Working Lives

Life at Reckitt and Colmans (1943-1987)

Location: Norwich, Carrow

Eric gives his memories of life at Reckitt and Colman from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Early life in the Colman’s community

Colman’s had always been known as a family firm, and quite a number of my family worked there. My grandfather was one of a remarkable group whose service exceeded 50 years. All of them in the Tin Department. For most of that time he was Supervisor of a room dedicated to making hand made decorated tins. My mother and three of her sisters worked there. My father joined the company in his early twenties as a bricklayer, finishing up as Building Supervisor. By the time I started as an electrical apprentice my father was the only family member working there. My grandfather had retired, my mother and her three sisters were all married and had left because of company policy at that time. Much later my brother who had served his apprenticeship as a carpenter and worked for several local building contractors joined the firm, and last, but not least, his son became an employee in the manufacturing departments and is still working at Carrow to this day.

My early memories of Colman’s started when I was only a few years old. We lived in a rented house in Alan Road, just opposite the Carrow Bridge. It was only a two-minute walk from the house to the main entrance to the works site. The house was owned by Colman’s and was only one of hundreds of properties that the Colman family had procured over the years in the various areas surrounding the site. Trowse, Lakenham, Bracondale, King Street and Thorpe, and a good proportion of staff and manual personnel lived in them.

Opposite the Carrow works site of Upper King Street, there was a large Grove owned by the company and during my early years after starting school, I and many of my friends played in The Grove acting out all of the films we went to see at the Cinema on Saturday mornings where we were members of the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’. We were cowboys and indians, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, soldiers, gold miners etc. Added to all this fun was the fear of being caught by a member of the Carrow Fire/Police force who patrolled The Grove at certain times. The Grove is still there to this day, and every time I pass it in the car all of those happy days and memories come flooding back.

Another early contact with Colman’s occurred at lunchtime and teatime every working day. The majority of the workforce left off at the same time everyday. On a regular basis I and other members of our ‘gang’ would station ourselves at the entrance to the site opposite Carrow Hill. Out they would come, like a crowd leaving a football match. Our targets were men who smoked cigarettes. Because it was mainly a food manufacturing company there was a general no-smoking rule and so the minute they left the site, out would come the packets of cigarettes. We would ask them if they would hand over the cigarette card to be found in every packet. The cards covered a wide range of subjects, Sports, Military, Nature, History, etc. The object was to collect a full set, and then put them into an album supplied by the different manufacturers (Players, Woodbines). Spare cards we used to play various made up games entailing skill and luck.

Another lasting memory was the Carrow ‘Steam Horn’ – it was a time signal for not only Colman’s workers but thousands of people living within miles of the site. It blasted off at 7.50am and 1.50pm every working day. It was years later that I found out it was operated by a Colman’s fireman sitting in the control room watching the clock. Then operating a switch, which controlled a solenoid, which in turn opened a steam valve in our Power Station.

Casualties of the War

The early years of the Second World War brought more vivid memories involving Colman’s. The first or second night after war was declared, the air raid warning sounded late at night. (I was just 11 years old.) We put coats on over our nightclothes and were directed to the underground tunnels on the Carrow site. The ‘All Clear’ siren sounded after about thirty minutes and we returned to our beds. Next day we were told it was just a practise exercise. The tunnels of which there were five altogether, each one 100 yards long, constructed under a steep cliff formed by the two levels in front of Carrow House. The tunnels held up to 1000 people. I found out years later that Colman’s, and several other local companies, had prepared very well for the possibility of War, with classes in Air Raid Precautions and First Aid during 1938-39. Carrow having its own Fire Brigade had been integrated with the City’s Auxiliary Fire Service.

