Working Lives

Dairy days (1961-1990)

Location: Norwich

Wilbur tells us about his working life, starting in shoe retail and then as a bus driver. He went to work for the Milk Marketing Board, where he became a senior supervisor. He gives a picture of developments in milk marketing and distribution from the 1960s when everybody had their milk delivered to their doorstep to today where most people get their milk from the supermarket.

My working life began in 1961. My very first job was at Curl’s Wholesale, which existed on the Haymarket in the centre of Norwich, where Top Shop is and next door to St Peter Mancroft church. As a wholesaler they sold all manner of household goods for retail sale. My job was not only to sell to the retailers but to pack up the goods. This was not a very pleasant job because it was a very musty and dusty old building.

I only stayed there for three months because being an asthma sufferer it wasn’t very good for my health. I then went on to retail shoes and my love of shoes has continued from there. My experiences were quite good and I enjoyed being a salesman, I enjoyed meeting people and selling shoes. Again we had rather a dusty old building which existed in Gentleman’s Walk, only a stone’s throw from where I originally started work.

It was a four-storey building and the stock was held on the very top floor, so it was running up and down these steps, which again with my asthma was not terribly good. So with that, after another three months, a very enjoyable three months I moved on to another retail shop, in St Stephen’s. It was in the old St Stephen’s, long before the redevelopment we know now. It didn’t include stores such as British Home Stores and Iceland places like that. The Co-op was there and we were virtually alongside them.

The shop was Tyler’s Shoes, an Irish company whose head office was in Northampton. But yes, again I had a very pleasant few years there selling shoes. I enjoyed seeing the new stock coming in each day and of course we were going through a very, very fashionable time. We had the Beatles coming into fruition then, so we had pointed-toe shoes and Beatles jackets to go with them, as it were. We had all the ladies….we had a metallic finish in those days, bronze metallic finished shoes were very, very popular in those days. White shoes for men were very, very popular with their winkle-picker toes. Beetle crushers or teddy boy shoes had then gone out of fashion. We had Italian shoes as well, which was very enjoyable.

It was a great period to be in shoes and of course at that time Norwich was a huge shoe-maker. It was very relevant, although most of our shoes came from Northampton – coals to Newcastle as it were! Being retail the wages were very poor, my first wages were three pounds per week. When I went to Tyler’s they went up to three pounds twelve shillings per week, which in old money of course is about £3.50 – £3.60. But of course everything is relevant and it was much cheaper to live in those days than what it is today.

When St Stephen’s was redeveloped the shop was closed and I was offered alternative employment by Tyler’s in Northern Ireland. I’m afraid I declined this offer because of the troubles with the IRA at that time. I felt it wasn’t the place for me, so sadly I took leave of Tyler’s and I spent a couple of years in manufacturing, that was round ’64-’65. I took a job as a trainee pattern-cutter and shoe designer and started my time at Norwich City College to study shoe design.

But again it wasn’t sufficiently profitable for me, I had a lady friend – a girlfriend – and we were saving to get married and there just wasn’t enough money to enable me to do that. So, I moved on once again and went on the buses and became a bus driver for a short period of time!

The Milk Marketing Board

Once I was married it wasn’t possible to maintain the hours comfortably with my new family existence so consequently again I moved and went into the job that maintained me for the majority of my working life, which was at the Milk Marketing Board.

The Milk Marketing Board had a dairy on the A140 at Harford Bridge, it was opened in 1937.It was built specifically for the purpose of taking excess milk produced by farmers in Norfolk and North Suffolk. It had become a very well established dairy with a creamery and buttery attached, so when I first went there they were still making butter. It had a yoghurt department which was then becoming the thing and was very, very fashionable with regard to food. We had a large plain yoghurt department where we just made simple ordinary plain yoghurt for our Asian customers. We then of course developed fruit-flavoured yoghurts for which the dairy won many, many prizes.

