Working Lives

Baby Foods (1971-1983)

Location: Norwich

Valerie describes her work in the baby food section at Colman’s.

A family way of life

I was brought up in Lakenham and went to the Lakenham schools and I had a sister and one or two other relatives who worked at Colman’s. The done thing was to put your name down at Personnel about a year before you wanted to work there, then when you left school you’d go for an interview. My mum came with me – probably not the done thing nowadays – and that’s how I got my job at Colman’s in the baby food department.

I’m quite lucky to be here to tell my story as my mum used to work at Colman’s when she was a young girl of fourteen. When they were leaving work a lot of them used to leave from the yard and walk straight up Carrow Hill and on one particular day a bomb dropped [July 1940]. It was devastating and three of my mum’s best friends, who worked with her, died. My mum was very lucky as she was about two to three minutes behind them, otherwise my mum wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be here to tell the story either.

I have other members of the family who worked at Colman’s: a couple of uncles, a cousin, my brother and a sister. So I had quite a few in my family working at Colman’s. I think it was just a way of life – you just sort of went where your family worked I suppose. My older sister worked at Caleys, the chocolate factory, so she was the only one (and my dad) who didn’t work at Colman’s in my family. At the time, at school, they didn’t really push you into saying, what you would like to do? You just thought, well my sister works up there so I’ll go. When I left school I only had about one or two weeks before I actually started work. I was there for thirteen years and we had good times.

Both of my sisters, who were just a bit older than me when they went out to work, were lucky, as my mum and dad bought them bikes so they could bike to work. When it came to my turn, I’m afraid my mum and dad weren’t in a position to buy me a cycle so I had to start saving up and pay in weekly for a new bike. I did get one in the end but was a little bit miffed to think I had to buy my own!

Quality control

As I was a very petite young girl, instead of going on to the packing lines and lifting heavy boxes I was given the job of ‘check weigher’ in the baby food department, or ‘quality control’ as it’s probably called now. I would collect several boxes at a time, every half an hour, and make sure the weight of the baby food in the boxes was correct. If they were light I would re-check and then tell the machine minder to check if there was a blockage perhaps in the hopper of the machine. I had to make sure that every box had the proper weight for people to purchase.

I would walk to work and get there on time to clock in for 8 o’clock. We’d have a tea break in the morning, a lunch break, and I think we had a tea break in the afternoon and then we would clock out at 5.07. [Finish times were staggered at the end of the day among the various factories in the area to avoid congestion on the streets]. Sometimes we got overtime when they needed to get the orders out; we would work ‘til 6 o’clock in the evening. Very occasionally there might be a Saturday morning if you wanted to do it. Also, when there was a lot to do, we’d be on a bonus so the quicker we worked and the more we got out, the more we earned. There were one or two people who were very focussed on bonuses and would work all day, very quickly, perhaps just packing, to get the orders out and get more money into their pay packets at the end of the week. It was good but it was hard sometimes trying to keep up with some of them and they could get annoyed if you didn’t keep up!

There was a machine called the ‘Triple’; it had three units, three people and a little hopper. Little bags were filled up by hand and then rolled over and put them onto a line. We had to work quickly because the machines operated on a timer so as each bag was filled and folded you had to quickly get another bag out and put it under the machine to catch the next lot. Otherwise it went through into a tub at the bottom and recycled through again. There were a couple of machines like that where everyone had to work hard and if they got behind they wouldn’t be very popular. It kept you going.

I remember starting at 8 o’clock in the morning. I think I was pretty good at time-keeping but if you were more than five minutes late they would dock your wages by fifteen minutes although you could make the time up and go back early at lunch time or work a bit later. We got the public holidays like Good Friday, August bank holiday and May holiday – there was only one May holiday then, not two as we have now. We had time off at Christmas, perhaps a week, and we used to close down in the summer for the first two weeks in August as did a lot of factories in Norwich. Many people booked to go away in August so there would be a flux of people in their cars or at the train stations with their suitcases, ready to go on holiday.

My first wages were £10.40 a week, which to me seemed a lot of money. I had to take out about £3.00 to give my mum for board and I’d pay for my lunch at work, although I don’t think it was that dear, and I needed a bit of money for going out dancing at the “Samson and Hercules” in Norwich, now a restaurant (just recently). I used to go on a Monday night and it cost two and six pence to get in and to pay for my bus fare there and back. So two and six doesn’t sound a lot now but in those days, when you took it out of £10.40, there were perhaps a couple of pounds left that I could save.

