Working Lives

The silent E in Coleman’s wine (1956-1991)

Location: Norwich

Leonard worked at Coleman’s 1966-1988, Colman’s 1988-1991, Hellesdon Hospital 1991-1994, Norwich Airport 1994-2009  

My name is Lenny Freeman and I’ve lived in Norwich all my life. When I left school in 1961 I worked for J. H. Dewhursts, the butchers in St. Benedict’s Street. In those days you just reported to the job centre and you were given a ticket as you walked in the door and told which job you were suited for. I worked with Dewhursts for five years and enjoyed my time there. I moved around the many shops in the district including St. Stephen’s, North Walsham, Watton and Yarmouth.

When I worked for Dewhurst’s there were nine butchers’ shops in the St Benedicts area and they all earned a living.

Coleman’s with an ‘E’

The company name was spelt with an ‘E’. People were often confused because they had heard of Colman’s so they didn’t see the ‘E’; they were ‘e-blind!’ I was always telling people that we were at the bottom of Grapes Hill, not up near the football ground.

The biggest problem was with the foreign tanker drivers bringing us wine from Europe. I once had the police turning up to say that a tanker driver from Hungary had taken a wrong turning and was stuck in London Street with a forty-five foot lorry! ‘You’d better come and sort it out’, he said, ‘cos it ain’t our problem, it’s yours!’ I went down to sort out the poor driver who couldn’t speak a word of English and had to back the truck down London Street so he could carry on to Exchange Street, the way he should have gone. It took us the best part of two hours to get him to the site and it created a few problems for the police with traffic jams.

The problem for foreign drivers was that they never knew where they were going half the time. Norwich is not the easiest cities to drive around and even today it can be a confusing place. Also the drivers couldn’t speak very good English so if they managed to say ‘Coleman’s’, everyone assumed ‘mustard’ and sent them to Carrow Road.

Coleman’s at Westwick Street – wine, Vitacup and toothpaste

In 1966, July, I was offered a job at Coleman’s wine division. I went down to Westwick Street to see the job, found it to my liking and spent the next twenty-five years of my life there. In 1968 we were taken over by the great Colman’s mustard empire. This was a very exciting time; we bought the wine from all over the world, Hungary, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal and imported it in big tankers. It was then offloaded into the ‘tank farm’ which held all the wine in various tanks and from there the wine would be filtered out, put in another container and pushed up to the bottling lines; this was fully automatic later on. We used to store the wine in the cellars, in big underground vats. We bottled it by hand, on the production lines.

Coleman’s Wines of Norwich was based in Westwick Street and Barn Road. I started there as a general labourer, loading lorries, moving wine barrels around and being the general ‘dogsbody’. After a few months I was put onto the bottling line.

In those days the working conditions were very noisy with the bottles clanging along. The noise level was consistently high and health and safety staff would always tell us to use our ear defenders when the noise was too much. We were given clean overalls every week but if you needed a fresh pair, you could get a pair at any time during the working week.

Normal hours were from eight to five and Saturdays were overtime if we were required. The pay was very good. We used to have a pay rise every year and we were also part of the Colman’s pension system which meant that when you were 21 you automatically joined the pension scheme.

Many people are unaware that we used to make a product called ‘Vitacup’ which was a bedtime drink. We also made toothpaste and mouthwash called ‘Odol’ and ‘Punch and Judy’ toothpaste for children. They were all part of the Westwick Street set up, so you could be in the wine factory, in the ‘Vitacup’ section if they were short-handed, or end up in the toothpaste department. It was hectic at times; you could be anywhere, any time of the day – you never knew where you were going to finish your working hours!

Near the office block we had a nice little canteen run by a lady called Ruby. She’d butter you rolls and cook anything for your breakfast and you could tell her what you wanted for teatime. She always looked after you well.

The meals were subsidised; everything was subsidised then so you had no excuse to go hungry. Some were a bit greedy and ended up twice the size they should have been but they‘d be pulled to one side and told politely to eat a little bit less.

Coleman’s was based at the Westwick Street/Barn Road junction, opposite Cushion’s wood yard; they owned the whole corner, a massive site. When the company became part of Reckitt & Colman even more storage space was needed, so we dug out a massive underground wine cellar with Carter’s as the main contractor.

