Working Lives

Sales and recycling (1953-2000)

Location: Thetford; Bury St Edmunds

Robin recalls his working life delivering groceries by bicycle, Walls’ produce by mobile van, recycling waste materials and managing a public hall.

Boxes on bicycles, paraffin on the van

In 1953, when I was 13, I worked as a part time grocery delivery boy. Savages was the main grocery in Thetford and the ladies would go to the store, order what they wanted for delivery the same day, or next. The shop assistants made up the boxes and at 4pm, after school, we collected the bicycle and all the boxes we could get on the bike and delivered them down Croxton Road or Vicarage Road, or wherever. We did that from 4pm to 5.30pm. There were two of us and on Saturdays, and during the summer holidays, we took it in turns, one did Saturday morning one week and the other did Saturday afternoon the next week.

I left school at 15 and went to the Co-op. I didn’t know what to do as a career and was waiting to get a job in the Post Office. The only way you could get in was as a telegraph boy and as there were no vacancies at the time I had to wait until the telegraph boy was promoted to get my chance. In the 50’s it was considered a good career to work for the Post Office or British Rail. At the Co-op I was a delivery boy again, on a mobile shop. They kept all the groceries, bread and paraffin, would you believe, underneath the wagon together. We went round the villages, selling off the van. It was quite interesting bar the bad weather when it was wet, cold and nasty. No heat, and you were on the rounds from about 7am until 5pm when you’d come back, and then you had to load up the van, ready for the next day. I waited for something at the Post Office to come in and, would you believe it, telegraphs were disbanded, so I had to look round for something else.

From selling sausages to televisions

When I left the Co-op I had a factory job at A & F Parks but after a little while I thought ‘No, I want to go in to sales’ so I worked as a van salesman. I had a huge area, around Norfolk, right up to Holbeach in Lincolnshire and some days over to Southwold on the east coast, selling fresh foods off a non-refrigerated van, and there were some really hot days! We had to sell the sausages and pies on the day so the stock was fresh next day, but sometimes we did carry it over.

I saw a job advert for an electrical salesman at Woolatt Mitchell’s in Castle Street in Thetford. Modern technology was coming in, television and tape recorders, and I thought ‘Yes, I can do that’, so I went to work there and had a nice little career job. When we opened another branch in Kings Street, in the 60’s, I got promoted and became the manager there.

Back to selling sausages!

Then my wanderlust got hold of me again, the grass is always greener on the other side! I saw an advert for sales for a major blue chip company, Tony Walls, part of Unilever. Walls made sausages and pies and as I was getting married I wanted to earn a bit more money.

Training was an issue and when I joined Unilever they kindly sent another salesman down because I was really green. He was with me for about three weeks, travelling from Norwich to Thetford and back every night, so it was quite a commitment. He showed me all the aspects of selling and form filling and how to make out an invoice, weights and measures and, of course, the routes. We had to learn the routes going from town to town, village to village as we had to find the shops, the shop keepers and the managers. Before you started selling to anybody you had to find the manager which could take quite some time. When you got going you usually set up a good working relationship with the shop staff. They said ‘We’ll leave it to you, you put in the sausages and pies that you think we would sell’. It saved us a lot of time and saved them a lot of time and it worked very well, with trust on both sides!

Being out all day you had to have something to eat and obviously you got bored with sausage rolls from Walls so you took your own sandwiches and sometimes you went into a cake shop. As we sold to them we could get two or three doughnuts and eat them with a quick cup of coffee when you’d finished a town. Sometimes, if you had time, you could call in to a cafe where they sold our produce and have a cup of tea with them. We usually paid for things but they might put in an extra doughnut occasionally!

Looking back working conditions were pretty horrendous. There were no washing facilities on the van which was unheated so being out in the middle of winter, driving all day, it was pretty cold because of the frozen produce we had in the back. When you finished up in Holbeach in Lincolnshire on a cold winter’s night with fifty miles to drive back and no heater, you were pretty cold, but you didn’t think anything of it, just wrapped up and hoped you got back ‘cause the roads weren’t as good as they are today.

Holidays, prizes and a change of direction

When I moved to Walls it was very well paid, compared to what I’d been earning, and we were on commission as well. We were selling by tonnage and a ton of sausages is quite a bit, the more you sold the more you earned. It was a good incentive to sell more. There were also prizes as an incentive and I had one or two nice holidays. There was a catalogue and if you sold so much you could choose from the star prizes so it was very good. We had a nice little holiday on a converted barge boat, a five days’ holiday, all paid for by commission and sales. The prizes also included consumer goods, small televisions or tape recorders or coats or anything like that, so that was a good incentive. I had a small cottage at the time so the commission went to pay off the mortgage. I was very lucky, I was healthy in my mid twenties and we were gadding about, not worrying about health, very lucky.

Working five and a half days a week you only had Saturday afternoon and Sunday for leisure time. You had to do your paperwork and phone it in to your supervisor at 12 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon so there wasn’t much time between 12 o’clock and half past five to have a quick wash and brush up and off to Norwich or Bury St. Edmunds for a shopping trip out with the family. At the time money was tight and my father-in-law had a business in waste recycling so I worked for him on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. So my leisure time and working time was reduced to Sunday afternoon!

I had a chequered career working for Walls. They were being pressured to make more money. The products arrived in Thetford on a trunker which called at Cambridge, Thetford and Norwich, and the vans were offloaded overnight so the produce was absolutely fresh, made that day. But the powers that be said they would no longer stop at Thetford because they wanted everything in Norwich. The drivers were very truculent then and maybe it was union power, they wanted me to move Norwich to continue with my job. I said I was quite happy living in Thetford, got my own house and the children had settled at school, so I said ‘No, I’ll make my own way’ but we parted on good terms.

The recycling business and a broken elbow!

I had one or two other jobs and I was working in van sales again, for Northern Dairies, Ski yogurts. I sold all the cream. It was a very good job.

As my father-in-law’s business grew he said ‘Would you like to come and join us in the business full time?’. I was already doing it Saturdays and Sundays so I took a chance and joined as a driver and general operative. The business started in 1945 and was going onwards and upwards. With the family business you had to do what was needed, there was no demarcation. We were bailing cardboard and recycling aluminium, all metals, delivering and collecting metals, cardboard and waste paper. Waste paper was very big for charity companies and they raised a lot of money. We went here, there and everywhere bringing five or six tons of newspapers back, all recycled into a bailer and sent off down to Kent. It was quite an interesting job, hard work, dirty, and I very much enjoyed it. They asked if I would take an HGV Class 3 driving test and, after a bit of training, I passed. We had a big skip lorry and I headed the operations. As the company grew we had two lorries and I’d built up the business to about a thousand skips, and then, sadly, I had an accident. I fell off the proverbial back of a lorry and broke my elbow and so I was in stook and had to leave the business as I couldn’t drive, or even eat!

I then went to work in Bury St. Edmunds as manager of a public hall. It was a nice little job but after ten years it got a bit hard driving backwards and forwards and I was getting older, I was in my late fifties. The hours got longer and longer and I said ‘Enough’s enough’.

A nice little job came up in Thetford, working for Breckland Council as a member of the Facilities team, so that took me to the last four years of my working career, from when I was 61 to 65.  I retired in 2005, the end of my working career.

Robin (b. 1940) talking to WISEArchive in Thetford on 22nd September 2011.

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