The Electrical Department and the Control Office, Colman’s 1943-1987

Location : Norwich

Early life in the Colman community

Colman’s was always 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 the 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. However, by the time I started as an electrical apprentice my father was the only family member working there. My grandfather had retired and my mother and her three sisters had married and had to leave 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 start when I was only a few years old and we lived in a rented house in Alan Road, just opposite 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 was a large Grove owned by the company and after starting school, I and many of my friends played in The Grove acting out all of the films we saw at the Cinema on Saturday mornings where we were members of the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’. We were cowboys and indians, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, soldiers and gold miners. 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 those happy days and memories come flooding back.

Another early contact with Colman’s occurred at lunchtime and teatime when the majority of the workforce left off at the same time every day. 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 no-smoking rule so the minute they left the site, out would come the packets of cigarettes. We would ask them for the cigarette card to be found in every packet. The cards covered a wide range of subjects like Sports, Military, Nature, and History… The object was to collect a full set and put them into an album supplied by the different manufacturers such as Players and Woodbines. We used the spare cards 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 7.50 am and 1.50 pm 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. The switch on the panel 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. I was just 11 years old. The first or second night after war was declared, the air raid warning sounded late at night. We put coats on over our nightclothes and were directed to the underground tunnels on the Carrow site. The ‘All Clear’ siren sounded about thirty minutes later and we returned to our beds. Next day we were told it was just a practise exercise. There were five tunnels altogether, constructed under a steep cliff formed by the two levels in front of Carrow House. Each tunnel was 100 yards long and 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 throughout 1938-39. Carrow had its own Fire Brigade and this was integrated with the City’s Auxiliary Fire Service.

Very little happened until June 1940 when 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 an 80 foot Observation Post was 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 a 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 and we all scrambled out the front door and into the large brick street shelter in Alan Road. When the heat from the fires started to heat up the shelter my parents decided to walk to Lakenham about 2 miles away and stay with 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 immediately phoned the Bomb Disposal Squad. When I arrived around 10.00 am 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.

Entering the workforce as an apprentice electrician

My father felt very strongly about the advantages of working at Colman’s and was the prime mover in my employment there. I was in my second year at the Technical College, a brand new school which opened the day I started. A vacancy came up for an electrical apprenticeship and he put my name forward. I had an interview and was offered the job. I’m 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 with my father and we parked our bikes in a huge cycle shed with hundreds of others. Very few people owned a car and either walked, biked or took a bus. I remember being introduced to the Electrical Foreman. I actually knew him by sight because I walked to school with his two sons.

Somebody took me to the stores and kitted me out with two sets of brown overalls, some basic tools and 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 and given a short lecture by the Electrical Manager before being 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 like something out of Dickens. I had to sign some papers and was given my works number which stayed unchanged for the rest of my working life in the 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, I saw the fitters standing in a row, each one 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 with three blacksmiths and their mates, each with his own furnace and anvil, and in the centre, a Steam Hammer which delivered blows to large metal objects and made the whole building shake. I remember being impressed with everything I saw.

My next experience was my first works lunch. Luckily I had my father to help me through this ordeal. I learned that the staff workers had their meals in the Staff Luncheon Club while the 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 bowl. We paid for our 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 and you chose the one that had people you worked with or were particular friends.

At 2 pm 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 where I would work 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 under government contract. The finished products were dehydrated potatoes, cabbages, and carrots that were packed into 7lb hermetically sealed tins, and sent by ship to troops serving in places like Burma.

Because it was wartime we worked a 46 hour week and I also went to night school two nights a week, 7.00 pm-9.00 pm, to do my City & Guilds Course. I couldn’t wait to go to work every day; I enjoyed working with grown-ups, installing conduit, and wiring machines and lighting. Of course it wasn’t all perfect. Every day an older boy and I had to take two sacks full of empty bottles to the Works Kitchen to be filled with hot tea made with powdered 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 goat’s 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 handlebars and he went over the top. That was the end of goat’s 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 began when I started with another electrician and I became aware how large Colman’s was. Although quite a few 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 and Transport section.

The majority of the employees on the site worked 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. They installed, repaired and maintained all machinery, lighting, fire alarms, internal telephones, switchgear, power cables, lifts, and more.

Colman’s was one of the first companies to have electricity and there was plenty of evidence to prove it. They had built their own Power Station on site which       unfortunately produced DC current; 440 volts for power and 110 volts for lighting. It operated on coal and a low-pressure steam installation which 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 so the lighting levels by today’s standards, were appalling. 60 watt tungsten bulbs were used for most installations but 40 watt bulbs with no shades were often used in the manufacturing and storage areas.

By 1946 the war was over and 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, and one of my last jobs before I was conscripted was to help with the wiring of the new Works Canteen.

Conscription and back to an 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’ve never met anyone who did the same thing, but I was allowed to do what was called ‘an interrupted apprenticeship’.

I entered the Royal Armoured Corps in the 12th Royal Lancers Regiment, and after basic training and several electrical courses, I became an Electrical Technician working on Daimler Armoured cars and general transport. When I returned to ‘Civvy Street’ it was decided that my two years would count as six months of apprenticeship so I became an electrician at age 22 and a half. 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.

