Peter was born in Norwich in 1946. He and his wife ‘M’ tell us about the life of a lorry driver, including working at the Milk Marketing Board and for airline KLM.
I was 15 when I left school and my first job was at TanSad and Allwin which did prams. They were actually in Sandy Lane. I started there as an assembler and then became an inspector. Such a boring job in the end. I had to inspect the work that other people had done, which was easy in that respect but I had to stamp everyone’s work off.
A lorry driver’s life
It was so boring in the end that my mate, a long time school mate, his dad actually worked at British Road Services, which was then in Surrey Street. I had always wanted to be a lorry driver ever since I was a little boy and I asked him if he could get me in at Surrey Street. Unknown to me, my mum’s friend’s husband worked there as well. He got me a job there, loading lorries and eventually as I got older they actually put me on the road.
They taught me how to drive a lorry and eventually as the years went by and I turned 21 I got my HGV class one licence which is an artic licence. I was there quite a long while and I really enjoyed it. I ended up as a shunter. This was where you didn’t go out as much, but you put the trailers in for them to unload. When they were full you pulled them out and parked them outside ready for the trunkers to come at night time and take them to different destinations. There were hub depots all around Britain. It was a promotion and I really liked the job. When I first started I was on what they call a C and D driver, which was collections and delivery.
In them days you did about 50 deliveries a day and several collections. You went back to the depot, you unloaded the lorry yourself with the people on the dock, then you loaded them up to different trailers where the destinations were. I done that for several years but in the end they put me in to paying for an artic licence.
In those days if you had an artic licence you were king of the road sort of thing, good money, good rate of pay that was. I eventually passed it and became a shunter, which I just told you about. If they had any what they called bulk drops up to Yarmouth or Lowestoft I’d get them jobs as well. I’d also go out and deliver for them as well.
In those days you worked a 10 hour day, it was a long day. There weren’t no tachograph in the cab, what they have nowadays. They had a driver’s sheet which you filled in you know, but that was quite a hard job.
I remember bringing home my first wage packet and my mum thought that they had over paid me. She said, ‘You’d better take this back, there’s too much money here, you’ve earned more than your dad’. I said to her, ‘Hang on, I’m doing 10 hours a day when my dad is only doing 8’. My dad was a really skilled jig maker and welder at Boulton and Paul, while I was only a lorry. But because I done extra hours a day I was earning more than my dad. She couldn’t make that out my mum couldn’t.
I had a lot of friends who had taken on apprenticeships and their money was terrible for the first three or four years. You’re obviously thinking, there I was making big money, more money than my dad , so I thought I was King of the Road you know!
What happened, there was, they had a bit of union trouble. When they moved to Burton Road they threatened us with taking the trunks away from Norwich and come in to Norwich and do the trunks for us and in the end that’s what happened. That’s how I lost my job up there, was made redundant.
I had always been in the union and they actually did fight well for me. They did say that I shouldn’t have gone, I was on the borderline, they had to get rid of so many. I was just unlucky. My mate stayed on because he started just before me but that only lasted a couple of years and then he got made redundant as well. They actually shut the place up, it ended up at Links Transport, and is now owned by UPS and it’s still on Hurricane Way.
[M] Peter worked for the green lorries and my dad worked for the red ones, he used to do the long distance. When I was a little girl my dad worked Saturdays and Sundays as well. So he went to Norwich on a Sunday and he’d be gone all week simply because the lorries weren’t able to go as fast as what they can today. Once he got to his destination he then had to pick up another load, which might not take him back to Norwich. He had to go wherever that load took him.
So as a little girl I can honestly say that my dad had to travel thousands and thousands of miles but I only saw him…..very very rarely did I ever see him.
In fact I used to go with her dad on a Sunday morning – for some reason I used to drive the lorry even though I didn’t work for the heavy haulage ones. After I passed my HGV licence I worked for parcels and he used to let me drive up there and back.
He gave me a lot of experience your dad didn’t he at that time. So that helped me well.
I took my artic, we went anywhere to be honest, but it was local, you got there and back in a day, there weren’t no nights then.
