Working Lives

Quality Control and Analysis, Colman’s (1985-95)

Location: Norwich

Sarah began work in Colman’s Quality Control, trained in many areas and worked across various departments including baby-food, mustard and soft drinks. She describes the many changes at the company.

I first started working at Colman’s on a temporary basis in May 1985 when I was 20. Someone had broken their ankle and I was asked to cover. I remember my interview at Colman’s because it was also the interviewer’s first day, so I don’t know who was more nervous, him or me!

I started in the Food Research department as a lab assistant in product development. This department was responsible for developing new products. For the first two weeks I was making salad cream. Unfortunately, those two weeks have put me off salad cream for the rest of my life. Making the salad cream involved homogenising, which is mixing together fats or oils with water and vinegar. I can remember breaking the glass homogeniser which was probably quite expensive so it wasn’t really a very good start to my career at Colman’s!

After two weeks I began work in Quality Control, or QC as we used to call it, and at the end of my temporary period, I asked if I could be made permanent. They agreed and I remained in QC.

When I first started at the company it was very much a family firm. In fact, we quite often had families working there – mum, dad and then the children. There was a company pension scheme and a bonus scheme when I was first there.

I started off in the Baby Food lab. There were two day shifts, 6am to 3pm and 2pm to 11pm. There was also a night shift but they generally didn’t want women to do these. I managed to do just one week of nights when they were desperate. The day shifts changed later from 6am to 2.15pm. Then there was an overlap which was either 1.45pm or 2pm until 10pm. This was a lot better, but even so shifts were quite difficult.

I think I preferred the early shifts, despite having to get up, because you then had the rest of the day. With the late shifts you were always looking at the clock. You tended not to start to do anything because you knew that you had to be at work. The factory workers had to clock in, but I just had to be at work at the times of my shift. It was sometimes difficult getting up for the early shift and very occasionally I was late and had to make up the time at the end of the shift. But you’d get in the routine of it. Until I stopped doing them, I didn’t realise just how tiring shifts were. And switching shifts sort-of messed up your body clock.

The labs were quite old-fashioned and were all together on the top floors. They led into the individual factories. The main stairs to the labs were okay but the stairs into the factories were quite steep and narrow in some cases. We used these concrete stairs quite a lot, going to sample at least every hour and then going back to give the results to the operators. In the laboratories it was all wooden tops and ceramic sinks with tall taps, like in old school laboratories. Noise-wise the labs were okay but, as soon as you went into the factories, the noise hit you.

It was mainly men who worked in the factory; women tended to be in the offices. Even within QC it was mainly men. We did have some students coming in, mainly during the summer holidays. When I first started there were some women working on the packing lines but a lot of that was eventually automated and required just one person to take care of it. I suspect the women lost their jobs.

As a woman going into male-dominated areas I always noticed a slight change in the way the men spoke. Of course, I couldn’t always hear what they were saying because it was so noisy but I think that they changed their language – they didn’t swear quite so much, which I always found amusing.

When I was first at Colman’s there were rest rooms within the factories where the factory staff could have their breaks. There were two rooms, one for smoking and the other for non-smokers. The walls in the smoking rooms were brown and yellow, but this stopped later on when they banned smoking anywhere in the building.

The QC staff wore white lab coats and hats. I don’t think I had to wear hairnets originally as these were incorporated into the hat. Later on, we had to wear hairnets and men with beards had to wear snoods. We didn’t wear them inside the laboratory because nothing went back from the laboratory to the factory. However, if we went out into the factory we wore hairnets, gloves and plastic coats as well, if we were inspecting the meat. We also had to wear safety shoes which were fine for the men but they didn’t really make many safety shoes for women. I always had holes in my socks because the metal bit at the toe cap used to eat away at them. Eventually we had a sort of trainer which was a bit better.

The factory workers wore ear defenders as they were by their machines all the time. It was sometimes difficult trying to communicate when something wasn’t right with the results.

The factory made dried baby foods, which were mainly in flakes and a starter-porridge for very young babies. The food was made on machines; they had driers and rollers which broke it up into the flakes. There were savoury and sweet varieties. In the laboratory we had to do various production tests but not the microbiology tests which were done in a separate laboratory. Other tests were carried out in the analytical laboratory. We would be given criteria from the Food Research department for the testing because they knew what should be in the products. The test results had to come in between set limits.

