Working Lives

Labourer to Manager, Colman’s (1968-1990)

Location: Norwich

After doing other jobs Brian went to Colman’s and worked ‘bagging off’ in the mustard mill. He worked his way to becoming manager of Colman’s Winsor and Newton art products company.

Originally I was supposed to leave school in 1947 at the age of 14, but unfortunately in April that year they changed the school leaving age to 15 so I had to do another year and left in 1948. I finished my last year at the old Art School in Duke Street which was part of the City College group. I learned bookkeeping, shorthand and typing and got certificates for shorthand and typing. Shorthand you immediately forget but typing is like riding a bike.

There were lots of jobs around and there was really no unemployment for youngsters. I got a job working for accountants and auditors, Harman and Gowen, in Queen Street, now Larking Gowen. I worked for three weeks as a trainee accountant but all I ever did was add up figures and check additions in large ledgers – we didn’t have the benefit of calculators or adding machines and it all had to be done in your head.

After three weeks I decided I’d had enough so I went to work for Leveridge Brothers, typing invoices. They were wholesalers attached to St John’s Roman Catholic Church at the top of Earlham Road. I stayed for three years and then joined the Royal Marines in 1951 on what they called “7 and 5” – that’s seven years of service and five years as a reserve. I wasn’t really satisfied with just sitting and typing. I used to go out to the warehouse and poke around and find out what other people were doing. I had a very inquisitive mind.

Royal Marines 1951

Joining the Royal Marines was exciting. After initial training at Lympstone near Exeter, I had the opportunity to either go on a ship where the marines act as the police or join Commando school in Bickleigh, Devon. I chose Commando school because it sounded more exciting. It was, but it was also very strenuous!

I did a tour of Malaya for about six months before being sent to Suez because of the Suez crisis. Then another crisis occurred in Cyprus and we were sent there. When we returned home life was a series of night exercises and continuous training, and pomp and circumstance.

Suez was supposed to be a flashpoint situation but when I got off the boat and into a truck to go to the camp at El Fayid – several miles from Cairo – youngsters were calling out and wanting baksheesh! I was only 19 and a bit wary because I didn’t know what to do; it was frightening because they outnumbered us about 20 to one. However, when we got to camp we had no confrontation at all. We were under canvas and my tent was right at the end near the barbed wire. It was Ramadan and nothing happened during the day but at night, out in the desert, I could hear the noise of people eating – it was a weird situation to be in.

We had a couple of confrontations in Malaya looking for communists. We were led by Dayak tribesmen who had a system to prove that they had captured or killed somebody by cutting off their ears. Someone decided to inform one of the national newspapers and it caused a bit of a furore.

City Station, Boulton and Paul

I came out of the Royal Marines in 1958 and got a job as a train cleaner at the City station in Brazen Gate, where Sainsbury’s is now on Queen’s Road. I would clean the outside with a mop and bucket and then clean the inside. One passenger used to bring his pigeons to the train in a basket and it was my duty to wheel it to the guard’s van so when the train arrived at Melton Constable the porter there could take it out, open it and let out the pigeons. I dropped the basket one day and they escaped but the man who had brought them was very pleased because his pigeons got home before he did!

After I had worked a month my dad, who had worked at Boulton and Paul’s for several years after he left the navy, got me a job erecting steel, mostly in Devon. I put up Dutch barns which had a leg at each corner, a roof and nothing else. They were used to store hay and silage. The system was that two of us would live with the family during the job, get up at seven o’clock, do a couple of hours work and then go in for a lovely cooked breakfast. Beautiful! They would treat us like family. I spent a lot of time in Devon but having married, I wanted a job nearer home.

Hides and Skins – W.D. Mark

I found another job at W.D. Mark and Sons in Heigham Street. They were hide and skin brokers who obtained hides and skins such as sheepskins, calf skins and bones from the slaughter houses. The goods would be cleaned up, the fat taken off and weighed, and my job was to sit in a box and book everything in. Then I’d go to the office and transfer the data into a ledger so that invoices could be raised and we could pay. Everything to do with cattle was saleable, even the ears. Local people used to come and buy the ears because, apparently, they are a delicacy for dogs. Runners or sheep’s intestines were used for sausage skins, bones were used for glue, the hair was used – everything!

While I was there I learned how to classify a hide. Warble fly used to get onto the back of cattle and eat through making a hole in the hide which devalued it. So we would classify the hides according to how many holes they had!