Very little happened until June 1940. Two German bombers were spotted and one of them dropped a string of bombs across Carrow Hill, King Street, and Boulton & Pauls factory. A number of people were killed including several girls on Carrow Hill who were just leaving work. One of the bombs landed in the car park of the Queensway Public House where we had been playing five minutes before. As a result of this raid Carrow had an 80 ft Observation Post built at the top of Carrow Hill, manned 24 hours a day by the Carrow Police Force. Linked with coastal observation posts it gave early warning to Carrow, Laurence & Scott and Boulton & Pauls Ltd.

Carrow suffered two more severe night bombing raids. In April 1941 and June 1942. Four Oil bombs destroyed a number of buildings, while high explosive bombs hit the surrounding areas. The second raid called ‘The Great Fire Raid’ gutted five more factory buildings.

The first raid had a profound effect on my family. Because we always reacted to the ‘crash warning’ from the Observation Tower, we ignored the normal sirens which warned the whole city. This time it turned out to be a big mistake. The bombs were dropping at the same time as the crash warning sounded. There was an almighty crash as we all dived under the table, heads under, legs out. The window and the connecting door between the kitchen and the living room exploded into the room. We all scrambled out of the front door and into the large brick street shelter in Alan Road. Later on the heat from the fires started to warm up the shelter and my parents decided to walk to Lakenham about 2 miles away and stay at friends. At daybreak my father headed for home to check out the damage, opened the back door and found an unexploded bomb in the kitchen floor. He phoned the Police who came and had a look. They in turn phoned the Bomb Disposal Squad. When I arrived around 10.00am there was a rope across the road and the policeman was saying ‘you can’t go up there son there’s an unexploded bomb in one of the houses’, not realising of course that it was my house. Sometime later the Bomb Disposal men arrived, made the bomb safe and put it into the back of a lorry and took it away. They eventually managed to repair the house, but we had moved away by then, never to return again.

Time to enter the workforce as an apprentice electrician

My father was the prime mover in my employment at Colman’s. He felt very strongly about the advantages of working there. I was in my second year at the Technical College, a brand new school that had opened on the day I started there. A vacancy had happened for an electrical apprenticeship and he put my name forward. I had an interview and was offered the job. I am sure my father working there gave me an advantage. My father was happy. My Headmaster was not happy. I had no idea what it would be like to be an electrician or whether I wanted to be one.

I started work on 2nd May 1943, cycled to work that morning with my father, both parked our bikes in a huge cycle shed with hundreds of other bikes. Very few people owned a car and the others either walked or came on the bus. I remember being introduced to the Electrical Foreman. I actually knew him by sight because I used to walk to school with his two sons. Somebody took me to the stores and kitted me out with two sets of brown overalls, given some basic tools, and then allocated a tool draw in the electrical compound within the Trades Department. I was then escorted upstairs in a very ancient lift operated by an elderly man with a wooden leg. Then given a short lecture by the Electrical Manager, passed on to an office occupied by two more elderly people, one man, one woman. They sat on high stools with ledger books open on the desktop. It was almost like something out of a Dickens play. I had to sign some papers and was then given my works number which stayed the same for the rest of my working life at Carrow works.

On my return to the shop floor, I was given a brief tour of the Trades Department, which I found fascinating. In the Engineering section were fitters standing in a row each with his own vice. There were lathes and drills everywhere with a large overhead crane traversing the shop floor. In another section were Carpenters and Pattern Makers, each man with his own bench. Next to the Carpenters section were a number of men called Die-Fitters who specialised in the repair and maintenance of certain machines in the Tin Department. Then at the far end of the building was the Blacksmiths Department. Three blacksmiths, plus their mates, each with his own furnace working at their anvils, and in the centre a Steam Hammer which when delivering blows to a large metal object made the whole building shake. I remember being impressed with everything I had seen.

My next experience was my first works lunch. Luckily I had my father to help me through this ordeal. The staff workers apparently had their meals in the Staff Luncheon Club. Works personnel ate in a building that had at one time been offices. The food was prepared and served from wickets on the ground floor. You walked along the outside of the building under a veranda with your tray, getting your main meal on an enamel plate and your dessert in a metal pudding basin. You paid for your meal with zinc discs stamped with a number, which represented an amount of money. The whole meal would cost less than one shilling in old money. A number of rooms had tables and chairs in them and you picked one that had people you worked with or particular friends.