When the cellar was completed we filled a lead ‘coffin’ with products made and bottled at Westwick Street, as well as photographs, names and records of all personnel on the site at that moment. When ‘Toys R Us’ was built, I was asked if I could tell them where it was so they could dig it up. Unfortunately my colleague, Terry Barnes and I had a bad memory lapse and we couldn’t remember where it was. We dug five holes in the floor and then gave up because we knew we’d never find the exact spot and, after all, it was put down there for posterity, not to be dug up within twenty years.

To this day it’s still buried under the ‘Toys R Us’ site about twenty feet down. At some stage it will come to light but not in my lifetime; eventually everything comes to the surface so hopefully, the lead coffin will reappear and give people a snap shot of what happened in those days.

We stayed in Westwick Street until 1988 when Reckitt and Colman sold the site to ‘Toys R Us’ and the site was demolished.

In Coleman’s I progressed to work on the engineering side. The late Ray Fox took me on as an apprentice to train under him so that I could maintain the production lines and keep them running. Hence in later years as I was very familiar with the equipment I was able to go abroad to look at buying more modern, high speed equipment for the factory. The filling equipment was not known outside of the company at the time.

In the early days, all the wine at Westwick Street was bottled by hand, which meant literally pouring the wine into bottles by hand, sticking on labels and foil by hand, wrapping each bottle in a sheet of paper printed with the name ‘Wincarnis’, and putting twelve into a box; all by hand.

In the early seventies I was part of the change to fully automated production and I was lucky enough to go to Germany, France and Italy, to look at different types of machinery to upgrade and turn the factory into a modern, fully automated bottling plant.

New qualifications

When Reckitt and Colman took over I had to go to college for training sessions, something I wasn’t used to. I didn’t like school very much but I had to go to college for three years to get a diploma in management studies, so I suppose I achieved something in life. You had to have it. Colman’s used to say that if you wanted to progress up the ladder you needed certificates and diplomas; much like today.

I got through somehow, although it was very hard work trying to learn and run a factory at the same time. I’d start at the factory at five in the morning, go to college from nine to four o’clock and back again from seven to until ten o’clock in the evening. I would then return to the factory to make sure everything was shut down for the night and locked up. I’d secure the site, go home, grab a few hours’ sleep and be back again at five o’clock the next morning. A colleague and I did this for about five years while, at the same time, the factory became fully automated.

By the time the site was sold and I went to the main works at Carrow Road I had been made site supervisor and then site superintendent, which were good jobs.

A mostly female workforce

The bottling was done by women, men were few and far between and it was one of few jobs which were women only. Over the years, I had several run-ins with managers about recruiting women because they wanted men. I always reckoned women were far better than men, they were more dexterous, concentrated better and you got a better work response. Most men, if you give them more than one job to do at a time, become confused. I’d always wanted girls on the machinery and got rid of the men.

I had several arguments with the union over it. I’d tell them that I would staff with whoever I wanted and wouldn’t be told by a shop-steward. My manager hauled me into the office more than once because I’d sent out a recruitment order saying ‘females only, wanted’. It’s like everything else; there are jobs that women can do and jobs men can do because of physical physique or dexterity – and men aren’t dexterous.

I knew how to run all the machinery the same as the girls because I believed that you can’t tell someone to do something that you are unable to do yourself. There’s many a time I’ve surprised people by getting on the machine and showing them how it should be done; normally they’d see me walk around in a white coat and hat dishing out orders. Consequently when anything went wrong, I’d get on the machine and put it right. The men especially would stand with their mouth open and I’d say, ‘Right, get your butt on here and let’s get you started earning some money, prove your worth’.

Yes, I had many a run in with managers and unions over labour but women were the mainstay of the factory – 80% of our workforce was female. We would have perhaps two men in twelve on a production line so with four production lines we’d have only eight men in the building.

There was always some bitching and arguing and never a day went by without someone bitching about somebody and there could be the odd scrap. I was called to an incident in the early days – on the Wincarnis production line – because two girls were fighting in the toilet!

The forewoman found me and said, ‘Come in here and get them out’. I said, ’You want me to go in there and sort them out? You must be joking; I’m not coming out clawed to hell!’ So I shouted for someone to sling me the fire hose and I kicked the door and asked if they were coming out? I got a mouthful so I opened the fire hose and drowned them; washed them up to the corner; cooled them down. ‘Come out,’ I said to the forewoman, ‘they’ll be out in a minute.’ She got quite a shock when they came out stark naked; they’d taken off their wet clothes. There’s never a dull moment with girls around!

