Working Lives

Colman’s to caring (1955-1997)

Location: Norwich

Jennifer left school in January 1955 and started at Colman’s when she was just 15 in the tin shop making little tins for Colman’s mustard. She worked there for five years and later at Boulton and Paul’s and in care work.

I left school January in 1955 and started work at Colman’s. I was just 15 and I started in the tin shop making little tins for Colman’s mustard. I was offered a job on what they called the cutters. We used to put the sheets through rollers which cut the tin and then through another machine which cut it the other way so it made an oblong piece. Another machine turned it over and made the body of the tin. The bottom piece was put on, then the top.

The tin plate used to come in on a pallet – about 30 inches by 21 a sheet. It was very heavy. We used to lift about ten sheets at a time onto your bench and then feed it through the machine. We wore protective gloves and aprons but it still used to cut through – oh, I´ve still got lots of cuts on me. Another person put the plate through the machine – it was ever so noisy. We didn’t have ear protectors then.

Three of us used to do the cutters, Cathy, Margaret and myself – I stayed on it because the bonus was quite good! It was piece work.

Cecil was our charge hand and every so often he would have to come and alter the cutters to whatever size tin we were making. We worked hard for two or three hours and then had to go and find Cecil wherever he was. The tin shop was vast and had a cellar and I used to spend perhaps an hour looking for him. I never could figure why he got away with it because they used to want the work out and we had to put something on our time sheets to cover that time. I think he used to be somewhere picking his horses!

We didn’t let on but they must have known. The men just got away with it! He obviously had a bolt hole somewhere – there must have been a lot of them! I think a lot of those buildings have been pulled down now and some have been converted.

Everybody used to bike to work and at 7.50 am they used to sound a hooter. You could hear it all over the area and once you heard it go you had to hurry and clock in. It used to go again at 1.50 and 2.50 for the beginning and end of the lunch break. They had a lovely canteen where you could get a cooked meal very reasonable priced. I finished at 5.30 and then biked home.

I enjoyed some parts of the job. I left in the end when I married at age 20 because I just got so fearful of being cut. There was always someone in the Office with a cut – the gloves used to be cut through; some people did get quite bad cuts.

I’ve got a lot of cuts on me because the wide sheets of tin used to slip. I don’t think it would be allowed now. I nearly cut the top off my finger once – that was my worst one. In the end I didn’t even want to go in there so when I got married I thought it was the right time to make a change. I liked the people, nothing wrong with the people – apart from our forewoman. She was an awful woman really. She never called us by name. It was always, “You!” “You!” “You!” “Upstairs!” “You!”

Colman’s must have had several thousand people working in the whole factory. When the tins were made they used to go along a conveyor belt and into the mustard area to be filled up. I think several hundred people worked in the tin shop.

Every August they used to pay us a percentage of our yearly earnings and we’d get about a shilling in the pound which was ever so generous! We called it “Prosperity”. It was always announced over the loudspeaker what percentage we were going to get. Sometimes it was a shilling and a penny. But it worked out a nice sum for our holidays. Colman´s was quite a generous company I would say, with subsidised lunches and so on and I never knew anybody to get the sack – it was perhaps just the particular job I did that was the problem.

For some of the work I was on a machine and you had to keep up and if you weren’t quick enough it all used to build up – I didn’t like that kind of work. I couldn’t work quickly enough somehow and then it would all get to me. I liked the tin shop, the cutters and doing the job until I got too nervous of it in the end. So that is the main reason why I left and went to Boulton and Paul’s with my sister.

I stayed five years and I didn’t think to leave any earlier – from a sense of loyalty, I suppose. And it was a family concern because one sister worked in the printing, another worked in the Office and a third sister worked there for a time as well. My dad was a Lakenham man and he always thought Colman’s was a good firm to work for.

When I was due to leave school the only job I was offered was an office job at Harmer´s but then I was offered the tin making at Colman’s which paid better. As there were four younger than me at home that made a lot of difference. So I never went into an office because it was very low pay then.

Boulton and Paul´s

So I went to Boulton and Paul’s and worked with my sister on the painting.

(For this part of the story you can refer to Jennifer’s contribution to her sister’s account: ‘A Woman in a Man’s World’ under Construction & Maintenance)

I liked Boulton & Paul’s – nice atmosphere and I liked the work and it was good money.

Diamond H Controls 1966

I worked with my sister for five years until I had the children and left in 1966. I then went to work in the evenings at Diamond H Controls and was there for 22 years, transferring from evenings to mornings when the children went to school. Evenings were 6 till 10 which was lovely. I made a lot of friends and we all had young children. The company was glad to have workers then – they couldn’t get enough people so you could do any hours you liked. They were so desperate when they had orders sometimes that I would do the mornings – they used to say, “Well, if you can do an hour or two it will all help”.

Diamond H Controls used to make switches for cookers in the department I worked in, and they used to make thermostats to go into the cylinders – gas stats. There were 6 or 700 people working there at the time. It was a big London company that moved to Norwich and was a really nice firm – a family started it apparently. We all worked together but we all had individual jobs so you more or less worked on your own. There was no conveyor belt. You worked at your own pace. Some people were naturally quicker than others – I think I was about average. It was always piece work and if you were put on a job you hadn’t done before the others would help and show you the best way to do it or how they did it. All helped each other.

People years ago used to get the impression that factory people were a little bit rough and ready but I never, ever found it like that. When you had been there ten years you got a silver pencil to thank you for your service and after fifteen years you got some cut glass so every period of long service was recognised.

At Christmas we used to have a lovely Christmas Ball at the Norwood Rooms. It was all free, with free drinks for your partner as well and a Christmas meal and they would thank everyone for what they’d done through the year. They were ever such a nice company.

