Milk matters – the lab. (1970 – 1987)

Location : Norwich

Julie was a senior analyst in the laboratory at the Milk Marketing Board/Dairy Crest dairy in Norwich for 15 years. The work led her to believe that farmers actually ran Norfolk and made the county what it is. And everyone in the dairy industry had to keep to the animals’ time!

I was educated in Richmond in Yorkshire until we moved down to Norfolk in 1968 when I was 15. My father used to be a building contractor and was an area manager. In the late 1960s he was made redundant several times and so he got a job in the building industry in Norfolk.

I felt very privileged as I went to a very small private school, French Gate School for Girls and it was a very big culture shock to me when we moved to Norfolk and I had to go to an ordinary high school. We shared the playing fields and buses with the boys next door! I had never been educated with boys. I spent one year there and after doing my O levels I went to City College and did a course in Home Economics, Nutrition and Science. I got a job at the Co-op Dairy in the lab there, which was at the Fiveways at Earlham. I was there for a year and gained experience and then I saw a job advertised at Dairy Crest, in the laboratory.

It was a much bigger dairy and subsequently offered a lot more opportunity to advance my career, which at that time I was very keen to do. The Co-op dairy only did milk and cream whereas Dairy Crest at Harford Bridge also did yoghurts, cheese and cream desserts and all that type of thing.

I was very lucky to get that job and started in the laboratory in 1972 and remained there for 15 years. I went there as an ordinary analyst and was promoted eventually throughout my time there to deputy chief analyst and I was acting chief analyst. I would have carried on being chief analyst but at that time I decided to produce children.

Keeping to the animals’ time

It was indeed a big commitment if you went into the dairy industry, whether it was in the lab or the farm, you did have to keep to the animals’ time. Our first shift used to start at 5.30am and it was all year, Christmas Day included of course, as cows don’t turn off because it’s Christmas Day. You had to be there to test the milk and the dairy products at the same time they were produced by the cows. Generally you would like to be out of the lab by 5.30pm or 6pm. A lot of the people in the dairy would have been on early shift and would certainly be finished by two in the afternoon at the latest. The lab was one of the rare places that did have staff on site in the afternoon.

Working in the laboratory

When I first started there must have been 14 of us in total and then we took on seasonal staff, so 16 or 18 maximum. It was quite a big operation, we did the yoghurts and cheese and we were quite famous for the quality and taste of our yoghurt, it was quite a big operation. We won lots of prizes at agricultural shows and there certainly was much pride in your product. You did actually have a good bond between your workers and the factory workers as there is something about staying on an early shift, you do have a big bond with people that are up and about at that time of day when perhaps everyone else was still fast asleep.

The main test that we did was to make sure that the quality was right for the products. In those days there wasn’t quite so much choice of ordinary milk as there is now. You would have Channel Islands which was Jersey milk, and ordinary pasteurised which would have been silver top.

We had homogenised milk which had a red top on it. It was the same butter fat as ordinary milk, but the fat was distributed throughout the pint of milk by a process that basically broke all the fat globules up. There was also the advent of semi-skimmed milk which was very popular right from the beginning when it was introduced.  Then of course skimmed milk became more popular as time went on as people became more aware of health issues, cutting fat down in their diets that type of thing.

All the instruments were specific to dairy and milk testing. The butter fat tests that we used to do required us to use what was called a butyrometer and we used to use sulphuric acid for that, with a specific quantity of milk topped up with amyl alcohol. We used to have a rack that all the butyrometers sat in, they were peculiar looking things, rather like a glass tadpole is probably the best way to describe them. Of course the sulphuric acid was very dangerous, you had a Perspex box and you had to shake this mixture up to get it to the next stage of the test and that was to spin it in the centrifuge. They used to go into a very hot water bath which was 65 degrees and you could measure on the scale, on the butyrometer as to what the butter fat was.

