David worked in the grocery trade after he left school in 1958 and tells about the changes in retail that took place over the years. When he started the trade was mainly specialised shops selling meat, fruit, or general items and there was a lot of work involved in preparing goods, like bacon, for sale.
When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Mum spoke to our Co-op delivery man about vacancies and he gave the contact details of the person to write to. I wrote a letter, attended an interview and got a job. I started my first job on 11th August 1958 at the Dereham Road branch in Norwich. I was only there for two weeks before being moved to West Earlham. I’d never been there before so it was an eye opener; it was on an estate with a mixture of people. The branch was part of a corporation row of shops. This means each shop sold a particular commodity; there’d be a butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger and the Co-op. We wouldn’t be allowed to sell anything the other shops sold. This business practice is long gone and corporation shops are selling the same things now. The shops were in a central area where people could come. We got to know the customers well. We used to say if you open all night you’d get a customer. You never thought supermarkets would open all hours. People would come in for a packet of tea or a couple of pounds of sugar using it like a pantry! I think the shops are still there but not the Co-op.
Mainly I would make deliveries using a trade bike. It had a big heavy metal frame with paniers at the front and back which we filled with groceries, and a heavy stand to kick down for the bike to rest on. We had delivery areas which would cross the areas of other shops’; the Co-op on Earlham Fiveways off Earlham Road was only a stone’s throw away. I think the furthest I cycled was two or three miles from the shop. It was a job to peddle a fully loaded bike especially up a hill but I suppose it built up the leg muscles. I did cycle from Poringland to West Earlham in the summer and then make deliveries, so a lot of cycling. On a windy day you had to be careful the bike did not blow over because the eggs were the first to spill out. We didn’t have the half dozen, dozen egg boxes but did have the trays. So we would cut up the trays and tie them up with string to give the eggs some protection.
A lot of stuff came in bulk. Sugar came in two hundredweight sacks. We weighed it in a blue paper bag and there’s a special knack to tucking it in so the sugar didn’t leak. I think I can probably still do that! Glacé cherries, desiccated coconut, fruit, currants, sultanas came in bulk too and some needed to be weighed and stored. Teas and coffees too. Co-op sold pre-packed tea and had their own range; top of the range was the 99 which was quite a good tea. I think coffee was mainly in tins and I suppose we started to get the instant coffee. Even loose biscuits, though Co-op did sell their own packets of biscuits. We also had bulk butter, margarine and lard though pre-pack was becoming available. We had to weigh those as well. Lard was good in the winter as it prevented the hands from chapping.
The majority of the cheese came from New Zealand in a crate. The cheese had to be skinned – it had a wax skin – and cut up into different sizes. We also had the stronger Canadian cheese which came in a ply crate. I will say there were many fences built using the wood from the New Zealand cheese crates because they were nice wooden slats of about three feet high. At this branch we didn’t have English cheese, perhaps at larger stores. We did start to have the processed – the cheese in plastic wrappers we have today. People used to say it was like soap!
Bacon came as a side weighing about 55 to 60 pounds. It had to be boned, cut and hand sliced. Out of the bacon we took the gammon end which we used for ham; we prepared and cooked our own ham.
Vinegar came in a wooden barrel which we had to hammer a tap in. It came from a Norwich producer near Chapelfield, but I think they went when they made the dual carriageway across the top of Chapelfield. Later, vinegar would come in a plastic bag with a fitted tap in a cardboard box – like some of the milk in catering. I can’t quite remember but I think people had to bring their own container for things like vinegar; we did pack other things.
The shop wasn’t self-service like today’s; it was counter service. The customer came in with their order and the sales assistant would get her order, put it on the counter, calculate it and probably pack it for her. It wasn’t like today where we take things off shelves. Towards the end we had displays outside the counter where people could pick up a tin of fruit or packet of biscuits, but mainly they were served. This store had only men as staff. There was a manager, an assistant manager –which Co-op called first hands – and three salesmen and a warehousemen. I remember on a Monday we would scrub the worktop with Vim, wash the front of the store; not sure if we cleaned the windows every week but they were cleaned regularly.