The Union and strike

Lots of things went on and you joined them or just paid your money and one of those things was the union. I remember joining the union, I’m not quite sure whether you had to or whether they just asked you and said you ought to join because if you go on strike you’ll get paid, or they’ll help you get more money. So I think we just paid our money and didn’t really know what we were going into. I do remember something was happening when I was supposed to get my pay-rise one year. Whether they were not going to give us enough or not going to give us any, I’m not sure, but it came to the point where we went out on strike. Those not in the union obviously didn’t go out so there were only one or two left in and they couldn’t run the department on their own. I just remember standing outside the department – not really knowing what was going on and not really interested, but wondering if I was losing money. It was all resolved but whether we got the pay rise I don’t know. It was my first experience of belonging to a union and having to go out on strike whether I liked it or not. You had to go out with the others and support them.

At the time there was a lot on the telly about the miners’ strikes and people were on strike for days and weeks on end and not getting any pay at all, but we were out for only a couple of hours so I think our strike was quickly resolved. Colman’s was a very good firm to work for and I didn’t have any problems with them. They helped everyone as much as they could in times of troubles.

Baby food

It was dried baby food whilst I was there, just powder and breakfast cereals. They had a vegetable range and a sweet desert range in the small baby foods and bigger boxes of breakfast porridge oats, mixed porridge oats and baby rice.

A lot of the baby foods, if I recollect right, were made with all fresh vegetable. We’d see sacks of carrots and potatoes going up in the lift on different days. I always remember the strawberry powder desert; if you caught it right when they were delivering the frozen strawberries someone on the machine would just run over and get a box full and we’d all have a lovely frozen strawberry sweet to suck; it was lovely in the summer to get something cold. A lot of the stuff was fresh so it was all good for the baby foods.


When we worked at Colman’s we obviously had to have a uniform, so everybody had either a dress-type uniform or an overall. My first headwear when I started was a blue turban made from a triangular piece of material; I remember my mum always wore one at the weekend when she had her hair done. One or two of the girls who were a bit older than me would wash their hair at lunchtime if they were going out that evening; they’d roll their hair up, put on the turban and by the time they clocked out, all they had to do was brush their hair and be off gallivanting or going to dances. After a year or two the turbans were changed to a mop cap, like Miss Muffett, and I remember a similar hat that was a white lacy one which was quite nice. Hats were the thing in the workplace then, to keep it all “health and safety”.


Valerie at work
Valerie at work

Health and Safety

In the summer it would get quite warm in the department and they’d open up a shutter and we could look out onto the river at any boats going past and people waving to us. I don’t think health and safety supervisors today would like this very much, knowing anything could fly in and out. The occasional bird would be about but we never had anyone say, ‘Quick get that out, health and safety!’

Health and safety in the workplace wasn’t really much of an issue then. I work in retail now and you can’t turn round without thinking, ‘Can I do that or not?’

Machinery all had proper guards, so there was no question about anyone getting their fingers caught or anything like that. Apart from wearing overalls and hats, you just had to make sure your hair was tucked in and wore safety shoes. The odd fire alarm would go off and we’d all have to go out and stand in the yard and wait to be counted. A manager always came out with a clipboard with the name of everyone they knew had clocked in that day and made sure everyone was out. On one occasion there was a little fire; I remember going out. I don’t think it was bad, smoke was coming out of some machinery but because there were lots of windows in the building you’d always see one or two people right up at the top who thought, ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered to go all the way down there and come all the way back’ and they’d be waving at you and you’d think, ‘Well, thank God that isn’t a proper fire’. As long as it wasn’t raining it was OK. But I don’t remember any really bad fires when I was there.

Visits to Colman’s

People would ask if they could have a tour around Colman’s and they’d go round departments like the baby foods and the mustard. Colman’s used people who worked in the departments to be guides and gave them their guide uniform and they’d bring people round. One of our characters, Albert Cushion, would always have a laugh and a joke with anyone who came round. He would sometimes have a paper bag in his hand and he’d pretend to throw something up in the air and then flick the bag so the youngsters – if they were from school – or even some of the old pensioners if they’d come from a home, they’d think he’d thrown something up and caught it in the bag.