[M] He would never know from one day to the next where he was going but that didn’t bother you did it?
No I loved it! You’re a young man, 40ft trailer, Yorkie Bar Kid they used to call it! I thought I was King of the Road in them days, which you were really. I was sorry to see it shut up, but as they say that was just one of them things, unions again. They thought that they were stronger than they were and in the end they actually shut the Norwich depot and I was out if work. That was the start of me joining Dairy Crest
My wife’s friend worked there and she told her friend about my situation and he phoned me up and said there would be some jobs down Dairy Crest. They used to take people on summer time, to help with holiday relief, just for six months so not a permanent job. He said would I be interested and I said, ‘Yeah, not half!’. He warned me that it wouldn’t be driving it could be anywhere in the works. I said that would be lovely, went down there had an interview and got the job.
The first job was in the tanker bay – used to have to pump out the raw milk. I quite enjoyed that, but that was shift work as well.
All the tankers would go round and pick up all the raw milk from the farms, they would come back into Harford Bridges and then you’d have to pump it out. You’d have to put on a water sprayer to actually clean out all inside the tankers before they went out again. That was going on all day long, tankers coming in at different times, so that was a full time job. That was rota’d in them days. I worked Saturdays and Sundays but you always had two days off a week.
The job was brilliant, really brilliant, I loved the tanker bay. Then they came along and said they were taking on more drivers would I like to go driving for ‘em. I already had my licence so I thought, ’Cor yeah, that would be nice, to get back on the road’. I went out with a couple of drivers to start with and I thought, ‘Well this isn’t too bad’, and then the week came when I was on my own – well blimey! I came home on the Friday night, I got in the bath and I couldn’t move – my back, oh crikey!
I was lifting milk crates, six high and all the way through the lorry, all full of milk and twenty bottles in a crate. You have to remember that what you took off you had to fill that empty space with empty bottles and crates.
You went out with a full load of milk, came back with a full load of empties and you done two load a day, so I tell you that took some getting used to!
You didn’t have any training but you did go out with the driver, say before his week’s holiday so that you knew the run, where to go.
[M] And some of these little dairies they are in tiny little places. I mean some of these dairies are hidden away. Peter’s taken me to see some of these places – if we’re out for a drive he’d say, ‘I used to deliver down there, if you look down there you’ll see where I used to have to back down’ and you’d think, ‘Well however did he used to get a lorry down there?!’ Some really tight little lanes but you met some marvellous people at those dairies, they used to offer you food and cups of tea…
When I first started, I went out on the Sunday morning and my first call was out at Woodton. I parked up at the top of the drive and I’d get a big old barrow, wheel the milk down to the fridge – which would actually be in the building or cold store as they called it in them days – wheel the milk in and wheel the empties back to the lorry. So as you took a stack of milk off you put a stack of empties on.
I finished it all, shut the door and went to get back in my lorry and this woman come running out of the farmhouse, she said, ‘Oh you, ‘int going yet are you?’ I said, ‘Well I’ve finished’ and she said, ‘Well, you haven’t had your breakfast!’ ‘What you mean breakfast?’ She said, ‘A always stopped for breakfast on a Sunday morning!’ ‘Ooh’ I said, ‘ooh yeah’. She said, ‘I cooked it are you going to come in?’ I said, ‘Yeah alright, thanks very much’. I did think that I was going to get a bowl of cornflakes or something like that, but I went in and there was the family sitting in the farm kitchen, there was my place and she was frying eggs, bacon, fried bread, tomatoes and that. So I had to sit there and have breakfast with them and that’s how friendly it was, that’s really how friendly it was.
That was hard work and you did work hard, and it sounds silly now but I couldn’t go get a bottle of milk and take the top off and drink that. No matters how hot or dry I was I couldn’t drink raw milk.
They started doing fizzy drinks and that, orange juice in a pint bottle, coo when they done that, yeah it was lovely. I just couldn’t fancy milk.
The customers were brilliant, I never met a bad one yet. They were brilliant, they really were and Christmas time, blimey. I used to get some money, oh blimey I used to get some really good tips.