We tested the bulk density which meant weighing it, to ensure that the final product was the right height and weight in the packet. We also had to make sure the appearance and taste was okay. We had to do Vitamin C tests that involved mixing the flakes up with water in beakers. We used little magnetic stirrers which were put on a magnetic bed. This meant that they stirred by themselves. We sometimes lost the stirrers when we poured the mixture through a sieve into the sink.

We also checked raw materials such as fruit and in the meat-processing plant we checked the frozen raw meat. We checked the cooked meat as well which meant putting on special plastic overalls as you couldn’t go straight from raw meat to cooked meat. We also had to wash our hands with special disinfectant.

We didn’t really find any surprises or problems which is good. We took hourly samples as they made the baby food, and we did final samples which meant checking the packets.

As the laboratory was on the top floor, the stairs kept us fit! We used to go down with a little scoop, put it through a door in the dryers and catch some of the food as it came down the chute. We’d go back, do the tests and if it didn’t meet the criteria, the dryer man was informed and he would alter the settings. This usually worked. I don’t know what happened if we condemned something but I don’t think it happened very often.

The production of baby food stopped whilst I was there. It was a bit strange having this empty factory next to the laboratory.

When I was made permanent they decided I needed training in all areas, so I went to the mustard laboratory. This was above the Baby Foods and I had to go across the roof to the mustard factory because it was next door – a bit of an assault course.

The first step in the manufacture of the mustard was done at the top of the building with other processes continuing on lower floors. The wet area was at the top and the drier areas and dry mustard powder was lower down. Things went through the floor to the next stage; it was all quite old-fashioned looking but it worked. The packing was always done on the bottom floor and samples were left for us near the door. We would go in and talk to people if there was something wrong, but generally it wasn’t necessary.

We handled mustard seed and dried mustard, which is the crushed, rolled seed. There was also quite a range of wet mustards such as English, Dijon and horseradish mustard. When we checked the raw horseradish we had to wear goggles and gloves because it was so strong. When you opened the barrel the smell of chopped horseradish would hit you. It was needed like that to keep its strength and taste. There were also big vinegar vats on the top floor near the horseradish, so you always got the smell of the vinegar as you walked in.

For one mustard test we had to just mix it with water, stir and let it settle. Then we would look at the bottom of the beaker for black spots, rogue seeds or other plants in the mustard; the fewer of these, the better the mustard. The better mustard went into the better products. Obviously these grading tests were a bit subjective, so every so often they would check to see that we were all doing it the same way.

We also checked the moisture in the mustard. This involved putting it in an oven for a few hours or overnight, and then checking for the difference in weight. We also checked the volatile oil in the mustard and how hot it was. It was quite an involved process which included mixing the mustard with water and then heating it to release the oil. Next, we used a gas liquid chromatograph, or GLC. This machine had a flame and we’d inject the resulting liquid into it to produce a profile.

During the mustard harvest the seed would come into a specific area where the mustard seed driers were located. They are the tall, grey silos you can see from the road. Here, they literally just dried the mustard seed. It was like going back to the dark ages because it was all wood.

I occasionally went into Soft Drinks if needed. They needed at least two of us in Soft Drinks as it was so fast. We would test the Brix. It was done on a simple machine and we would just put a little juice onto a reader and it gave a guideline of the sugar content. We also measured the acid content and Vitamin C levels as these had to be within certain limits.

Another test involved putting the flavours through a High Pressure Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC). Each flavour had a specific curve on the graph and we matched it to make sure that it was right.

Illustration: Beatrice Fox
Illustration: Beatrice Fox

This was the old Robinson’s Soft Drinks factory with huge vats of juice on the roof. To sample the juices, we had to go outside and kneel to turn the taps in order to collect samples of juice in a jug. We had to remember to turn the taps off. Once, a tap wasn’t turned off properly and all the juice ran away!

Later on, there was a new purpose-built Robinson’s Soft Drinks factory. This huge brown building was in the middle of the site and had no outside windows, so it was all artificial lighting. Everything was state of the art. There was lots of stainless steel and the floors were a bit like those used by the Formula One [racing-car] people for their garages. They were easy to wash. The sampling points were much better as well as they were placed at a natural height level; there were no taps on the roof and we didn’t have to kneel down.

Each team on shift had a supervisor who was in charge of major decisions. You just took the results to them. If the results were close to the limits then you would tell the people concerned with making it, otherwise the supervisor would deal with it.