Although we always said we worked at Colman’s, the real title had been Reckitt & Colman’s since 1938. Later on it added ‘Holdings’ to its title.

The company expanded and modernised in the 1950s. The Power Station converted to AC (alternating current) which involved 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 went along with the railway lines and turntable and a fleet of fork lift trucks took their place. Many of the men who had loaded and unloaded incoming materials and outgoing products via the railway, road and river were no longer required. I remember them sitting in a building nicknamed the ‘Dommy’, which I assume was a shortened version of domicile! They would read newspapers and play cards until they were picked by ‘gangers’ to load or unload.

Over the years the number of products produced on the Carrow site steadily increased. Mustard in its various forms was still a major product but Starch, Blue and Savora disappeared, possibly because those buildings were demolished by the German bombers.

The main reason for the increase was the takeover of other companies such as Keen, Farrow’s and Robinsons. As new machinery was installed they were able to produce products at an ever faster rate and also pack automatically. This drastically reduced the numbers of girls as they had done 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, the Mustard Mill, the Soft Drinks Department and the Carrow Abbey Dining Room where the final barrier was knocked down as it was used by both Works and Staff alike. One more building worth mentioning is the concrete Silo, which would later hold 10,000 tons of mustard seed or grain. It was made using a new technique with hydraulic jacks, whereby, concrete was poured into moveable shuttering, non-stop, for 24 hours a day which enabled the Silo to rise 8 feet daily until it reached 85 feet. It’s still there to this day for all to see.

Of course, with so much progress other departments had to keep pace. A Research Department was built to improve existing products, and to come up with new products and 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 and the Electrical Department changed radically with the workload split into different sections: Planned Maintenance, Breakdowns, and Installations. All this didn’t happen overnight, of course, and over the years I worked in all three disciplines, latterly as an Electrical Charge Hand.

Eventually shift work was introduced and many of departments began a 2 or 3 shift pattern so 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 married I was asked to do 12 hour shifts, alternating each week with another electrician ie 6 am to 6 pm one week, 6 pm to 6 am the next. I found I couldn’t sleep during the day and around 3 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 things worse was that my Manager 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 eight weeks.

In 1965, the ‘Control Office’ was established within the Trades Department with the aim of recording the true cost of Revenue and Capital installations in 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 I accepted the position because office hours combined with flexible working suited me at the time as it coincided with the birth of my son. An Increase in salary compensated for loss of overtime, and last but not least, it was a chance to cross over from Works to Staff. It did have its downside because I missed the camaraderie of all my workmates of the last twenty years especially as they viewed the new office with suspicion. They would have liked an individual bonus system but it was never going to happen as it would have required a small army of estimators. However, the Control Office did 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 began preparing for the future. Working conditions improved with the introduction of the 8-hour day and the 48-hour week. A Works Council was established which gave the 2,000 employees a chance to have a voice in their working conditions and was seen as ground breaking at the time. 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 towards trade unions 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, however, over the next few years I quite enjoyed discussing various problems with management.

In the early 1970 all Technical Service staff employees and supervisors were given the option of joining a Staff Association called MATSA, short for Managerial, Administrative, Technical and Supervising Association and I remember the ETU resisted my departure very strongly. They never officially accepted my resignation. Then 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 as well as all Department Supervisors who had by this time joined MATSA. I won’t attempt to go into great detail, but individual evaluation by means of a system called ‘Hay MSL’ (concocted by a group of American Management Consultants) was adopted by Colman’s. 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 took place on the Carrow site: a new department for In House Training was set up to provide courses for employees to progress from shop floor to Staff; Supermarkets negotiated contracts; computer systems took the place of punched card accounting machines which handled Sales invoices. Work Study looked at ways and means of improving efficiency as well as reducing repetitive strain injuries. A Safety Officer was appointed and safety shoes, hard hats, goggles and ear defenders were issued where necessary. Guarding was fitted to every machine providing protection from dangerous moving parts.

Significant changes took place in the Technical Services Department and 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 and 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. Then, I remember, all departmental managers were asked to look at ways and means of reducing cost and improving efficiency. Obviously this 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 interviewed. The Trade Unions were approached, some cooperated, others refused to discuss the problems and, of course, the majority of the workforce was well aware that to make large cost savings, a large proportion of the workers would be made redundant and inefficient departments shut down.

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 to refuse, especially as there was a very good chance of becoming redundant in the near future anyway. Some months later the axe fell and much of the workforce was made redundant.

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

Nearly 25 years have passed since I left the company and the work there is still going on. Only one area, originally called ‘The Paper Mill Yard’ has been developed; a block of luxury apartments. They offend my eyes every time I pass them.

On reflection, I have only scratched the surface of my 44 years of employment at Carrow but I shall always be grateful to my father for his help in getting me work there.

This is an edited version prepared in 2015 for WISEArchive’s Heritage Lottery Colman’s Project of a contribution submitted by Eric (b. 1928)  in 2011. You will find this in the Engineering section entitled Life at Reckitt and Colman’s (1943-1987).

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