As time went on, in the 15 years that I was there, there was a machine that was designed called a MILKO machine that did the butter fat and solids testing, which is the other very important part of milk testing, it was all done in one electric motion as it were. However to calibrate it you would still have to go back to using the hands on method because of course that was the way of making sure the machine was giving you the right results. So it was very important that you still retained the knowledge of how to actually do the hands on test despite the fact that you had a machine that did all of those tests for you.

This was also the advent of new testing, Added Water testing, We had a machine that did that too and I think that we were one of the few dairies that was actually able to do Added Water tests. Milk of course has water in it, quite naturally, so it’s only added water contamination that you need to calibrate. There shouldn’t be any added water but that’s the nature of the product. You have to sterilise all the pipes and equipment both on the farm and in the dairy. It was very important to check that you haven’t got any water contamination so we used to have an analyst on duty just simply doing all the types of samples that we had for added water. You had to make sure that everything was within the British standard for these tests and if it wasn’t then unfortunately it was rejected. The milk used to go to waste so it was very important that you were accurate with the testing,

Testing dairy farmers

To recall my memory there were over 300 dairy farmers and we had a rota where we had to test their milk at least once a month, obviously if there were any problems we used to test more frequently than that.

It was very normal in those days, as I am sure it is now, that farmers had to be all encompassing in order to run a farm. They were very good at prescribing their own medication for their cows if they had any type of illness. This would unfortunately mean that their milk could be contaminated because they were supposed to keep that particular cow’s milk out of their bulk supply.

Much of the older generation used to feel that they could milk off three quarters of the cow and leave the quarter that was being perhaps injected with antibiotics and believe that it wouldn’t get into the supply, which of course was rubbish.

There was a chap, a milk producer, quite an elderly man, who simply didn’t trust any of us to test his milk, so he used to bring his own milk samples in. He used to get us to do an antibiotic test which was rather a long test. It used to take at least two hours because it was incubated after it had a solution added to it and it would then turn a different colour if it was a positive antibiotic or not.

He would come in with a sample in the morning and he would hang around for a little while just to make sure that we were heating the sample up, chilling it properly and make sure that you were adding the correct additives to put the test through. Then make sure that you were putting it in the right water bath.

He would the phone up in the afternoon to see whether the test was positive or negative. This went on for some time, he always used to bring his very old Mercedes and he would always wear the same welly boots and same shirt I think – he was just almost like a Giles cartoon image of a dairy farmer. I think that he eventually did manage to believe that we did know how to do our job and we could be trusted, we were always very polite to him and he obviously had a conscience about his products and that was the main thing. Despite the fact that he didn’t trust us initially I think we ended up being good friends and he did realise we were on his side, but we just had to make sure that things were correct and proper.

Whilst I was there a scheme called Centralised Testing was introduced. This meant that the whole testing schedule was changed and then we didn’t have to legally test any of our producers because samples, with preservative in them, were sent off for analysis at a headquarters. Thames Ditton I believe ours was. They were subsequently tested nationally by one organisation. The samples were labelled and dispatched in boxes, lots of little samples and sent off to centralised testing and of course the admin work and all of that sort of thing was handled by a different agency.

However, we were quite keen to keep control of the quality that was coming into our dairies so although not legally necessary we actually did supplementary tests. We wanted to know how the farmers were doing in terms of their tests and had we not been able to carry on with some form of testing we wouldn’t have known. We would only have known when it was all mixed up that there was something wrong with somebody.

So we carried on our regime, there were two analysts and there was a lot of admin.  So you got very familiar with all the names of those whose milk you were testing because you were coming across them so often. So you would spend a week on what we called farmer’s jobs, one of you’d be testing, and one of you recording so you would work closely with your colleagues. I found that really interesting and I liked that very much. You recorded the results and sent them off in the post and the farmers subsequently got them in the normal way. No doubt all of that is computerised now.

Despatch at 5.30am

The other job that we had was called Despatch and that used to be the 5.30am shift. That meant that you were the first analyst in and subsequently everybody was very much on your case because everything was hanging on you saying that the milk was okay for them to start bottling, cartoning, doing the cream production and that type of thing. You were very very much under pressure.