The Co-op had an education department and we were encouraged to take correspondence courses which I passed. They wanted to fast track some younger people through to management. I was eighteen at the time but was moved to the Earlham Fiveways store after a short time with a little more experience. I think I remember doing more bacon and provisions there and not deliveries. In 1963, I applied for a first hand vacancy at Wroxham and got the job.
A country store was entirely different from a city store. With a country store we had general groceries and provisions, but also household goods and things like poultry feed, seeds and seed potatoes in season. It was quite a mixture. We had a van and delivery driver designated to the store covering a wide area around Wroxham. When he wasn’t delivering he’d do some warehouse work. It was an enjoyable time there. We even had Co-op banking. People would pay money in, draw it out; it was different to the grocery side. We also had a lot of reps from different companies like Heinz, Palmers and McVities; some wore bowler hats. I think we wore brown coats generally and white coat for provisions; hats came later.
I was then moved to the Reepham Road branch in 1965 which was classed as a promotion because it was a bigger shop. It was a little different because we did have some self-service with shelves down the middle where people could walk around and pick their own groceries. We had a provisions counter and a counter where people could pay. More goods came pre-packed but we still prepared bacon, cooked ham and weighed sugar. I got married whilst there. I didn’t stay long because I applied for the manager vacancy in Wroxham in May 1966. I got the job and became the youngest manager they ever had at the time at the age of 22.
I returned to Wroxham as manager to work with the same staff I worked with previously. Same goods as before. It was the first place I worked at which we had frozen food to sell. We had a really small fridge; a devil of a job to keep it from frosting up all the time. I think we stocked fish fingers, peas, Arctic Roll. Findus and Bird’s Eye were the main brands at the time. We also provided a service for customers where they came in to order goods, like a lawnmower or maybe a corset! City stores closed half day on Thursdays; country stores closed half day on Wednesday. So I spent Wednesday afternoons in the central store going around the various departments picking up goods for the customers.
As manager I was more involved in the banking side. I had a big ledger which everything had to be recorded and this was by hand. You had to be exact when writing down their number, the amounts, and then write in their passbook too. There was the share scheme Co-op had too; the divvy they called it. People would get a dividend for the amount they spent. Some people didn’t take it all out and left it in. It was like another banking system with a separate book; similar to a saving scheme.
We saw the holiday makers during the summer holidays which made life a little bit more interesting. Broads Tours was opposite the store, so when they came off the boats they’d want to buy ice-cream, some biscuits and other things. We sold food and gifts which we had to capitalise on. I remember the queues for the ice-cream and drinks. The previous manager decided we should serve cold drinks as we couldn’t serve teas and coffees.
I remember a particular customer from the Midlands who came down every Easter with a whole group of children. We would supply their catering; things like tins of beans, peas, sugar, butter and everything. We would have to arrange to pick up milk because we didn’t sell it. They would send their order in advance to see if we could do it. It meant I had to deliver it in my car to different places on the Broads but it was interesting; my wife accompanied me. We provided a more personal service at Wroxham. I suspect it happened elsewhere.
Unfortunately I wasn’t there long because they decided to close some of the country stores and Wroxham was one of them. It was very sudden; we had a month’s notice. You didn’t have a lot of time to think about it but I still had a job but not as a manager. I dropped back to a first hand’s salary working in the warehouse on Havers Road. I got orders ready for the stores and worked as a relief manager for city stores in the area. Being married recently I thought ‘this isn’t good’. The general manager said I’d get a job when a store became available. One day he called me into the office and said there wasn’t another manager’s job for me. Being married and perhaps wanting more salary he asked me how I’d think about being a milkman – Co-op had a dairy at Fiveways. The salary was the same as a manager’s and every two weeks you have a long weekend unlike the grocery stores. The first few years I only got half a day off; later there was a scheme where you had seven Saturday afternoons off during the winter. I tried to use those for when Norwich were playing at home. I spoke to my wife about the change and I tried being a milkman.