At 2.00pm I picked my card out of the rack and clocked in to work for the first time. I was introduced to the electrician I was to work with, and went with him and three or four others from the electrical department to the site I would be working for the next nine months. It was just the shell of an existing building with the floors removed and a new corrugated roof. It was there that we, and various other tradesmen, installed a Dehydration Plant that was a government contract. The finished products were dehydrated potatoes, cabbages, and carrots that were packed into 7lb hermetically sealed tins, and sent by ships to troops serving in places like Burma.

Because it was wartime we were working a 46 hour week and I was also going to night school two nights a week, 7.00pm-9.00pm, starting my City & Guilds Course. But I couldn’t wait to go to work everyday. I enjoyed working with grown ups, installing conduit and wiring machines and lighting. Of course it wasn’t perfect. Every day an older boy and myself had to take two sacks full of empty bottles to the Works Kitchen and get them filled with hot tea made with powered milk. It was a very uncomfortable five minute walk back with a sack full of bottles of hot tea on your back. What made it worse, the tea tasted horrible.

For a short period we had one electrician’s mate who kept a few turkeys, pigs, and a couple of goats. He brought some goats’ milk to work every morning on his bicycle. I had never tasted goats’ milk before. It was very sweet but it made a better cup of tea than the powdered milk. It all came to an end when he was on his way to work one morning and got the bag containing the milk tangled up with the front wheel and the handlebars and he went over the top. That was the end of goats’ milk tea.

The only other thing I can remember that I wasn’t happy with was my take home pay. 21 shillings a week didn’t give you much scope for a social life.

A new phase started when I went with another electrician. I became aware how large Colmans was. Although quite a number of buildings had been demolished by the German bombers, there were still a lot of separate factories on the 65 acre site, not counting the Office blocks, Research building, Transport section etc.

The majority of the employees on the site were static in their own building, hardly every getting the chance to visit other departments. Fitters were more flexible looking after and installing machinery, but electricians had free range across the site, installing, repairing and maintaining, machinery, lighting, fire alarms, internal telephones, switchgear, power cables, lifts, etc.

Colman’s had been one of the first companies to have electricity and there was plenty of evidence to prove it. First of all they had built their own Power Station on site. Unfortunately it produced DC current, 440 volts for power and 110 volts for lighting. It operated on coal and a low-pressure steam installation provided hot water and heating for most buildings on the site. Occasionally I came across lighting installations where wiring had been installed in pipes originally used for gas lighting. In some offices wiring for lighting had been installed in wooden casing. The lighting levels by today’s standards were appalling. 60 watt tungsten bulbs for most installations and in many cases 40 watt bulbs with no shades in manufacturing and storage areas.

In 1946 I made a big decision, the war was over, many men and women had returned from the forces and war work. War damaged buildings had been demolished and a start had been made to replace them with new ones. My last job had been helping with the wiring installation of a new Works Canteen.

Conscription and back to the expanding company

Conscription for a two year period for anyone reaching the age of 21 was still in force. I have never been certain why and I never met anyone else who did the same thing, but it came under the heading of ‘an interrupted apprenticeship’. Anyway I finished up in the Royal Armoured Corps, in the 12th Royal Lancers Regiment and after basic training and several electrical courses I finished up with the title Electrical Technician working on Daimler Armoured cars and general transport. When I returned to ‘civvy street’ somebody decided that my two years would count as six months of my apprenticeship and therefore I would become an electrician when I was 22 and a half years old. The company paid me the wage of an 18 and a half year old and the government paid me the rest of my salary. All a bit complicated.

The company was expanding and modernising in the ‘50s. The Power Station had converted to AC (alternating current). It was a major project to remove all the existing DC cables, and install new cables in a new ducting system.