All the operators would be stood with their samples and their bottles and really it was as if a starter pistol had gone off. So not only was it 5.30am and everybody that was sane would be asleep, but you were racing around because everyone wanted to get on with their job.

They had been there hours before you had in fact, and the boiler man -because the sterilisation procedure used to be a build up of steam – would have been in a long time before the first operators were there, including the first analyst so it was all systems go. It created a really nice atmosphere and you did have a camaraderie that went with the fact that you were there at that time of day.

Once you checked the milk it would come through the pipes, you would make sure that there was no water in it, that the hygiene was okay, and that the butter fat was as it should be for that particular variety. It all hangs on your word saying, ‘Yes, it’s okay’. Then the machines would go, clattering of the bottles would carry on and that I remember now.

Health and safety wasn’t such an important thing so it was up to you if you wore ear defenders or not. You can imagine that with the bottles clattering round the noise was absolutely enormous. The men that ran the line the entire day could make each other understood simply by catching their eye and mouthing the words, and they would know exactly what they were talking about. I’m sure that many many of them probably had ringing in their ears for years after they’d left the dairy.

Checking the churns

The other thing that I remember fondly in my first years at the dairy was that we had milk producers that would be churn producers. They wouldn’t have automatic bulk tanks as they have now, which would be much healthier and more hygienic.

They would have filled a churn and that was left on a little platform, which was generally level with the bed of the truck, on the side of the road. The drivers would come along, and roll however many churns had been produced onto the truck. We would then be assigned to test the individual truck loads to make sure that the milk was okay before it went into the huge mixing tank. It was then weighed on a weighbridge to make sure that the farmer got their payment for the milk they produced.

The only thing was that some of the trucks would have been on the road for quite a long time, and if the first churn producer that was picked up on a hot summer’s day that would be very warm by the time that it got to the dairy!

So of course it eventually had to be that you had a bulk tank that was chilled otherwise it was a very smelly operation. I guess, unfortunately, that some drivers wouldn’t have got paid because the milk would have been off by the time it arrived to us. But I used to very much like testing churn producers. You would have a big plunger, which is a stainless steel rod – there was a lot of stainless steel equipment because it could be steam and water sterilised. The plunger would be about three foot long with a plastic plate on the bottom with holes in it.

After a little while you would get a technique together, where you could actually plug a whole ten gallon churn, with one hand and the plunger and make sure the milk was all mixed up.

You had to take out a ladle, proportionally, depending how much was in the churn, mix it all up, take a sample bottle and it would go back to the lab having being identified with a chinagraph pencil and rubber bung. All these had been sterilised in the lab of course.

This is the position in the lab that I described where there’d be two of you. One would be testing and one doing admin. Each churn would have a parcel label on it, describing who the farmer was, how much milk had been produced. All this information would be put on each sample bottle. The truck drivers got used to the girls, it tended to be mostly girls in those days, who were good at what they were doing and those who weren’t so good because they weren’t as quick.

You could tell by the expression on their face when you went over with your rack of sample bottles, with the rubber bungs in and you’d be going over – one of you would be holding the plunger, the jug and the ladle and the other would be holding the crate with the sample bottles in it. There was a system of a bell that told you to go over to the truck with the producer’s milk to test. The drivers would look to see who it was and would be either very disappointed because you were too slow or very happy because you were one of those, what they’d call quick samplers.

The process was actually phased out whilst I was there as I said it certainly wasn’t a very hygienic way of doing it.

I remember one particular farmer who had great difficulty in keeping his antibiotic treated milk out of his supply. If you had three antibiotic failures it meant basically the farmer was paying us to pick his milk up, so it was disastrous financially to get into that position. Many times it wasn’t the farmer’s fault, perhaps they would have a relief cowman who wasn’t aware that the cow had been treated, or simply the fact that a mistake had happened – as happens sometimes.