We used to have some good laughs and the Staff was always reliable. If overtime was needed they would stay without any problem. I’d make sure they all had transport home and they’d stop until eight, nine, ten o’clock at night if we had to get the orders out – because we sent orders all over the world from Westwick Street.

Many people don’t know that we supplied all the NAAFIs round the world with Wincarnis. I still have label books which show where they were all based. We sent to something like twenty-six or twenty-eight different countries from Norwich. When we became part of Reckitt and Colman’s we continued to trade under different names, such as R & C Vintners, Coleman’s Wines and Reckitt and Colman Wines.

We were the first company in Norwich and the UK to produce ‘casks of wine’. They were wine boxes with a plastic bottle inside and holding three or five litres of wine. We started them off many years ago.

The first time I went to Norwich airport was when I worked with Colman’s; we would go to Aberdeen and Edinburgh in the company’s plane. Norwich Union also had its own plane so if we were going to Hull and Norwich Union had space on their plane we would hitch a lift and vice-versa. As money got tighter they sold the planes off and just rented them.

Automation and factory conditions

Fully automated machinery unfortunately reduced the labour force by half, virtually overnight. Automation really started about 1969/70 with the early type of ‘sixteen head’ filling machines – quite good for those days. Over time more production was needed and the solution was to look at more complicated, sophisticated machinery. So we went from something like twenty or thirty bottles a minute to two or three hundred bottles a minute. Nowadays those figures are a drop in the ocean – what we produced in a week, modern machinery will produce in a day with bottle lines going by so quickly they’re just a blur. They’re filling probably six or seven hundred bottles a minute with the machine arm literally whirring round.

The fun began when something jammed because then there was one almighty crash. We used to have a lot of breakages. I had an incident where a bottle exploded in my face and glass went into an eye. I was rushed to hospital and two weeks later the dressing was taken off and I was told there was no damage. I still have a blood clot which I won’t have removed as it’s not causing a problem. There were always risks so we introduced safety glasses for everyone in that area and made it compulsory to wear them.

Noise level was terrific with bottles clashing and banging against each other but not as bad as in the old days when two bottles were held in each hand and ‘clanged’ together so they would ring; you could tell by the note if it was a dud or good bottle. If the dud one was put in the machine, it would break as it went down the production line, usually when it came to the section which put on the top label, ‘Wincarnis’, or where the piston head on the machine came down on the top of the bottle. When it was a dodgy bottle the poor devil sitting on the machine would get it all in her lap. There were quite a few changes of uniform and underwear! It was quite fun.

We used to bottle other wines as well as Wincarnis, mainly from a company called ‘Franz Reh & Sohn’ in Leiwen in Germany. We also got wine from a place called Helvecia in Hungary. I went to Hungary one year to see the operation there and what an eye-opener! Talk about hygiene and a wakeup call, you would have thought you were back in the eighteenth century!

They had their wine production unit on one side of the yard and the slaughter-house on the other and as you walked across the yard, you were greeted with blood and guts running everywhere. We were buying ‘Bulls Blood’ but I didn’t think it was literal! I couldn’t wait to tell my boss but I didn’t tell the hygiene manager. It was the way things were in Hungary; hygiene wasn’t important but the wine was very good.

I went to France – the Loire Valley – Turin, Milan and Venice when we were buying equipment but I didn’t want to go to Australia; it was too hot. The boss went in my place and came back cursing because he’d got really sunburnt.

I enjoyed myself there. I don’t know many who would say they didn’t enjoy themselves in Westwick Street. We had a good life, the money was good and the food was good.

The end of the wine division (1988)

I worked twenty-five years, twenty-two years at Westwick Street, and my last three with one of the managers at Carrow, in the new soft drinks department. So as we shut down in 1988, they opened the new factory. I’d worked with the manager before and he asked if I’d give him a hand and work three years on a three year contract.

When the wine division finished only a few people were employed at the main works at Carrow and to this day some are still there, so they are coming up to nearly fifty years of work. It’s good if you can say that you have been in one job all that time.

I know I was contracted for three years so that I could get my twenty-five years’ service in. I helped get the new place running and then my time was up; time to move on.