The machines with the boxes had glue trays which were kept topped up with white glue used to stick the bottom and tops of the boxes. When Albert cleaned them out the glue would be congealed and he had long strips of glue, so when we had youngsters coming round he’d get a piece of this glue and he’d pretend to sneeze and he’d have a big long bit of white glue sort of hiding in his hand and people would go, ‘Ugh, look at him!’ He was such a character. Another of his other little jokes was with a telescope. He’d get the youngsters to huddle round and he’d say, ‘If you look there, there’s a bird flying about’ or, ‘just have a look up there and see what it’s doing’ and when the youngster took the telescope away, they’d have a black eye! They fell for it every time. It was just little things but the visitors used to love it.

A lot of the visitors were genuinely nice and you looked forward to seeing visitors come round and wonder if there was anyone you knew. I always hoped no-one knew me and I’d hide. It was part of Colman’s to let people on the outside know what it’s like to work in Colman’s. There was never anything to hide but, of course, you swept up and made sure it was all clean and tidy for health and safety visits. Working conditions were very good at Colman’s. I work in retail now and if we know someone is coming round we have to clean and tidy up and go by the book whereas they took us as they found us at Colman’s, which was good. You didn’t have to worry too much.

Celebrities come to Colman’s

On one occasion I remember Cilla Black coming round with one or two other people; that was nice to see. I didn’t speak to her but I think Albert Cushion did. I don’t think she’d have got away without speaking to him! She was quite young then, we’re talking the seventies, and she was just like a normal person chatting to people. There was a photo in the newspaper. I think we did actually know she was coming the day she came.

It was nice to think we had celebrities and actors coming round. Sometimes you got to say hello. Some would be in the Christmas pantomime at the Theatre Royal or in a local play. I think the company actually invited them to come in the afternoon and then take them for tea in the canteen.

Community and care at Colman’s

If we had a works outings we’d go straight from work, We used to have a summer outing to the Yarmouth Tower Ballroom for a big Colman’s do and everyone would get ready during the day and some liked to sort out their hair so they didn’t have too much to do when they left.

At Christmas time most of us at lunchtime would descend on the two local pubs near Colman’s; “The Kingsway” and “The Jolly Maltsters”. They were both on the corner of Carrow Bridge but are no longer there; they were demolished quite a few years ago. Anyway we’d all crowd in the pubs, queue up and try and get a drink. We’d have a good old sing-song and a laugh and a joke for about an hour and then we’d rush back to work, and the men would turn on the machines; we’d all had a few drinks by then, had a laugh and were ready for Christmas. Nobody stopped us working when we got back. I think health and safety supervisors would have a field day now, knowing people had been drinking and running machines at the same time!

In baby foods I started off as quality controller in charge of two machines and would periodically take boxes off to weigh. There was always a machine minder who ran the machines, one I remember was called Martin Wicks and the other was Eric Sadd. As soon as we clocked in, the bell would go at eight o’clock and the machines were turned on and you were ready for work. At break times came the bell went again and the machines were turned off; they were never turned off early as Colman’s was always conscious of keeping the machines going. When there was a breakdown all the jammed up boxes were removed quickly to get it going again. If we were on a bonus the last thing we wanted was to have the machines stopped. We’d all have a laugh and a bit of banter on the lines; it was a happy place to work in, lots of banter. A lot of the men, who worked on the machines, had a kettle and they used to make their own cup of tea during the day, when they had time. One chap called Herbert Henry used to keep his tea bags by his machine bags and he’d dry them out and use them again and we used to see his little tea bags hanging up.

I remember we had what we called a ‘messenger’ on each department; we had an older lady who would make the tea for the morning tea-break. She used a big tea urn to brew up and we would go when the bell went and get our cups of tea. She’d also take orders for the canteen if you wanted a cheese sandwich or a ham roll – I remember the scones were to die for! They didn’t have fruit but they were sweet and if they were still warm when she came back with them, the butter was just sort of melting in the scone. Then the bell went again and we returned to work. Another messenger job was to collect the post for our department from what was called the counting house, if I remember rightly

The canteen was a place where most people went for lunch; not many people brought a packed lunch, unlike nowadays. I remember a lot of people had a hot dinner so that they didn’t have to cook later or because they didn’t have a hot meal waiting when they got home. The meals were subsidised so you could get a three-course meal for quite reasonable price; lovely hot puddings with custard, all freshly made on the site. I’m not quite sure how much they charged because the year I started was the first year of decimalisation, so I didn’t learn at school how to work out the new money. I think it may have cost about 20p for a meal, possibly just the main meal and you paid a little extra for desert and soup.