[M] And you always got something from Dairy Crest didn’t you.
Well Dairy Crest, they used to make you a hamper up. They wouldn’t give money but at the cold store they would go in there and you could have like four bottles of fizzy drink, a couple of pints of double cream or single cream, yoghurts, cheese. They’d make you a little bag up, that was brilliant, that really was.
The management were brilliant they really were, I got to say that. They really looked after you. The management were not frightened to ask any of the drivers for anything because they knew that they’d do it – because they were treated brilliant. We were respected we really were. If they could help you out they would. If you needed something done…..I mean blokes used to move house and if they wanted a lorry on a Saturday morning, they’d let them take one of the lorries. They helped one another out and that’s what you don’t get nowadays. People don’t give a damn nowadays, they’ve got no time for anyone.
The general manager of Dairy Crest was a very nice chap. He come up to me one morning when I was on the wash – if you were on what they called a spare driver you got the job of washing the lorries down before they came in to load up. It doesn’t matter how careful forklift drivers are, they break some bottles in the racks they come off and that leave broken glass on the back of the lorry.
So you used to get there in the morning and hose down all the lorry floors down, wash all the glass off. They’d come along with a big scoop and just scoop it all off.
I was doing that one morning and the general manager, he came to me and said, ‘Peter’ they knew your name there, even if you’d only been there about a week, they knew you straightaway. He said to me, ‘I’ve got a little job for you today’ he said, ‘You can forget what you’re doing, I want you to go and get my car’……I thought, ‘Blimey you don’t know me from Adam’. And he said, ‘And go down to Thorpe station and pick up one of the directors from Dairy Crest who’s coming down to see Harford Bridges’. In them days he had a Van Der Plas which in those days was a big old car and I thought, ‘Crikey I’m going to look the bee’s knees in this!’.
But they trusted you, you know what I mean? That was like Joe next door say, ‘You can borrow my car for the afternoon’. But they were brilliant.
[M] And they were always grateful for the work you did for them weren’t they.
Oh yeah, not half, they really were. That were the best job I ever had in my life, Dairy Crest.
Later on when you got on the artics down there, which I got on eventually, there was forklift work. You went to a depot and you forklifted the milk off which was much easier that trying to lift then down. They used to laugh at me, well not just me, every new driver, because there is a knack of lifting them off the lorry – you don’t stand there and just go, ‘Ah I can’t move it’ there’s a knack to it and in the end you find that knack and that’s a lot easier, tons easier.
[M] But there was a chap down there who could lift the whole five or six crates off there.
Oh yeah, he was a big bloke, he could lift five off in one go, there was another big old boy , he could do that too. They were built for it, not like me.
[M] And they had years of experience as well, they’d been there a lot longer than you.
They had yeah.
Milk processing and delivery and excellent canteen food
I didn’t work on the processing bit, but I can describe it for you. When it got pumped out in the tanker bay it went into storage tank. It would go into different storage tanks because if you have a farm that’s got Guernsey cattle, that’s called Channel Island milk, it’s creamier than normal cattle so that went in a special tank. The ordinary milk as I called it went in a different bit. Then you had different types of milk, fresh skimmed milk, semi-skilled milk, ordinary milk – whole milk and sterilised,
They were put into different vats and pasteurised, they were put through a heat treatment and then bottled. It goes onto the bottling line, it’s bottled into milk bottles. The machine picks up 24 bottles at a time and puts them into a milk crate which then comes down the assembly line. They’ve got what is called a stacker, which stacks milk as high as you want it, four, five, six, seven or eight high. That comes down the line again to the end and comes to a loading spot where it gets nine racks of milk.
A fork truck with six prongs comes in, goes in between the milk, that’s marvellous how it’s done. Lifts the milk off the line and puts it straight on the lorry. But that takes some doing, them fork lift drivers down there were brilliant. I’ve never seen fork lift drivers like them. They were really skilled blokes, they really were.
So they’d load the lorries up for you and had the one final bloke who checked everything on the lorry, that was his job, he was what we called the checker. He was in charge of everything in that yard and a good old boy he was. They were all good old boys, I gotta say that. That’s like one big family.