One lady called Jean ran the London Marathon when it first started and when she came into the factory everybody clapped, then we went into the canteen and the management presented her with something. I think they doubled the sponsorship money. There was always that sense of camaraderie and I missed it when I left after the company was bought by a company called William Holdings. They were asset strippers and they stripped the company of its profitable parts. It was reported on television and it was an awful time. They started at the top and sacked all the people they didn’t think they needed – not generally the workers on the shop floor but mainly the managers, under-managers and charge hands. Just one person was left running the whole thing. Then gradually they went down and down as each department was closed. It was really awful. Even the founder of the company left broken-hearted.

The work went to China and Dick, one of the maintenance engineers, went to China to do training and help them set up. They’re still in China as far as I know. I don’t expect the cooker switches we used to make are put in cookers now.

Diamond H Controls also used to make transistor boards for televisions and that was expanded and they made other things like coil windings. It was a very big company but how much went to China I don’t know.

There were a lot of tears I can tell you. We would hear a name announced over the tannoy and that person would go down to Personnel and get their cards and that was it. It happened in the afternoon mainly and everybody knew who the next person would be. In the end Pat, the ever so nice personnel lady, was made redundant and then even the Personnel Officer. It was ever so sad but that´s what happens in factories.

I really do wonder where everybody works now and how we produce any revenue. Norwich had shoe factories which employed thousands, Caleys which also employed many thousands and we had all the clothing places – all gone.

Care Work 1988

I took voluntary redundancy and decided I might like to go into care work which I did for the last nine years of my working life. I really loved that; I used to go round to the homes of elderly folk and I looked after a young family as well. The mother died in the end but I looked after them for five years in my caring job. I worked for the Norfolk County Council which was really good. The job has since changed but back then the doctors used to decide if somebody needed some help or care and a manager would see the person and allocate the jobs that needed doing. You might do a bit of washing for one person or a little bit of housework or shopping – whatever they needed really. There’s none of that now; it was a really good service.

For the family where the mum was dying of cancer, I used to go in at 7 o’clock in the morning to get the children ready for school and help her. She was ill for five years and she had three lots of chemotherapy so it was a long job and a very sad situation. But it was my job and I wanted to do all I could.

It was quite hard for the children too – they were lovely little children, I did love them. Their mum died after I retired but I still used to go in my own time because I couldn’t just walk away.

I met some lovely people when I did care work. I think care work was really my thing but I don’t suppose when I was younger they had care work, not like that anyway. Towards the end I helped with meals and collected the lunches.

I still meet up with my carer friends at Christmas times for a meal and apparently the situation now is different; when someone is discharged from hospital they have a care package and in that time they are helped to get back on their feet again. Whether it works or not…. I asked a young manager who said it did but the carer next to me said a little bit different!

We used to change catheters – carers do more and more things like that now, more like nursing – and we helped many disabled people with Parkinson’s or cancer… The idea was to keep people in their own homes.

People want to stay in their own homes and with a bit of support they can but I’ve heard of one carer who had 17 calls to make! Some of the colleagues I meet at Christmas would have liked to have stayed on a year or two longer after age 60, but they haven’t. They just can’t do the job. How can you go in somebody’s house and say, “Right, I’ve got 20 minutes?” You can’t do it. They don’t understand that you’ve got other people to see – they’re not aware of it, are they?

We were given quite good training as well as first aid training and we used to have regular meetings. When I first started I had a week of lectures and then received more training throughout my career and once a month I had a meeting with the manager to discuss any queries. It was good when we had a manager but then they took them away and we had social workers instead – I think it’s not quite the same. In the old days the doctor used to get in touch with the manager and whoever had a spare slot in their time sheet would take on the new client. We were given a certain amount of time – never enough time – but that was what you got paid for.

They used to trust us, for example, if you needed to do some washing and you couldn’t do it in half an hour, you’d say that it took an hour and they would allow it. We also had ten minutes to go from village to village in the car. The mileage was quite generous. However, they did cut a lot of the time later because they didn’t have the money.

When I first started most clients just paid a stamp – a £2/5/6d stamp. They bought them at the Post Office. They used to sign your sheet to say that you’d done the time and then your time sheet was posted and you got paid. Social Services funded it. Now people can pay £12 or £13 an hour for their care. My aim was to help them along but you’re not allowed to do that now – there are so many rules and regulations!

We had fewer but they did give us all rule books and then they issued folders and we had to write everything down we did. “Oh,” I used to think. “Whatever can I put down?” I think they did trust us more than now, however. We were vetted before we went into people’s homes, of course, to ensure we were trustworthy but I never knew any of the girls to ever go home on time. I mean, if I started at 7 am I should have rightfully been home at 1 or 2 pm but I was never home till 3 or so – I worked that time for nothing. It’s different to factories where you just clock in and out.

I liked the home care work best and if I had my time over again I think I would have gone into nursing. When I left school at 15 the Careers people came round and just offered us ordinary jobs. But Diamond H Controls was a nice family firm.

I wouldn’t change anything of my working life really. When I left Diamond H Controls I really missed being part of the extended family – it was huge with six or seven hundred people working there. I never had any trouble. I think once there was a fight between a couple of the men and they were suspended for two or three days, but usually everybody just went in and got on with things. The only time you ever had a problem there was when the work was a bit short – it brings out the worst in people.

Work is short now. My grandson is a trainee accountant and he works in the Norwich, in the city, and he says it’s awful because nobody knows who will be made redundant, and as he was one of the last to go there he is really quite worried.

Jennifer (b. 1939) spoke to WISEArchive on April 16th 2009. This edited version was prepared in 2015 for WISEArchive’s Heritage Lottery Colman’s Project.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.