Working in the bottling department

Working in this department was very noisy, quite hard work as it was very manual when I started. Yes, bottling milk was very manual, I originally worked on the dock unloading and loading vehicles. We unloaded the dirty bottles that had been returned to the dairy, they were in big metal crates in those days. The bottles weren’t plastic ones like they are now, they were full height bottles not like the little dumpy ones that people will expect on their doorstep these days – those few people that have deliveries these days.

We had to barrow them off the lorry, onto to the dock where a colleague would then proceed to throw it down on a roller system into the bottling hall. There it would be unloaded mechanically by a machine that had 20 heads for picking up the bottles. It clamped the bottle, picked it up, went across the conveyor system and dropped it into another conveyor system and the bottles are fed into the back of the washer. The bottles would be turned upside down and a jet sprayed into the bottle to clean them, of course there were several stages of cleaning. You had the alkaline washes and the acid washes, rinses and then the bottles would come out nice and sparkling and clean at the other end.

Once at the other end they would continue round the conveyor to a bottling machine. Each bottling machine was a big round stainless steel tank that went round in a circle, driven round like a merry-go-round. The bottles would gradually be fed onto a pedestal and spring up into a rubber connector. The milk would feed into the bottle and once it had finished its filling it would come off the carousel, back onto the conveyor and lifted back into the crate.

We had foil caps which were cut as the machine went round – a nuisance they were as well, because the foil was always breaking so everything had to be stopped and set up again. On top of the bottle tops you had the date and the stamps and the name of the dairy embossed into the foil. That was done as the cap was being ejected down a little chute to be put onto the bottle top.

They were constantly breaking and they used cost us quite some time because it wasn’t high tech – not by today’s standards. But it worked and we used to have a nice product come out at the end of it.

When I started out in 1968 we just had two types of milk, that was full cream ordinary silver-top milk and of course gold-top milk which was Channel Island milk. It doesn’t come from the Channel Island of course, it comes from cattle that were originally bred in the Channel Islands, Jerseys and Guernseys which had a higher percent of butterfat contained in the milk.

Ordinary milk is about three and a half percent butterfat and Channel Island is nearer five percent. It had a substance called carotene which you will probably have heard of. As it would suggest it gives the colour of carrots and it gives that golden yellow colour that you get with Jersey and Guernsey milk.

As time went on all the milk that was separated for cream, all of the skim was just a by product and was sold for pig feed at 10p a gallon! We didn’t have this health and fitness regime that we have these days, it was to come but in those days nobody wanted the skim.

The only other thing we had was the little third-pints that we did for schools, which were a bit of a novelty because of all the equipment, basically the lifting equipment, had to be changed. We had different sets of heads because where you had 20 pints in an ordinary crate, with the little ones we had 30 in a crate. We had to actually have different heads to pick the bottles out and put them on the conveyor system, so that was a bit of a palaver.

In those days every village had its own dairyman and he would buy his milk from the Milk Marketing Board and then deliver under his own name, but as Milk Marketing Board milk.

Working conditions and labour relations

We did 42 hours a week then. Six days, rota’d over seven, so we had to work every weekend. Our hours varied depending on what job you were involved in. My hours at that particular time were 7am ‘til 3pm, something like that.

You had half an hour for lunch and you only had two weeks holiday, that was your lot and you had to take it in the summer. You didn’t have four or five weeks like you do today.

By the time I got there my wages were £11 and 12 shillings, a vast increase on what I had been earning. There was lots of overtime which was one of the attractions of the job. So it was not impossible to earn £17 or £18 a week, which was a very good income by then. It was quite a useful income which enabled me to support my family more comfortably.

Of course as time went on we had a ‘disagreement’ as it were and the Norwich Dairy has the infamous history of being one of the few industries or companies in this part of the country, in Norfolk, that actually suffered a strike. This was in 1969.

It was about pay for the drivers as opposed to the dairy workers. There were two active unions, the TGWU (the Transport and General Workers Union) and USDAW (the Union of Shop Distributors and Allied Workers) and they were involved together working for both parties so the dairy came out in support of the drivers.