Although I mainly worked with baby foods and mustard, the factory also made many other products including:

*Dried sauces for casseroles *Peanut butter    *Mint sauce
*Wet sauces like brown sauce *Salad cream    *Gales honey
*Tetra Paks of small drinks


The Tetra Paks were made from a giant roll of cardboard with a silver-coloured laminate. The machine folded the cardboard roll into boxes, the drink was added to each box and then they were sealed. It’s like giant origami. There was a new purpose-built factory for Tetra Pak, all new and shiny with no wood in sight. Everything was stainless steel and the floors were specially coated so they were easy to clean. I didn’t go into these labs very often but I think that they felt that it was necessary to train me in the different areas.

As the factory staff belonged to a different union they had a different setup with their holidays. They had rest days when the factory stopped and nothing happened. I think that the supervisors and managers must have been in a different union because they used to come in, and the whole place was eerily quiet.

As far as the factory workers were concerned, this was an extra holiday. From our point of view, it was an opportunity to clean things within the laboratories and carry out hygiene checks. We used to go round with the supervisor or manager of the factory just basically looking. We had a whole list of things that we had to check were up to the required standard. Cleaning was quite an involved process to avoid cross- contamination. The factory staff worked Saturdays but we didn’t, however, Saturdays were quite often used for cleaning so it was an important part of the process.


Everything was made on-site. The raw materials came in and would be cooked and dried. In later years, in the Baby Foods factory, they used a new machine called an agglomerator to make little pellets, a bit like Rice Krispies, and these were added to the dried flakes.

Soft drinks came to the factory in juice-form. Other ingredients were then added such as flavourings and preservatives. Lorries used to arrive with liquid sugar which was piped out and was very sticky.

The drinks were mixed up and then went through a pasteuriser. This was a huge piece of equipment, made up of a series of pipes. The pasteuriser was held at a certain temperature as the drinks passed through. They were then packed automatically into plastic and glass bottles.

We originally had a Tin Shop onsite, so even the tins for the mustard were made at Colman’s. In later years, however, a lot of the packaging came from other factories. Contract farmers provided the mustard seed and we would see giant trailers pull up with ‘Colman’s of Norwich’ written on the side. I think that the mustard seed was grown locally to get it to the factory as soon as possible.


When I was on an early shift, we came in at 6am and had breakfast at 10am. These breakfasts were infamous. There was a full English breakfast and although you didn’t have to have everything, quite often by the time you got there, you wanted it! They used to make enormous scones that were very nice so you had to keep an eye on your weight. Everybody on shift went to breakfast together and we had about half an hour. On the late shift we had an evening meal and a variety of foods to choose from.

We had a tea break as well. The women, who washed up the many pieces of equipment used for doing the tests in the laboratories, would put on the kettle and make the tea and I can remember sitting in the laboratory for our tea breaks.

In November 1987 I changed to day shifts after the company had a big reorganisation. They were changing from Quality Control to Quality Assurance, which basically meant doing the tests beforehand. Unfortunately this meant that some people lost their jobs.

Some people went into the new Soft Drinks plant but I went onto the day shift in the analytical laboratories in the Food and Research department or FRD. The analytical laboratory took on some of the tests that QC had done before.

The analytical laboratories weren’t quite as bad as the QC laboratories, but they were still quite old-fashioned. They were eventually redecorated whilst I was there, but it was still wooden benches and ceramic sinks. There was also a huge window so it was really hot in the summer and cold in the winter. We only had air conditioning where the instruments might fail; the people didn’t matter!

When I was in the analytical lab we did basic chemical tests on all foodstuffs across the entire site, including Robinson’s drinks, while a separate laboratory did all of the microbiology tests. I started training to do raw-material testing because it was important to test them before they were put into products. Then the final product was tested. The nutritional information that you see on packs is essentially what we tested.

Again, we tested for moisture. To do this we used normal ovens but we also used vacuum ovens for delicate materials, otherwise they would have burned rather than dried. We tested acids, salts, proteins and sugars and would obtain an exact figure for the sugar content. Vitamin C, fats and volatile oils were tested. We boiled them up so that you could see them bubbling away in the glass containers – your typical laboratory scenario.

We also burnt things down to an ash and measured what was left. There were different tests for different ingredients. Some items needed colour tests, for instance. We did similar tests on the finished product, again checking to see that what was on the label was also in the box.