The internal railway system with its two steam engines Alpha and Beta had gone as well as the railway lines and turntables. The introduction of a fleet of fork lift trucks had taken their place. So had many of the men who had loaded and unloaded incoming materials and outgoing products via the railway, road and river. I remember many of them sitting in a building nicknamed the ‘Dommy’, which I assume was a shortened version of domicile! They read newspapers, played cards until they were picked by ‘gangers’ to load or unload incoming materials or outgoing products.

Over the years the number of products produced on the Carrow site had steadily increased in numbers. Although Mustard in various forms was still a major product, Starch, Blue and Savora had disappeared, possibly because those buildings had been demolished by the German bombers. Although we always said we worked at Colman’s, the real title had been Reckitt & Colman’s since 1938. Later on it would add Holdings to its title. The main reason for the increase in the number of products was the takeover of other companies such as Keen, Farrow’s, Robinsons. As new machinery was installed they were able to produce the products at a faster rate and also be packed automatically. This drastically reduced the numbers of girls who did most of the packing because of their dexterity.

Over the next few years we saw a number of new buildings completed. A very modern Flour Mill, Mustard Mill, and Soft Drinks plus a Carrow Abbey Dining Room where the final barrier was knocked down and used by both Works and Staff. One more building worth mentioning was a concrete Silo, which would later hold 10,000 tons of mustard seed or grain. Using a new technique of hydraulic jacks, concrete was poured into moveable shuttering non stop 24 hours a day, enabling the Silo to rise 8 feet each day till it reached 85 feet. It’s still there to this day for all to see.

Of course with all this progress taking place other departments had to keep pace. A new Research Department was built to improve existing products, and try to come up with new products. Quality Control Laboratories were built. The Printing Department had new high-speed machinery installed, because they produced every label required for every product on the site. The Engineering and the Building departments were amalgamated to become the Trades Department. The Electrical Department had changed radically. The workload was split into several different sections, Planned Maintenance, Breakdowns, and Installations. Of course this hadn’t happened overnight and over the years I had experienced all three disciplines latterly as Electrical Charge Hand.

Eventually shift work was introduced. Many of the departments were working 2 or 3 shift periods and the ‘call out’ system was no longer a practical solution. Luckily I was never involved in that development. I tell a lie, because for a short period just after I had married I was asked to do 12 hour shifts, alternating each week with another electrician. 6.00am-6.00pm one week, 6.00pm-6.00am the next week. I couldn’t sleep during the day and around 3.00am in the morning I couldn’t keep awake. The reason for the shift work was to keep a watchful eye on six new machines that relied on electrical devices to control them. What made it worse was my Manager, who shall remain nameless, had no knowledge of shift work and decided that normal installation work would be carried out as well during the 12 hour shift period. Luckily things were back to normal after about eight weeks.

In 1965 a new section was formed within the Trades Department. Called the ‘Control Office’, its aim was to relate the true cost of all Revenue and Capital installation costs, in relation to all departments on the Carrow site. Skilled tradesmen from the Engineering, Building, and Electrical departments were selected to collate, record, estimate, and monitor all installation jobs.

I was offered the job and after considerable heart searching accepted the position for several good reasons. Office hours combined with flexible working suited me because it coincided with the birth of my son. An Increase in salary compensated for loss of overtime, and last but not least, the chance to cross over from Works to Staff. It did have its downside because I really missed the camaraderie of all my workmates during the last twenty years. They also viewed the new office with much suspicion. The general opinion was the introduction of an individual bonus system. This was never going to happen because it would have required a small army of estimators. It did however mean that eventually there would be a closer check on work output.

Working conditions and staff relations throughout the 20th century

In the last few months of the First World War the company prepared itself for the future. Working conditions improved with the introduction of the 8-hour day and the 48-hour week. Then, a ground breaking scheme with the formation of a Works Council which would give the 2,000 employees a chance to have a voice in their working conditions. When I started work in May 1943 the same system existed. Many employees belonged to various trade unions, but they were not recognised officially.