With each job, I didn’t just stick to what I was supposed to do, I made it interesting, sometimes too interesting! For example, every other Sunday, one of the clerks used to go to our branch in Ipswich to audit the books and bring back bits and pieces. They would drive a Seddon diesel half-track. The guy who was going one particular Sunday couldn’t drive so I volunteered – it wasn’t my job but I thought, ‘Go!’ However, on the way back, as I was going down a hill, I saw a caravan coming in the opposite direction and swerving a bit. I put on a left lock but went too far, put on a right lock and again went too far and turned over. The cattle feed in the back went all over the road and I was upside down with a man asking if I was alright. A sympathetic policeman arrived wearing white gloves which he put on the grass verge and helped chuck the cattle feed onto the verge. Unfortunately we managed to cover his white gloves with it! My boss arrived and asked me to bring the vehicle back to Heigham Street. The only problem was the windscreen was missing – that wouldn’t have been so bad but it started to rain and I began to feel a tingling in my nether regions. I was sitting in battery acid and the bottom of my trousers fell out!


Then in 1966, for financial reasons, I decided to find a better paid job and went to work at Mackintosh’s on Chapelfield Road. It’s now the shopping mall. I started as a cleaner, mopping the stairs and general areas before moving onto the packing lines packing chocolates and sorting the good from the bad. I was then transferred to what they called the “hard centre” where chocolates for Mackintosh’s Weekend were made. I was on truffles. Chocolate was put into a big kettle, boiled to a certain temperature and run out into big trays. It was then poured onto a long slab of truffle and cooled before being cut into little diamonds.

In the “hard centre” I worked the night shift from six in the evening till six in the morning, six nights a week. The only night off was Sunday. Moving from a nine-to-five job to this meant I lost quite a bit of weight but I made a packet.

There was no such thing as having to find a job back then because someone would always say that there was a job going at Marks in Heigham Street, for example. They wouldn’t know anything about it so you would just go along for an interview. I got the Mackintosh job because an old friend who worked there told me that there were some jobs going which were better paid than what I was earning, and when I was ready to move on from Macintosh, someone let me know that I ought to try Colman’s as they wanted more people.

Colman’s – 1968-1990

So I went to Colman’s and began more 12-hour shifts but for five nights rather than six. My job was to do the ‘bagging off’ in the mustard mill. The mustard seed went through sieves upstairs and then came down through big pipes to feed off into large sacks. Once the sack was full, the shutter was closed and the sack taken off and replaced with an empty one. The filled sack was tied up and wheeled off with other filled sacks. I did this all night for twelve hours on my own in the department. It wasn’t too bad though, because I didn’t mind working on my own.

An opportunity came up to go on to the day shift cleaning the sieves upstairs. We would take out the big sieves, brush them and make sure they were nice and clean. I did this for a while and then an internal advert was posted wanting someone to be a storeman in what was then the mint department but is now “condiments”. They used to make horseradish, mint sauce and salad cream. Six of us applied and I was lucky and got the job because I could lift – I was reasonably strong then. I had no experience but I got plenty of help from the department. This went on for a while then I was asked to take over stock control and was given an assistant to help with the storekeeping facilities.

This went well and they asked me if I’d also take on stock control for the sauce department where they made brown sauce, tomato ketchup, dry sauce mixes and dessert topping. Unfortunately they were situated right at the other end of the yard so I had a walk between jobs.

Every department at Carrow had their own stores and their own storeman at the time. Then the powers-that-be decided that they needed to centralise and have one large store with one person in charge of the staff. I was asked if I would do it and was given the opportunity to be either a supervisor with paid overtime or a superintendent at a higher salary but no paid overtime. I chose having no paid overtime because I didn’t particularly want to be bound by scratching around for overtime.

Shop Steward

Starting when I was in the mint department I held a position on the Works Council which functioned as a company union. Once it sort of fizzled out, I became a shop steward for the GMB (General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union). It was alright. There were times when I would represent people and there were times when I told people, “I’m not going to represent you, because I can see you are in the wrong.” And that was it! So I worked on the basis of common sense.

New qualifications

My manager in the mint department, Don Firman, was very keen on training. Most people weren’t interested so he asked me and a young chap in the packing department if we’d do the National Examination Board in supervisory studies at City College. This meant day-release, one day a week from two till nine, and an exam at the end. I passed and went on to do the Diploma course. I also did a third year to gain the Institute of Works Management Certificate and finally my Diploma in Works Management.

I was still doing my daily job but I went for it although at the time there were no vacancies, or so I thought. However, by the time I took over as the superintendent of Central Stores, I was a fully qualified manager.

Manager – Central Stores, Mint, Sauce, Soft drinks and Preserves Departments

While I was in Central Stores I spent a couple of weeks in the internal traffic department, standing in for the supervisor. A traffic department was needed because it was such a huge site – they used to shunt all the finished goods and stores to and from the departments.

Colman’s took over Farrow’s at Peterborough, which included the honey and lemon curd, so at Central Stores it was decided to institute a Honey Bond. We needed somewhere to store the big drums of honey and an external customs area was needed, so a tarmac area was marked out with yellow lines down at the Deal Ground to be controlled by HM Customs. The system was established because duty wasn’t paid on honey until it was used. The duty could amount to thousands of pounds so it was worth delaying payment. But as soon as a drum was needed, all the paperwork had to be done and the duty paid – if you were caught with a drum half way over the yellow line and hadn’t paid the duty, you were in trouble!

