Life at Colman’s
I left school when I was fifteen years old and went to work at Colman’s of Norwich in the printing department. I worked there for nine years until I left to have my daughter Catherine in 1973. We used to make books and put together parcels that were sent all over the world, but mostly we made the labels. We used to make labels for the mustard, drinks, and baby food cartons. We would print the baby food labels on huge machines then cut them up and stack them on pallets. It was hard work! I would leave the house at 7:30 in the morning and get home by 6 at night. At Easter we had the Jif lemons, which would spring up in the air and fly all over the floor – it was impossible to get the elastic bands around them! Some weeks we made the laundry blue bags, printing the labels and cutting them up. The dye of the labels would come on your hands and everything would be blue! My mother would always say, ‘I know what you’ve done today, Christine’ because I used to come home with bright blue hands.
There was no special training for the work – we had a supervisor, and there’d be men who helped us and showed us what to do, but we just went in and got on with it. Sometimes if they needed more people in the drinks department we’d head up there to earn more money. You had to be very quick to catch the bottles off the line. The noise from the machines caused a lot of hearing problems. We didn’t wear anything over our ears, and it was a very noisy place. We had black lace-up shoes in case something heavy fell on our feet, and wore turbans if we went into the food or drink departments, but there wasn’t much health and safety. I remember one hot year, it must have been 1966, where we all said it was too hot to work in the factory, but we weren’t allowed to stop. They let us bring a drink in, so we’d sit or stand and do our labels. We wore navy nylon uniforms, and they were short! That was the sixties! We would have the radio on, listening to Radio Caroline. We loved our music and we all used to be singing. We could never hear ourselves because the machines were so loud, but it didn’t really matter. We were a happy family; we enjoyed our jobs.
Meeting and marriage
I used to work as a messenger too, taking parcels up to the offices. On one particular Monday my friend Brenda said ‘My brother’s started here today; you might see him in the yard’. I bumped into him and said ‘Hello, I’m Christine’ and he said ‘I’m Brian’. In those days we would all meet at the Samson and Hercules ballroom for the Carrow Dance. We met there in November 1968, and the year round we were engaged, then on June 5th 1971 (that was Brian’s 27th birthday) we were married at St Thomas’ Church. The girls in the printing department celebrated by making a huge horseshoe which they wrote a message on, and as you left the factory to get married they would take all the little leftover bits from the punch machine and stuff them down your back and in your hair. I had to walk home like that! I remember getting on the bus and finding all these bits in my pockets.
Colman’s was a big family-run firm, and everybody at Colman’s were like family. They did Christmas parties for the children, and dances at the social club. They used to play football up there; crickets; darts; they had everything. Lots of people got married after meeting there too, like we did. Colman’s even had its own nurse, ambulances, and police – and even fire engines! There were lots of us there and we still see them even now. There was a reunion not so long back, and we girls were laughing about how we’d bike across Norwich or get the bus, or have some nice gentlemen pick us up who worked there too. We were a happy friendly bunch. I remember meeting an old friend of my dad’s at Colman’s – Mr Blackburn – who said, ‘Did you know I was in the war with your dad?’ They’d worked on the railway together, and all those years later he was working at Colman’s with me.
The Avenue School
After nine years working at Colman’s I left to have children, while Brian carried on working shifts. My next job was at the Avenue First School where my children went. One day I went there with my little daughter and a teacher told me they needed a dinner lady. I worked there for twenty-three years until we all went to the Recreation Road infant and junior school. I’d look after the children in the playground, sometimes in the rain! I would talk and play with them, but that’s all different today. You’re not allowed to touch the children or cuddle them today. We used to put plasters on them, but over the years we weren’t allowed to do that either because of new rules. I remember when an Ofsted inspector visited, though I didn’t know who she was. She was in the classroom and I said ‘Excuse me, could you get out of that chair? My children want it for their dins.’ Then afterwards a teacher said ‘Do you realise who she is? She’s Ofsted!’ and I thought ‘Well, she shouldn’t have been sitting in one of the children’s seats then!’
I think that was my favourite job. The Avenues was a lovely intimate little school, where everyone knew everyone, and the junior school was right next door so we’d still see all the children as they grew up. I still see some of them today. I bumped into one on Unthank Road and he said ‘You’re Mrs Ellis, aren’t you?’ and I said ‘Ahh, my word!’ because I could still remember his name. I still visit Recreation Road School, and I see the children of the children I looked after. Yes, I have many happy memories. A friend and I visited the Colman’s shop in the city centre not so long back, and I was looking at the tins and saying ‘I used to print those!’ Colman’s was something like 150 years old when we married, and now it’s had its 200 year anniversary. It was there I met Brian, outside the baby food department in 1968, and we’re happily still together. Yes, it was well worth it!
Christine Ellis (b. 1949) was interviewed for WISEArchive in Norwich on December 2nd 2015
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