The product development teams used to produce new products and we had to check they met the criteria; sometimes they needed the information to help make the new product in the factory. We also tested the samples sent in with complaints – the complaints were dealt with in a different department.

We also tested competitors’ products to aid product development as the company needed to see what the competitors were doing. Taste tests were done and if somebody in Product Development liked something they would then run tests to see what was in it.

The other thing that I inherited – probably because they didn’t know where else to send it – was deliveries of vinegar. I can remember the first time this happened. A lorry driver arrived and I thought, ‘What on earth’s this?’ We just had to check the acid level of the vinegar while the lorry driver waited; it had to pass the test before he could take it to the relevant department.

In the analytical labs we used various pieces of equipment; all slower and more methodical than in the QC. In QC you had to get your test done as soon as possible, be accurate but not too slow. It was slower paced in the analytical labs. We did a lot of titrations with pipettes. We’d use an indicator colour and test, for instance, acid levels by using an alkali. We’d work out how much acid was in the product from the amount of alkali used to change the colour. We also measured sodium and potassium content. We used lots of beakers, flasks, pipettes, graduated pipettes and a centrifuge.

We wore lab coats, safety shoes, safety glasses and rubber gloves when handling chemicals and heat-proof gloves for the oven. In the past, people used a mouth pipetting method which involved sucking up a liquid; they could easily get a mouthful! I didn’t ever do that. Instead we used rubber tubing which was pressed and would then suck up; it would expand a bit like a balloon. Later on I trained to test for metals, such as lead. This involved using a very special piece of equipment that I had to be trained up on. I also did high-pressure liquid chromatography and gas chromatography, mainly for drinks and flavours.

Working in the analytical lab was a complete change from QC because the laboratory assistants were mainly women; the managers were men. It was quite different after working in a mainly male environment.

Now I was working days we had lunch rather than breakfast and the times were staggered between noon and 2pm. Lunchtime was a lot more relaxed and we had a choice of salads and things like that, so it wasn’t all the full English breakfast thing.

We worked flexitime when I first started so we did actually clock in. We had to work certain core hours but outside of those times, we could be flexible as to what time we worked. If you accrued a certain number of hours you could have the time off in lieu, a whole day off. Unfortunately, our union decided to get rid of this later on and I don’t quite know why. I think certain staff may have worked too many extra hours and I suppose flexitime wasn’t considered particularly important or helpful to production. However, I must admit I did like working flexitime because you could arrange your day as you preferred.

Whilst I was at Colman’s they set up a scheme called NAMAS in the analytical laboratory. This is a national accreditation scheme and it meant that we had to have very rigid procedures for the tests. They had to be written down and followed to the letter. We also had to check the equipment. We did certain tests to calibrate the equipment, to make sure that they would always repeat a test if required. These were long procedures and involved a lot more work, although it did improve the value of our results.

Whilst I was in the analytical lab I occasionally covered the stores based in the Research department. There was everything in the stores: glassware, gloves, stationery and the reagents for the laboratories. We also had a hut outside where we held alcohol for some of the tests; it had a book which had to be signed and double-signed. In theory, Customs and Excise could come along any day and check that nobody was taking alcohol home.

Apart from the analytical laboratory we had the following departments in the Food and Research building (later called the Technical Centre):

*Food Engineering Department       *Library *Long-term research labs
*Food and Drink Development labs     *Complaints *Microbiology lab
*Kitchen for domestic science     *Packaging *Quality Assurance

*Pilot plant (where mini versions of the factory equipment were held)


In the kitchen, one lady worked with the product development teams when they were producing new products, and cooked up the products for their taste tests. This had to be done in quite a controlled way and needed a fair number of tasters. They also did storage tests by storing products under various conditions of heat and humidity to see how they deteriorated.

Most of the training at Colman’s was on the job. One really good aspect of this training was that Colman’s decided to train all of their staff in computing. We went on courses, and learned to use WordPerfect [word-processing software]; something called Lotus 1-2-3 [for creating spreadsheets], Lotus Freelance [for presentations] and a very early form of e-mail called DaVinci. They trained us to use e-mails because Colman’s wasn’t just based in Norwich but had connections all over the world, including close contact with factories in Ireland.

They trained all staff in computing because they wanted to implement a more computer-based system for everything. For us, this meant computerising our reports and results. For the factory staff, it meant stock was computerised from raw material to finished product and distribution. This is when computers were fairly new within work situations. I don’t think I realised until much later how beneficial it was to learn their use. We also had some team-building training which was good fun but as soon as we returned to work, everything reverted to the old ways; I don’t think it works.