On the completion of my apprenticeship, I joined the Electrical Trade Union (ETU). Eventually the company changed its policy, but the ETU was excluded because of a suggestion of communist influence in the top ranks of the Union. There was also a scandal over ‘Postal Vote’ cheating during a committee election. The Union was eventually accepted and somewhat reluctantly I was elected as its spokesman. Over the next few years I quite enjoyed discussing various problems with managements.

In the early 70’s all Technical Service staff employees plus supervisors were given the option of joining a Staff Association called MATSA, short for Managerial, Administrative, Technical and Supervising Association. In my case I remember the ETU resisting my departure very strongly. They never officially accepted my resignation. At a ‘special meeting’ two of us were elected as Staff Representatives and another phase of my time at Carrow Works began.

I found myself sitting at the table during wage discussions and joining an evaluation panel that decided on the grade and salary of all Technical Staff and Supervisors, plus all Department Supervisors who had by this time joined MATSA. I won’t attempt to go into great detail, but the evaluations by means of a system called ‘Hay MSL’ were concocted by a group of American Management Consultants. The system measured the relative size of jobs using Guide Chart profiles, Job Descriptions, Interviews, and the pooled knowledge and experience of the committee. To help us prepare for this task we attended several ‘in house’ training sessions and also went on a three day course in London.

Expansion, then redundancies and takeovers

During this period many changes were taking place on the Carrow site. A new department for In House Training – courses enabling many employees to progress from shop floor to Staff. Supermarkets were negotiating contracts. Computer systems were taking the place of punched card accounting machines which handled all the Sales invoices. Work Study looked at ways and means of improving efficiency as well as reducing repetitive strain injuries. A Safety Officer appointed, plus safety shoes, hard hats, goggles, ear defenders, which were issued where necessary. Guarding had to be fitted to every machine, giving protection from dangerous moving parts.

Significant changes were taking place in the Technical Services Department. Engineering Draughtsmen became Project Engineers and my title became Electrical Project engineer. To cope with the many new installations, Electrical Contractors were brought in to assist the installation team. Outside help was brought in on a short term contract basis to provide assistance and experience in dealing with tenders for jobs from Electrical Contractors.

Expansion continued until the mid-eighties. Difficult to remember or describe how it all happened. I recall all departmental managers being asked to look at ways and means of reducing cost and improving efficiency. This obviously didn’t solve the problem because, within a very short time, we were informed that a private firm of efficiency consultants would be arriving on site. Soon every departmental operation was being examined, and many individuals were being interviewed. The various Trade Unions were approached, some cooperated, others refused to discuss the problems. Of course the majority of the workforce were well aware that to make large cost savings, you make a large proportion of the workers redundant and shut down inefficient departments.

During this period I was approached by my manager who asked me what my reaction would be if I was given the chance to take early retirement. My reply was ‘depends on the package’. The company offered a deal that I would have been silly not to accept, especially as there was a very good chance of becoming redundant in the near future. Some months later the axe fell, and large numbers of the workforce were made redundant.

But worse was to follow. Colman’s, who had been on the Carrow works site since 1856 and owed much of its success and expansion by acquiring many companies and keeping their brand names, was itself taken over by two very large companies who ‘cherry picked’ the various products between them, and carried on producing them on part of the same site.

Nearly 25 years have passed since I left the company, work is still going on as usual. Only one area, originally called ‘The Paper Mill Yard’ has been developed by building a block of luxury apartments which offends my eyes every time I pass them.

On reflection I have only scratched the surface of my memories of 44 years employment at Carrow, and I shall always be grateful to my father for his input in me working there.

Eric (b. 1928)  submitted the above contribution in 2011. An edited version was prepared in 2015 for WISEArchive’s Heritage Lottery Colman’s Project and appears in the Colman’s section.