This caused, obviously, much consternation between management and workers. Extra staff were brought in from other dairies, people came in from local farms to get their milk in and out, because it had to be collected. There was no way…..a cow will not say, ‘Oh well, they don’t want any more milk today, I don’t think I’ll bother producing any!’ It wouldn’t matter which day it was, whether it was Christmas Day, a strike, or whatever, because they had got to produce their milk.

It did cause problems between families as well. Different families who had members working there, some agreed with the strike and some didn’t.

We got strike money from the union, £3 a week, but it wasn’t enough to live on. We didn’t get anything from Social Services or whatever it was called then. So, I personally, although I refused to break the picket line, I didn’t refuse to work. My father-in-law was a coal merchant and I went and worked for him part-time, to enable me to support my family, that was my priority.

Although I was happy to be in the Union and live by the Unions’ rules, which was democratic and consequently I was prepared to go on strike, I didn’t agree with it wholly.

So, I humped some coal about which was very, very hard work. I thought that I’d been working hard, barrowing great big crates of milk around, but I actually had to lift the coal off the lorry and dump it on people’s coal cellars or whatever. So that was quite hard work.

Fortunately it was resolved and we did obviously all go back to work, and we started negotiations for a different pay structure for the dairy workers. It was a very clever idea that would in fact enable them to earn more income without necessarily doing any more work, one which I wholly approved, and helped to negotiate the final figures. Although I wasn’t a union representative at the time, I requested to sit on the party that did negotiate with the union and I helped to negotiate a new wage structure.

We also had a bonus structure that was based on the quality of the cleaning. So with lab results we had a structure that enabled people to get paid according to the quality of the work that they would be doing. So if we had very clean bottles coming out of the bottling machine, but we had poor quality milk going into those bottles because the tanks hadn’t been cleaned properly or whatever, then the person cleaning the tanks would be penalised but the guy who had the nice clean washer, wouldn’t. It was forward thinking. But then, the Milk Marketing Board was a forward-thinking company.

Health and Safety

Long before health and safety laws became applicable we had our first safety committee, in 1972. We looked at various problems around the dairy, one of which was noise. With bottles it was an enormous problem and lots of people did suffer hearing disabilities later on in life because they had no ear defenders. But in actual fact we managed to bring in ear defenders long before it was required by law. As I say they were a forward thinking company.

One of the experiences that we had there was when the clean bottles went down the conveyor they were still inspected for possible faults, or dirt or foreign bodies. Foreign bodies was a favourite! People do all sorts of strange things with milk bottles – or did in those days. People would put toys in, they would use them for paint. We found them with screws in.

We had a man sitting on the conveyor in front of a screen watching these bottles go past, 240 pints a minute! He would be hypnotised by them going past and would nod off. A couple of the older guys who were perhaps a little too old to do that particular job, I’ve actually seen one virtually fall off the stool because he’d nodded off. The supervisor at the time would get quite annoyed about people nodding off and much to people’s displeasure he did throw the occasional bottle at them. Not intending to hit them, just to smash the bottle to wake that person up. Not a very good idea.

Nowadays they have x-rays, sensors, clever electronics so that it doesn’t have to be done manually anymore.

Glass is a wonderful medium

There was always broken glass around, glass is a wonderful medium. I wish we used it more today as returnable item, it can be cleaned and reused. The average bottle has a lifespan of about 20 to 25 trips. Glass does deteriorate, if you leave a glass bottle out you will see a deterioration, the weather gets to it.

So, of course put it in a hot washer and then it would shatter. Broken glass is called ‘cullet’ and we had a special man who used to come and pick the cullet up on a regular basis, there would be several tonnes, he would take it away and it would be recycled again.

Cuts were always a danger but surprisingly you got used to handling broken glass, I’m still able to. We didn’t wear gloves in the bottling hall at that time, I don’t know if they do now, you learnt the techniques of approaching the problem and the manner in which is best to pick glass up.