I married in 1988 and later asked if I could go part-time, but there were no positions, so I left in April 1992. However, in January 1993 I was asked if I wanted to return on a temporary basis to do the extra work from the mustard harvest, and I agreed. I used a mini version of the apparatus used in the factory putting the mustard seed over rollers to make mustard flour. Then I did all the tests as before. I did this work for a few months.

There was a library in the Food Research department which had lots of books relevant to food development and other material to do with different parts of the site. It also had journals so that people could stay up-to-date with patents and current issues in the food industry. Sadly, during the cuts they decided to disband the library. All the books went down to the basement and some were just given or thrown away.

I was asked to deal with the journals such as The Grocer and accountancy journals which people throughout the site continued to read each week. I was responsible for logging the journals as they came in and then distributing them. I had to answer questions about patents and arrange for copies from the British Library. It was quite different to what I’d been doing and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, they decided to make a further cut and the job was reduced.

Following this, I was offered a job in the product development laboratories, mainly in the Soft Drinks department. This involved helping as a laboratory assistant: making up products, testing storage products and following up on complaints. I spent most of my time making up products, weighing ingredients on big scales and mixing it all together with giant mixers. They also had a mini version of the pasteurisation unit so I would put the drink through that.

Occasionally I helped to make up some of the food which was then sent out for taste-testing before it was released. We sometimes fetched samples from the factory and that’s when I went into the new Soft Drinks plant and found out about the much easier way of sampling the juices. It wasn’t my favourite job; I liked making up the products and that sort of thing. However, I was supposed to be part-time but I quite often ended up having to stay longer.


Colman’s used to have gardeners on-site to look after the gardens and they were lovely; they really took care of them. However, they got rid of the gardeners and subcontracted the work to outsiders after which the gardens definitely deteriorated.

We had a social club at Lakenham cricket ground where we used to go and play badminton. The social club was used by quite a few families but then it was privatised and run by somebody other than Colman’s. This didn’t really change things directly because it was still mainly Colman’s people who used it. But all these little changes added up and it lost its family nature.

They had a shop on-site where we used to buy all sorts of things including products which couldn’t be sold to the public, so we got them cheaper. They would give you goodies at Christmas and I think we had a chicken or a turkey one year. Another year they gave a tie to the men and a silk scarf to the women. It was not the nicest of scarfs; I think I used it when sailing. The canteen, originally subsidised by Colman’s, was later contracted out as was Security.

We had various different schemes over the years. First we had a bonus scheme but that was soon stopped; it was probably one of the first things to go. The Share-Save continued for a while but then stopped. They tried something called CI or Continuous Improvement based on an idea from the Japanese way of working. We had some visitors from Japan to the factory and we were supposed to give in ideas about the continuous improvement of the processes. It worked on the theory that the people who worked on the processes would know more about them than the development people. I think these things don’t necessarily go down so well in practice.

Things were changing with the firm. The managing directors had changed. Whilst I was there they divided the staff into food and drink staff, that is, into Robinson’s soft drinks and Colman’s (everything else was Colman’s). I went with the drinks because that’s where I was mainly working. This was because they had tried to sell the firm as a whole and weren’t having much luck. The idea was to sell the sections off separately which they did. I was told that I was going to be made redundant and I finished on the 12th September, 1995.

It was a very strange period because the factories still remained on-site with Britvic taking over the Robinson’s drinks and Unilever taking over the rest, however, they still retained the Colman and Robinson’s names. Some people were hired by the firms but all the office staff disappeared. They didn’t want to double up because they already had enough staff in their offices and in Research and Development. So the whole building and everyone in it were no longer needed. The daft thing was that I continued doing tests up until the last day and it was just thrown away. It was a very odd feeling.

They did provide services for finding alternative jobs. An office was set up where you could get advice about jobs. They had courses on writing CVs and that sort of thing so I suppose it was better than nothing. Nonetheless, it was a very sad and peculiar time.

With the changes, Baby Foods and the Tin Shop closed. They stopped producing products such as Gales Honey. QC became Quality Assurance; we lost the library and the offices. I felt respected when I was first there but I was just an employee by the end.

Sarah (b. 1964) talking to WISEArchive on 6th January 2016 in Norwich.

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