometimes sent underneath the saws as they were whizzing round, to pull away the sawdust which would clog up the saw. The saws were massive things, maybe two to four foot in diameter and they would go round at a vast rate. The sawyers were on piece work so they wouldn’t shut down the machine and lose money.

It was dangerous and, of course, when Health & Safety came in it was no longer allowed. I was involved with Health & Safety in my work. I think it´s gone over the top in some ways now and that there’s a lot of silly things. I remember in my job in lubricants that we used to have either 5 gallon cans or 45 gallon cans and when Health & Safety first came in I was sent a load of stickers to put on the cans: “Do not drink!” I mean, how long has oil been in existence? Hundreds and hundreds of years! Anyway I had to put the stickers on.

Computerisation arrived when I was working and legislation changed on a daily basis. Every day I had an email saying that something had to be changed or there was something you couldn’t do any more. When the computers first came out they were low grade and I picked most of it up from a book. When I went to Age Concern I was asked if I was I.T. committed. I said, “Well, yes, I use a computer but I wouldn’t say I’m I.T. committed, not right the way through.” So I was asked if I would like to do a refresher and was sent on a six week course and was involved with spreadsheets, and surfing the web and all that sort of thing which I hadn’t done before.

However, I think we have lost something with computers; I remember finding ledgers written in longhand in the Parish Council cupboard one day. The building had been a café and the ledgers had lovely handwriting: “Bought; 2lbs sugar, 1lb tea” and then a calculation at the end. This is what we’ve lost although we haven’t actually lost these as they are in the Museum.

Colin (b. 1931) was interviewed for WISEArchive on April 26th 2010. The full interview can be found in the Mixed Employment section entitled The oil man cometh. This edited version was prepared in 2015 for WISEArchive’s Heritage Lottery Colman’s Project.

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