Fortunately I was on good terms with the Customs people and when we had a new guy take over the customs part of the job, they trained him for me. I thought that was very nice.

In 1973 I was asked if I could take over as manager of the Mint department – the department I originally was in as a storeman. It was a bit hairy the first week because the incumbent, who was supposed to show me the ropes, was on holiday and it happened to be the week when budgets were set – so I was on my own! It was a case of finding out what had to be done and working it out. I worked past midnight that Friday night to have the budget ready for Monday.

I was given the volumes of product that were expected and I had to work out how many people were needed and how many hours – fortunately the Mint department was a small department with about 40 or 45 people. Afterwards I had to go to hospital for a while and when I returned the timekeeper (who used to check everything and sign goods in and out) said, “Congratulations, you are the manager of the Sauce department!” Later that morning I was called up to the Production Manager’s office and he offered me the job which meant managing at least two and a half times as many people as in the Mint department. I said, “Yes”.

During my time in the Sauce department Colman’s tried to set up a work study programme but the shop steward wouldn’t allow it for all sorts of reasons. But, ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ and I happened to know the shop steward. Although I was a manager, we played darts together and got on fairly well. We had a chat and I pointed out certain advantages and we got the work study started. Everybody was happy. That was a feather in my cap, I suppose. You had to be able to negotiate with everyone.

After a few years I was offered the job of Soft Drinks manager in charge of four or five hundred people on different shifts: day shifts, split shifts – six till two, two till ten and ten till six – and night shifts. It was really high velocity. They used to say that a manager couldn’t be expected to manage the department for more than two years because of the pressure. Actually, when you went into work in the morning you could feel if everything was going alright and everything was happening. It was just a tingle. You could also feel if something was wrong.

I did the job for a while and must have impressed because in 1978 I was asked to take over management of the Preserves department as well as the Soft Drinks. I took it on and managed to get overtime reduced without any reduction in productivity. We all got on quite well because I treated the staff like people rather than serfs!

Manager – Winsor and Newton

In 1982 the company took over Winsor and Newton in Folkestone. They dealt with artists’ materials. Although I knew nothing about the products, my job was to set up the warehousing based on my previous experience. Winsor and Newton was a small family firm whose customers dealt solely with the Managing Director and they had just celebrated their 150th anniversary. Colman’s wanted to modernise and introduce more modern warehousing.

When I arrived I saw people actually climbing up the racks to pick out products! They had one fork truck and one fork truck driver who was responsible for bringing stuff from the warehouse to the various departments. One day I saw the fork truck at a standstill and asked what was happening. I was told that it had a puncture but it was no-one’s job to sort it out! As a manager you know you have to sort things but this was a completely different atmosphere for me. I was in an environment where I knew nothing about the products and where about 25% of the workforce were old employees who had been there 20 or 25 years and could do the job with their eyes closed, and could be depended upon, but the other 75% were casuals; young guys and immigrants who would work for six months and then drift off. I was in the position of having to depend on the experienced workers but also make my mark – I think I did aright. I got on fairly well.

I don’t know why Winsor and Newton was purchased because it wasn’t a natural part of the core business. Anyway, I managed the planning and development and set up a new warehouse with computerised fork lift trucks. Drivers would drive them to the start of an aisle, lock in, then key in the number of the product he wanted and the truck would take over. It could go as high as 13 feet (4 m). It was wonderful and I had a lot of good guys working for me.

In 1990, about eight or nine years later, Colman’s decided that it wasn’t a good idea having this type of product and sold the department to Becker’s, a Swedish firm who made surface paint for battleships and such like. Colman’s wanted to buy something in America which was more in line with the rest of the business. Becker’s began interviewing everyone and I heard a rumour that they were going to make some redundancies. I asked my boss if I could be made redundant. I was 57 (still a lad) but I thought early retirement would be a good idea. A package was worked out which was very acceptable and I left.

Three months later I was asked to go back to Winsor and Newton as a consultant because they still hadn’t been taken over completely by Becker’s, and Conté – who made pastels and children’s paint boxes and was based in Le Mans, France – had been purchased. They needed someone to work out stock levels for the stuff coming over from France – so I went back to Folkestone. It was a problem to start with because I didn’t speak French and I had to begin work on the spreadsheets with a French/English dictionary! I learned certain words which occurred over and over, like colours and quantities and it worked out fine. I worked six weeks as a consultant and was paid £6,000 – that was very nice. £1000 a week. I’d come up in the world!

After a break I looked for a little part-time job but was told I was over-qualified for the ones I was applying for and I was too old for any of the others. So that was that.

Brian Abel talking to WISEArchive on 18th June 2015 in Norwich

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