Talking all about this I can imagine that I’m back in the lab. Whilst I was there we had it completely refurbished, it was a very very swanky new lab. Whilst that was happening we had to temporarily shift all the testing into a portacabin. Lots of tests had, of course, to be taken all the time so we had to be on the shop floor. The portacabin was at the top of the site so we had to have satellite station built, temporarily, in the old cold store.

All the washing up was done there, as were tests that had to be done very very quickly. We had to inform the dairy operators of everything being okay to bottle or pack. The lab bench was entirely covered in lead because of the potent mixture of sulphuric acid, the percentage of which was probably between 90 and 98%. The amyl alcohol used for butter fat testing had a very pungent smell. I’m sure these days if hands on testing is still going on it would be in a fume cabinet but in those days it wasn’t.

Health and safety has obviously moved on but in those days you just accepted it. You just used to cough a bit and have lots of water afterwards. Now you almost have a sharp intake of breath and throw your hands up in horror, it wasn’t particular to our dairy, it was the same for any dairy, it was just the way that you handled your day to day routine.

Testing packages and working in the bacti lab

There were several lots of jobs, one was averages. That was the measurements that we had to do for all the packing, cream and the milk and all the different types of packages that there were. There were third pints of milk in those days, supplied to schools, Mars milk was developed at Harford Bridge. At one stage there was orange juice too, so all those things had to be measured.

It was an average weight system so you’d take five packages from each of the lines and made sure that the average weight was the minimum at least and equally not the maximum, because you didn’t want waste product so it was important that you kept an eye on that.

All those sheets would be collected with the daily averages and then you would make sure that at the end of the day all the figures were averaged out, that you were working economically and within the laws as well.

It did mean that you became quite unpopular sometimes with the drivers, particularly if you discovered that there was one batch that hadn’t been packed to the legal minimum. In that case you had to dash over, stop the truck and identify the lot that it was. We could do that quite easily because we were very good. The drivers used to be held up for some time if we had to take the batches off, so there were times when we weren’t very popular.

My husband eventually got a job as a HGV driver and it was mooted that I used to sometimes hold the drivers up because they were the only people on site who used to get paid what was then called ‘waiting time’. They were able to be paid until a new batch had been packed. So I think that was just a bit of amusement really because it had nothing whatsoever to do with it!

Another job which we did in the bacti lab which used to have an air socket. You were producing bacteria in artificially aged samples so that you could see how they were going to react in terms of shelf life and that type of thing. You had to make sure that there wasn’t anything like E-coli, Bacillus coli, lots of specific things that would obviously not do the public any good at all in terms of tummy upsets and food poisoning.

It was quite a high pressure job because you had to be very very particular about taking specific samples at specific times. You had to make sure that you could identify and follow the journey of that particular sample all the way through. So you had to be very accurate to do that job.

You would also be put on assisting the washer upper and steriliser as well because there’d obviously be lots of equipment needing to be sterilised.

The thing that I also remember, and I’m not sure if this is used any more, I would be surprised if it was, is pipettes. Everything would be pipetted by mouth. A pipette is like a straw, it is a calibrated measurement of 1mm. One of the laborious tasks if you were on washing up and sterilising would be that you would have an unwound paper clip and you would have a big ball of cotton wool that you would need to stuff into the end of the pipette. You’d be using hundreds of pipettes a day so you’d become an expert at it.

Towards the end of my time at the lab they were using balloon pipetting which is obviously much better. There could have been all sorts of things that you could be pipetting that would end up in your mouth that certainly wouldn’t do your body any good. So again that was the advent of that type of procedure coming on to rather better methods as well.

Ongoing training and promotion

As I look back at it now Dairy Crest were a national organisation and had a very what I suppose would be called now, progressive vocational training. In that you could go onto the next step of being trained to a higher level as a milk analyst.

I progressed up to deputy chief analyst. I went away to agricultural college, I was seconded to Somerset, where I met my husband actually. In between those times we would be picked, selected I guess on ability to go on a senior analyst course and that would be a long weekend. It would be three nights and then we would go to another large dairy that had a training department set up. They would be examining you and you had to show that you understood the business inside out at that level.