We all had good pay deals; I defy anybody to say they didn’t receive a good pay deal. You had to agree to it before they would pay it but no-one can say that Colman’s didn’t look after their people. Sometimes you may not agree with the way things were done but that’s life. Times change and you have to move with it. When I left, I worked at Hellesdon Hospital first and then the airport.

Social activities at Coleman’s and Colman’s

At Westwick Street we had fishing clubs and various darts matches. There was always some outing like going to a show in London. We had quite a good social life. However, once we became part of Reckitt and Colman we had all the extra benefits that went with it: sailing clubs, darts, golf, tennis and cricket. There was also a social club in Cricket Ground Road which we were able to use as well.

Hellesdon Hospital  

My job at Hellesdon Hospital involved looking after the contract cleaners; the hospital had contracted out all their cleaners as well as some staff who worked on the wards or cooked meals. The manager at the hospital was happy with my credentials and I stayed there for three happy years. The work was hard but interesting, the hours were long; the pay was average.

I left Hellesdon when a new manager arrived with a new contractor and we didn’t see eye to eye. Someone had told me there was a job at the airport if I wanted it so I nipped up there and started the following week working in security.

Norwich Airport security  

I started at the airport in 1994 and worked until 2009 when I retired with ill health. I had a great time there although the shifts were long. I worked on security full time and did a bit of airfield driver training because we all had to hold an airfield licence. You required an ordinary licence, an airfield licence and an airfield permit licence to drive anywhere on the apron or on the airfield. I did that for several years and it was fun.

The airport grew from being a little tiny ‘Portakabin’ to what it is now. It was extended three times while I was there. It’s not a bad sized airport but a bit pricy.

All work was contracted out so, in the time I was there, I think I worked for four different companies. It was fun and games to sort out the pensions when I retired because it was in such small amounts no-one really wanted to know. I’ve got something like six pensions scattered around.

A hundred years of history and the Bridewell museum

I contacted a guy called John Wrentham many years ago because I’d collected so much stuff from the Odol and Vitacup factories when we shut the place down. Over the years it had piled up and was to be dumped, so I salvaged as much as I could physically put in the van on two occasions and it went to the Bridewell Museum for safekeeping. I still have the four label books whose labels were used throughout the world and, in time, the museum will pick them up and put all the stuff together. Then they’ll have a hundred years of history of the Westwick site, all in one place.

Westwick Street started in 1887 and we’d just completed a hundred years before it was sold. Jokingly, pensioners used to say when they came into the company shop, ‘What are they doing for the hundred years’ anniversary, Len?’ and I’d say laughingly, ‘Selling us off!’ Little did I know that, in less than two years, it would come true!

It’s now ‘Toys R Us’ and where the office block was out the front there are car-parks now. ‘Toys R Us’ sits on the actual factory and cellar site which used to back on to the car-park in St. Benedict’s, so it covered a big area. People didn’t realise how big an area it covered until it was levelled.

I’ve a picture of the site when it was bombed in World War Two. It comes from the company’s ‘Carrow Magazine’ which used to do bits and pieces on various activities throughout the company. It shows the area at the bottom of Grapes Hill including the church at the bottom of St. Benedicts which was bombed.

In those days Grapes Hill was a cobbled road. It was a right bone shaker when you were on push bike coming down the hill! It’s only in the last fifty years that it changed. It was still cobbled when I worked there in 1966 and I remember they had houses all the way up Grapes Hill.

Looking back

I liked all my jobs. In the butcher’s shop the work was hard and the pay wasn’t very good, but I had variety as I moved around the different shops in the district. I never knew from one month to the next where I was going to be. I could spend six weeks at North Walsham, come home for a week in Norwich, and go back to North Walsham or perhaps Watton, Swaffham, East Dereham or Yarmouth. I could be anywhere as I agreed to be flexible. I had my own transport, a motorbike, so it made me an obvious candidate.

I loved the job but I left to go to the factory as it paid more money. In the factory I worked a forty hour week and earned nearly six to seven pounds a week more than before.

When I first started at St. Benedict’s I earned five pounds, three shillings and threepence a week for a forty-five hour, five-day week. When I went to the factory a few years later I earned nearly three times that. Everyone knew that jobs in factories were laborious, but boring jobs pay good money. If you wanted the money you had to stick at the job. We worked in the factory from eight in morning ‘till five in the evening, so the working day was alright.

Leonard Freeman (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on May 21st 2015 in Norwich

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