We did wear gloves out on the deck for the barrowing off, big old rubber gloves, do you remember those? They bring back memories!

Visitors to the dairy

Visits were always a cause for amusement. We used to have lots of visits from schools, WI units, even nurses came and saw us at the dairy to see the processes that went on. Children were no different from children today. You could ask them ‘Where does your milk come from?’ and they would say, ‘Oh the milkman.’ They wouldn’t have said cow because lots of them didn’t know that milk came from cows. Those that did know that milk came from cows would say, ‘Where are the cows then?’ Because they expected us to keep cows on site.

We had a special viewing gallery so that people could overlook the dairy, without actually going in to the dairy itself. They could see the bottles going round, all the plants running and all the processes.

In 1968 we still had milk coming in in churns so they could see that too. That needed a lot of manual handling and there were special techniques which you had to learn very quickly. If not you’d spill a few gallons and the churn would be lost.

You did cry over spilt milk because you got severely reprimanded for wastage, which was one of the manager’s concerns, what his wastage was going to be.

Going to college and furthering my career

After being involved in the negotiations and being part of the safety committee, I was approached by the manager and he said, ‘Look it’s fairly obvious to us that you’ve got reasonable abilities and would you consider going to college?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes of course I’d like to further my career if I could’. And they sent me to college. I hadn’t achieved any GCEs so I went to night school and got them. I went to Thorpe Grammar School and did night classes and did O’level English, History and Language and Literature, and for my own pleasure I did O’level Art, but that was purely for me. This was sufficient to get me into college as a sponsored student, so it made me a rich student as well, as I was sponsored and I had a salary as well. I went on to study Food and Dairy Technology, achieving all four disciplines with either a credit or a pass. The company was very pleased about that, so their money was well spent.

I then went on to be a senior supervisor, overseeing the plant that I had been so involved with earlier. Even became a forklift driver at one point as the idea of barrowing the products around was getting a bit old hat. The specially adapted forklifts could lift nine times the amount that the average man could move. So of course they didn’t really replace people, but they made the job much, much easier. More efficient.

Dumpy bottles and homogenised milk

Then of course we went into dumpy bottles! And dumpy bottles were a bit of a revelation. Again they saved huge amounts of money because they needed less glass, they were smaller so you could stack them higher and of course they were much, much lighter, as were the plastic crates on which they lived. You could get more on a lorry. That in itself was a huge economical boost to the industry and made things much, much smoother, much less time consuming. So there were great economic benefits, all round benefits, more effective all round.

We started getting demand for homogenised milk, where the milk is put under pressure and the butterfat is broken down into very, very tiny particles and distributed evenly, so you didn’t have the cream at the top. So we would get more and more demand especially for bulk milk machines that you saw in cafes, where they didn’t have to worry about cream settling or have an agitator within a bowl. I’m sure some older people will remember those, the big glass or plastic bowls with the agitator. Homogenised milk, which was recognised as the red top milk, did away with the need for that. As people got more and more health conscious we got into skimmed and semi-skimmed milk. One of course is left in the separator longer than the other, the longer you leave it the more fat you take out of it.

It’s a centrifugal force system where the milk is sprayed to the outside of the vessel and the cream stays in the middle. You draw the cream off separately and the skim milk is – was- a waste product and is now a real benefit, well valued. For those not wanting to go quite as far as skimmed then of course there was semi – skim, which of course is less than half the normal butterfat, about 1.6 percent as opposed to 31/2 percent.

And again all these things were a great boost. But in the meantime we were cutting our own throats because we were doing deals with supermarkets. And we moved into the carton area.