What we call the milk buyers, they had their own little milk floats and we used to supply them. They were like depots, not Dairy Crest ones, private milk buyers who would buy the milk off Dairy Crest and you would deliver it to their warehouse or farm, most of them were farms. You had to put all the milk in the fridge, check the order off and pick up the empties and put on the lorry. So like I said before you went out with a full load and came back with a full load.
Some were Dairy Crest depots which had their own milk floats and drivers. We had depots at Heartsease and Mile Cross, they’re gone now. There was a depot at Eye, near Ipswich, Halesworth. By the time you got there they were out on their rounds so you were normally on your own, unloading and picking up the empties. But you didn’t mind, it was up to you, it was a guaranteed 10 hour day job. So it was up to you went there and went mad and got back quicker so you could go home because you’d done – or you took your time. But it never did take 10 hours even if you took your time, you’d get back early enough.
[M] Ah but there was another side to it as well weren’t there. If something was wrong or things didn’t run according to plan like on a Friday, because you doubled your milk up on a Friday, sometimes you could get on your round later and you’d be late home again.
Yeah, you’d be duty bound to do that milk round for the day. Because that was food the police couldn’t pull you over for doing over your hours, because that was perishable food, you had to deliver it. I don’t know if you can do that now, but in them days you could. So I’d been there eight o’clock on a Friday morning and I still hadn’t gone out on my first run by 2 o’clock Friday afternoon. And you got to remember we used to do two loads a day. So I’ve got back here something like half past eleven, twelve o’clock.
The canteen staff had gone by say 6pm, but they’d send out and order fish and chips for everyone, so you had your evening meal there as well as your dinner. The dairy would be gone by then too, but you were duty bound to get that load out. You had to do it.
We had a beautiful canteen, that was out of this world that was.
[M] Because you didn’t used to have any breakfast before you went to work did you
No I just used to have breakfast at work. But I mean that’s why I put so much weight on! I’ve lost it all now, thank God. But you’d go in Sunday morning you think, ‘Ah blimey, I’ll just have a bit of cheese on toast today’, but they’d come along with these trays like Marks and Spencer used to be, or Woolies.
I’d go in thinking that I would just have cheese on toast today, that would be ideal – then the chap in front he’d say, ‘I’ll have eggs, bacon, fried bread, tomato, beans’ and you’d think, ‘Yeah I’ll have the same’. The times I’ve done that! That’s why I got so blinking big. But that was a lovely canteen that really was. You could have a proper cooked dinner and everything , but I never did, that was too heavy, If you were unloading two loads I couldn’t eat like that and then go out.
[M] At least you had a good cooked breakfast inside you when you were lifting and working. You had something to work on didn’t you.
Moving the bottling plant
They were going to move the whole bottling plant out to the other side of Cambridge, I can’t think what the place is called, only a little village, I’ve been there myself several times, I just can’t think of the name of the place…oh Fenstanton! That’s what it was called, Fenstanton.
So when they shut Norwich, they bottled it at Fenstanton. I don’t really know why Norwich shut. I did hear afterwards, whether it was true or not, that the managers who authorised the sale of Norwich themselves got the sack several months later. I don’t think that Norwich should have shut. Well it would have shut now with the supermarkets and that, but I don’t think that it should have been shut to be honest. There were a lot of good blokes there, they were really gutted –well I was one of them. I really was. I thought that I had a job for life down there.
It didn’t shut straight away. I stayed there until the very end. I’ll give Dairy Crest their due, they said that if anyone had any interviews for other jobs, during the run-down time until closing they could take the day off and they would still get paid. So they were really fair on that side of it. They also made it so that if you stayed until the very end, they would give you a bit more money. So that’s what I done, I stayed ‘til the end, the only problem with that is that you didn’t then have job to go to. So I had to look round for a job at the end, which was quite hard then.
I was a house husband for a little while, I used to do the ironing…..
[M] Peter couldn’t get a job.