It was a good time; you got to know people through chatting in the canteen, including people in different departments you didn’t see during the day. We spent most of our lunch break there and then we’d clock back in, and off we’d go again for the afternoon shift. I think the canteen opened at tea-time as well for the later shifts, so there was always something available to eat.

When I first started at Colman’s they had what was called a ‘work shop’ where they would sell certain goods at cheaper rates. The first one was on the hill as you walked into Colman’s. It had a window and you could see what they had and buy it. Later on they had a mobile unit with one or two people to run it. You could go and get your squashes, wines like ‘Wincarnis’ and Colman products like baby food, dry sauces, wet sauces. There was quite a variety of items to buy, and some external products and which I think they used to bring in. It was all at a discount so you did feel you were looked after

Albert Cushion, used to go to Leicester and bulk buy things like tights and underwear, and he’d come back with some jumpers and blouses and possibly sweets and chocolates. Every time he had a load in, we’d all go round his machine and ask, ‘What you’ve got this week, Albert? Have you got the tights we ordered?’ It was like a little enterprise going on with Albert Cushion; he’s still a great character.

I remember I worked with quite a few older people at the time or as least I thought they were old; they were probably the same age as I am now! When they retired I remember Colman’s always gave them a retirement party. Sometimes the whole department was invited to the canteen in the afternoon and they’d lay on a lovely afternoon tea with a glass of sherry, which always went to my head! They always gave a present as well before the person left. It was nice to think they would make a fuss of you and look after you. It sums up the years there, because now you can work for a firm and come and go and they don’t know who you are or what your name is.

After I was in Colman’s for four or five years, they got a chap in once or twice a week in the afternoons to provide a chiropody service. So I thought I’d try it. You’d just make an appointment and have someone take over your machine and you’d go over and get your feet done, and feel light on your feet walking away again. This was a free service and another perk from Colman’s who liked to look after their workers and ensure more comfortable feet. If you had any issues you could go to the medical centre and see the works nurse, and she provided anything needed such as plasters if you had cuts or bruises, or happened to faint at work. There was always someone on site to come over when needed and the nurse whom I knew from years ago was later a nurse in my local practice; it was lovely to think I’d known her so many years, looking after me at Colman’s and looking after me again until she retired this year

To sum everything up, I worked for thirteen years at Colman’s, which seemed to go quite quickly. At the beginning of 1983 they started to bring in shift work – they had a lot of work and they wanted people to work six ‘til two and two ‘til ten shifts. I wasn’t very keen on the idea but everybody either had to do it or go to another department. So I continued but later that year they decided to offer voluntary redundancy as they wanted people to leave; it may have been to weed out the ones who didn’t want to do the shift work, I’m not quite sure. The first people to volunteer would go in May and the others in September. One or two people went and I thought about it long and hard. Being married, the idea of having a family was coming up so I decided to carry on until September and get my wages for a few more months; I took redundancy in September and was lucky enough to find out after two weeks, I was expecting my first baby and I signed on the dole. At Colman’s when you had a baby, you could take one or two samples of baby food home to try out so I was able to stock-up a little before I left. They had a good best-by date so they were nice to have and luckily enough my baby ate it all. One or two people would say that their baby wouldn’t eat it so the baby food was wasted, but my son would eat anything that was put in front of him.

My life and times at Colman’s were very happy.

Still important

A couple of years ago I was speaking to a few people I was still in touch with and suggested we all meet up and have a drink. We enjoyed a get-together at the local pub and decided to meet again. Some of the girls were in contact with a couple of others and in the last two years it has snowballed and now twelve to fifteen former baby food people meet in the “Crown Point” at Trowse. If we get there early enough we’ll have a nice meal and anyone else can come afterwards and just have a catch up. When we met in March two ‘young boys’ joined us – they were just boys when we were at Colman’s – and it was lovely to meet them again. I’ve managed to contact one or two names through Facebook and now they have come as well.

Albert Cushion joins us and he comes up with some stories, and some you remember and some you’ve forgotten and you wonder, ‘Did we really do that?’ Eric Sadd turned up at one reunion and he had one or two stories and Martin Wicks has got quite a few stories as well. We can still laugh and enjoy the banter and it’s just nice for everyone to meet up and keep the friendships going.

Valerie Colby (b. 1956)  talking to WISEarchive on April 8th 2015 in Norwich

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