Dairy Crest, social activities and practical jokes

We had full canteen facilities, it was an excellent canteen, with a full menu. There was a little bit of snobbery from the management. We actually, obviously I did become management in the end, had our own dining room. We didn’t very often use it, but we did when we had visitors. Thinking of visitors, we had a fairly VIP visit on one occasion, amongst his entourage was a guest who came and had a look round the dairy and came to what was an unrestricted area. It was a restricted area normally but for this particular visit it was pretty unrestricted where he could go.

One of the guys had actually set up a trap for a colleague – not for the VIP – it wasn’t intended for anyone outside the dairy, it was intended for a guy who was always playing tricks on people. They thought that they’d get their own back and they put a bag of scouring powder on the top of the door – on a partially opened door.

Now, the VIP was not expected to go in that area, and had he have gone right into the area the bag would have probably missed him. But because he put his head just through the door, the bag fell on his head! So we had a somewhat irate visitor covered in white powder and an even more irate production manager who threatened to sack the whole of the dairy staff – the bottling staff, because it happened in the bottling area. He threatened……but fortunately the culprit was never found! That was one of those little events that occurred.

There was much more tomfoolery in those days, soakings were quite frequent! It wouldn’t have been permitted today. Any such thing would have had you disciplined immediately.

Again as I say the Milk Marketing Board was a very, very good company to work for and it became Dairy Crest. By a directive from the EEC it had to be established as a self- managing business, detached from the Milk Marketing Board to enable it to be competitive with other businesses that were not involved with the Milk Marketing Board itself.

The Milk Marketing Board was of course owned by farmers, the prices were controlled by government but they were controlled by farmers. The EEC directive decided that it was against the interests of private bodies for the Milk Marketing Board to run dairying and processing units under their auspices. So it then decided that we should be a separate company.

But we still had a good pension scheme and we had really, really good conditions. We had showers, lockers, full lockers and showers that you could use at any time. We had a very active sports and social club. Christmas dinners and dances were held at the Norwood Rooms, which is where Mecca Bingo in now on the Aylsham Road. It was a dance hall in those days and was a very popular venue with a capacity of about 800 to 900 people. The Milk Marketing Board was quite an extensive business, not only the dairy. We had three depots in Norwich, at Harford, Mile Cross and Witard Road, Heartsease, that one is still in existence. We had retail units in North Walsham, Cromer, Sheringham, Wymondham, Halesworth, all around the county.

So all of these people all worked for the Milk Marketing Board or Dairy Crest as it was then and all were entitled to come to the annual dinner, which the company paid for.

We supplied the entertainment from the social club. We had such people as Charlie Williams from The Comedians , and The Flirtations and quite a number of good acts, so that was very good.

When the Norwood rooms closed we went to alternative venues like the Jarvis Ramada, which was then the Hotel Norwich. After the Norwood Rooms closed it was getting more difficult to find venues that would hold that number of people. So yes, we did have to move around occasionally.

Closure of the Norwich dairy 1990

Well, despite all the good times we had at the dairy, as is very often the case, good things sadly have to come to an end. Sadly by making sales to the supermarkets we done ourselves out of business with regards to the doorstep delivery. So demand went down and as a result the company decided that rationalisation was required. As a result of that rationalisation in the Eastern region – which included dairies at Kings Lynn, Ipswich, Chadwell Heath in Essex, it was decided that the Norwich dairy would be closed, resulting in the loss of 240 jobs. And sadly it closed in 1990 which was a huge blow because it was very much a family oriented concern. There were families which included four, or even more members working there. I had a father with three sons working for me in the bottling and cartoning department, and that was just one family.

For me personally, I was there for 23 years , virtually half of my working life. My foster father, my father- in-law, my mother- in-law, my wife, my sister-in law and her husband and my best man, all worked there. It was that kind of place. My daughter actually worked there, she was only a youngster at the time but she came at weekends and helped fill up new bottles.

So it was a very sad day when the dairy closed. People still reminisce on a regular basis about the great days that we had at the dairy and the great times and how they changed and are now no more. And the dairy is no more. Of course, it is now…..Tescos!

Wilbur (b.1945) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 14th December 2010.

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