No, I couldn’t get a job straight away. That was the only time in my life that I had to go down to the unemployment office and sign on and I hated it. There were people down there that treated it like a social club. ‘Come on we got our cheque, let’s go get a drink’. That was demoralising for me, but the problem for me was I used to work full time so I couldn’t get much. My dole money was terrible. I could hardly pay for anything.
I sat there one night and one of my old school pals, I don’t know how he knew that I didn’t have a job, he came round and knocked on the door. He said, ‘I hear that you’re looking for a job’ I said, ‘yeah well what’s the matter’ ‘One of the blokes left where I work’ he said, ‘But it’s a funny sort of job’. I said, ‘Well I’ll do anything in order to get a job’. Bearing in mind I was a lorry driver most if my life you’ll never guess what it was……that was roasting coffee beans! Yeah for FreshCo. I don’t know if you remember that company. So he said that they wanted me to roast coffee. I said, ‘I can’t roast coffee beans! I don’t know anything about coffee’. He say, ‘You’ll be alright’. Well the money was terrible wasn’t it.
[M] He used to bring home £105 a week.
I used to subsidise that with my redundancy money that I got from Dairy Crest. We had a living didn’t we.
I used to mix different blends, Columbian blends and espresso, stuff like that. Well it was something new! But to be honest with you Friday was my worst day. I used to do a lot of roasting on a Friday to get ready for next week’s deliveries. When you took the coffee beans out into the old cooler, the smoke would go up to the roof, there were no vents in the roof, and come down again. You’d be in smoke, working in smoke. Well that was alright but I used to get these really bad headaches. Well you know why, I’d get a big intake of caffeine.
[M] And when he go to the toilets to spend a penny, you went in there after and all you could smell was coffee! It was all through your skin and everything.
Sometimes I’d deliver it as well. I’ll give the man his due, the bloke who owned it, they were a couple of brothers, I can’t remember their names now, but they taught me everything they knew. How to grade different coffee beans, where they came from and then I jacked in my notice. Crikey that was our worst day, they were devastated. They said. ‘But we’ve taught you everything we know’. And I said, ’I know you’ve taught me everything you know but at the end of the day, you work for financial reasons and I just can’t afford to work here anymore’.
Working at Norwich Airport
I got this job at, it was Air UK then. That’s where I work now, KLM as it’s been renamed.
[M] My dad he went up to Air UK, what they call a driver cleaner up there. So he found out there was a job going as a driver cleaner, told Peter about it, you applied for it didn’t you. And started at the end of the month.
Yeah and I’ve been there 20 years.
[M] 1990 he started, yeah, late 1990. 20 years ago that you started.
It is 20 years ago this May. I was cleaning the aircraft, inside, outside, everything.
[M] You used to change all the seat covers didn’t you?
I mean you do have a crew on you, it in’t just you. You got a team, but that was shift work. I worked Saturday , Sunday and nights and days. Used to do two days, two nights, then four days off. Well you don’t know where you are!
Well, I tell you one of the worst things up there, you know we were talking about Dairy Crest, they used to do ghosters, what they’d call a ghoster. That is, when you come on nights on your last night, you can work the day as well and the night again.
Well how on earth do you do that, because your hours must be up? Well they call it a ghoster. And I done one of them one week and that killed me. I come home for my four days off and I was dead. I was so tired, so you know, I just couldn’t get over it. I said, ‘Don’t ask me to do any more of them, because they are killers’. You’d do your two days and two nights and then go through another day and night, without any sleep. How they used to get away with it that I don’t know.
[M] But you didn’t do the cleaning for very long because you started driving that big tug.
Tug driving yeah, engine runs. Used to take them up to do engine runs and tow ‘em back to the hangars for other people to clean, that sort of thing. The tug, it was a big tug, you know what you get on the front of an aircraft, put the bar on….
[M] You’ve seen them on the television, where they’re pulling the aircraft in and out of airports. A man sitting there in this little sort of jeep type thing, with the long pole on.
I done that. When I went up there they said to me, ‘What did you used to do before you come here boy?’ I said, ‘Well I used to be a heavy goods driver, lorries’. ‘Well, you’ll be ideal because you can drive big sort of….’. And I got started on that. Now I loved that, that was alright. But then in the end they made the shifts bigger so that they had too many drivers on each shift and they could get rid of several of us up there. But in the end they put us where they thought we should go and I ended up in the stores. Now I hate stores so that’s why I glad I’m coming to retirement.