Thinking about it I guess that now the equivalent would be an NVQ and you could go right up to NVQ3. That would be the residential course that I went on in Somerset.

A position became available as deputy analyst and I got deputy chief analyst and later on when the chief analyst left I applied but it was just at the time when I was thinking about having a family.

Maternity leave and job share

There was nothing like the type of maternity leave that one gets now but as it was a national company, government run I suppose, everything was done very correctly.

I was very lucky in comparison to some of my friends that were working in shops and other jobs like that. They didn’t get as much maternity leave as I did.

I was very lucky in that I knew that I wouldn’t be able to work full time and get up at 5.30am for morning shifts when I had a baby. I had my eldest son and then asked if I could go back part time. There was another analyst that was also starting a family. Both of us were senior analysts so they had invested quite a lot in our training and we knew that we were good at what we did or otherwise we wouldn’t be there.

So we had a discussion together and basically did a job share, which in those days was practically unheard of, so perhaps we were cutting edge for that type of procedure. It worked out very well, the other analyst had triplets so she didn’t do it for as long as I did in terms of part time as she had a very full time occupation at home with her three babies.

It was really innovative of us to come up with that solution, because I had to work at least part time and much preferred to carry on with the work that I really enjoyed. I didn’t work every day of course but I absolutely loved doing the job I did. I really did like it, I liked being busy and all the research work that I applied for. I was poopooed by a lot of my friends who had gone into the science world –going into quality control. But for me it meant that I was making a difference immediately and the product I was testing had a short life so there wasn’t anything that wasn’t going to be immediate, that wasn’t going to be busy. The days just flew by because they were so busy and full.

The type of people that I met were fantastic comrades and I wouldn’t have met them in a research lab – which was the other option that I could have taken. So, for me, I was very glad I’d gone into quality control.

Social life at the dairy

Christmas time was very joyous, we used to do all sorts of things, which are probably not allowed now, such as perhaps having a sherry and a bit of a social get together.

It was our way of thanking all the operators who we were obviously reliant on doing their job properly in order for us to do our job properly. So we used to have an ‘open lab’ at Christmas time and supervisors and managers used to allow a certain amount of hilarity.

The other thing that I remember fondly was that there was a very good social club that was in operation. There would be different events and there was a flat green bowls club which I was involved in. We didn’t used to be quite so serious as the teams we played against because we only ever used to play friendly matches. There was a piece of paper on the notice board in the canteen to try and get a team together. Somebody would put ‘dry green’ on the paper. Dry green meant that there wasn’t a pub so it used to be really difficult to try to get a team together for a dry green!

We tended to play twice a week under normal circumstances but if there was a dry green we very often had to cancel that match and ended up playing just once a week. It was a great atmosphere and lots of friends got together. One social club that we used to go to that were very very hospitable, where we had a fantastic time was Sculthorpe Mill social club. We played bowls there and it was a key event. We used to actually have a reserve team for that so it was a very good thing indeed when we went there. I do remember that very fondly.

It was a way of meeting people outside of the dairy. I remember those days very well and when I went back part time, my eldest son used to come along to the bowls matches with us. We got him a small set of woods and he used to play at the side of the bowls green, not on the green of course, because it was absolutely sacrosanct ground. There were some other small children that used to come along and they used to have a good time together.

So, my very fond memories of what I felt was a fantastic working life. It was my proper career and ended when I left a few months before the dairy actually closed 1987 because I was expecting my second baby.

The dairy closed at the end of 1990/early 1991 by which time I was having my third son. My husband was made redundant as a Dairy Crest HGV driver.

During all that time there I had a huge insight into what Norfolk was all about – that it was actually the farmers that ran Norfolk and made Norfolk what it was. So I felt very privileged to actually be within an industry where I was able to really see it at the sort of business end of things.

Julie  (b.1954) talking to WISEArchive in Wymondham on 4th April 2011.

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