[M] So every parcel that comes in, you get propellers, aircraft engines all sorts of different things come in that need to be signed for open it. Make sure it’s all there , check it.
Things have changed since I have been here, yeah, it’s got too political now. You got youngsters there which are a lot younger than me, trying to tell me how to do the job. They never done the job, things like that and I’d just go. ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full’. I just want to do my day and get on with it. In other words, they ‘int got a clue.
[M] The only good thing about it is they have given you plenty of training, in the way that you’ve been able you use different types of forklifts and different types of vehicles.
Oh yeah, they have. I’ve actually got an airside licence now so I could go to Gatwick or Heathrow and go out on the airside now. You don’t get that from just doing nothing, but I’ll never use it because I’m nearly retired now.
[M] And also they do give you medicals don’t they? Because of the hazardous stuff that you touch, they make sure that you get a full medical. That’s just to make sure there’s nothing wrong with his eyes and things like that.
Every six months, that’s a good thing. As I said to you, I’ve been working here nearly 20 years. It’s got a lot harder in bodily sense, lifting and that sort of thing.
[M] About five years ago at KLM at the time the firm weren’t doing very well. What they did is they told all you workers that you were going to contribute so much money per month, so they could boost the company up. And I think that you were paying something like £80 a month.
And they didn’t get your consent, they just done it. And that’s a lot of money if you think about it. And you never got it back did you.
No, no, we never got it back.
I’ve never met a firm like Dairy Crest though, where they’ve been so friendly and they help you out, I mean the Dairy Crest garage, if your car broke down on the way to work, you walked in and they would come and get your car while you were on the road doing your deliveries and put your car right for you.
If it was an expensive bill, three or four hundred pounds, and that was a lot of money years ago, they would deduct some out of your wages each month, they wouldn’t take it all in one go. ‘How much do you want to pay back?’ they asked you, You wouldn’t get that nowadays would you? No way!
[M] Peter don’t associate with people outside of work. You did at Dairy Crest and you always go to the reunions. But it’s never been your thing here.
No, no but I can honestly say that they were all my mates down at Dairy Crest. They’d do anything for you, any of them. They really really would.
When they have a do, they phone me up, that’s getting less and less now, but I suppose a lot of them have died. I mean I’m 65 and I was a boy down there at Dairy Crest. But they are good old boys, they really are.
The good thing about KLM is they are stringent on health and training, they’re a Dutch firm so I suppose they are pretty up on that sort of thing aren’t they .
Dairy Crest was different, you didn’t get much training, you learnt it as you went along. But that made it more, in a way, easier. You learnt off other people , they passed their knowledge onto you. I told you before I would be hurting my back getting the top crate off the lorry, I thought, ‘Oh I can’t stick this’ and that’s when they say, ‘Well you don’t lift the top one, you just flick it’. That knack, that’s the knack of doing it. But you do it for anyone else, when you get another new driver coming in, you don’t tell him you know!
[M] But driving has always been your first love.
Yeah I love driving . I got angina and KLM are looking after me, keep a check on that for me which is good. They took my HGV away from me. Even though I got it back and I was paying for my own medical at the doctor every time and I thought, ‘Oh, what the hell are you doing it for Peter, you don’t drive no more and you’re getting older. So I let it lapse in the end.
[M] But then a couple of years ago, Wilson’s offered you a driving job,
That was in Manchester.
[M] They wanted him to be away from home four nights a week, And I said, ‘No way’. No way, not now that you’re getting older and I don’t really want to be on my own, I mean it’s different if circumstances mean that you have to be on your own, but not by choice.
Like I said, Dairy Crest was the best job I had in my life, I’ve never met a firm like it, we were respected, we really were. I know I keep going over this but wherever I’ve worked, I’ve had some good jobs, got on with most people but down there they were brilliant.
Peter Palmer (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive 9th March 2011 in Norwich.
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