I remember the early morning starts at five or half five to load up your electric mobile float and off you go on delivery. I made deliveries around Hellesdon. I would go down Marl Pit Lane usually and let the float run down the hill. It would go up the hill slower than walking pace after reaching the bottom. One morning after I went down the hill and back up to the other side of the river towards Hellesdon there was a flashing blue light. The police car pulls in front and stops. He told me he saw the crates rattle and thought the float was out of control; he was taking the mick a bit. He had cause and saw my driving licence but nothing happened. I wasn’t speeding because you couldn’t do 30 miles an hour in a float. When they stopped me it did shake me up a bit.
I spent over a year as a milkman. The grocery manager did say if I didn’t like it I could go back to my previous job until a shop became available. Having delivered milk on Christmas day and for two winters, the second with a lot of snow, I asked to return to my previous job. Being a milkman wasn’t really for me; one good thing was I lost a lot of weight!
I was later moved to the central grocery store in St. Stephens, the biggest store, which was mainly self-service. I was doing provisions like boning bacon and other foods for provisions. Friday mornings were busy for the provisions counter. There would be a queue in St. Stephens waiting for us to open and we would have six or more people serving on provisions. We had a big counter full of cooked meats, differently sized cheeses and sliced bacon on trays – all prepared in the back. We also cut to requirement behind the counter. The chap said I had a knack for it: I was good with a knife and could get bones out cleanly. I enjoyed it and was there quite a while.
As I’d been manager I was expected to take over the front of the counter when the provisions manager went on holiday but the store manager preferred me to stay in the back. I don’t know if it was a compliment to my preparations but it made me think whether opportunities were limited. More or less the same week I saw British Home Stores advertise a provision bacon hand vacancy. I knew little about Home Stores at the time but they sold loose foods. Leaving work early one afternoon I walked across to British Home Stores and asked about the job and had an interview straightaway. They must have liked me because I got a phone call for another interview the next day. I went to the interview and got the job. It was good because the money was a lot better.
British Home Stores was unique for a chain store because it had a food section; no other chain store sold food at the time. We sold bacon, cheeses, fruit, some vegetables though mainly salad. The cheeses came packed in plastic and cardboard boxes more like today’s. I mostly prepared bacon and they just started having bacon in Norwich. We sold a lot of bacon; perhaps preparing 50 sides of bacon a week. Christmas was especially busy and we sold a lot of bacon. It’s incredible to think how much we sold. The Danish were the biggest suppliers of bacon at the time which Co-op sold whereas British Home Stores sold British bacon from local suppliers. We helped improve the quality by working with the manager and producers to produce pigs with less fat which people seemed to want. I was preparation manager really – overseeing the preparation.
In 1967 we didn’t have much refrigeration. We had a fridge for the bacon but not all of it would go in. With big deliveries some of the bacon was stored out of refrigeration; it wasn’t something which was stored in a refrigerator back then so it was fine. Cheese caused more problems in summer because the oil would run a bit. As times moved on, more space was available, the food sections grew larger and so did the preparation and storage areas. We would have big walk in fridges which could take a full pallet.
I had some management duties on the floor like opening and closing the store. It was handy for me as we start early with preparations and I was in at half seven; I let staff in to clean and so on. I had an assistant and trained other people. I was there for four years and even took management training to do the food manager’s work.
One day, the manager called me to his office. Head office wanted bacon provision trainers at other stores and wanted to know if I was interested. I was told I had a chance to be food manager at the store but I took the area job. We just had our first child, Kevin, and though I would travel a lot the money was good; it was a promotion. I travelled to stores in the south east and midlands, places like Brighton, Kent and London overseeing bacon provisions and training staff. It was quite an interesting job but it didn’t provide a company car, so I used public transport. I spent a lot of time on trains. For early starts I would sit in first class for breakfast and stay there without returning to my seat. I travelled between Norwich and London a lot so the people on the train got to know me.
Because we sold British bacon we were an interest to local pig farmers. There were evenings where mainly farmers attended and I demonstrated what happened to their produce. Anglia Television covered it once so I was on camera in a blink and you’ll miss it appearance! Southern Television also covered it another time but I didn’t see it.
London stores were time consuming because it was difficult to get the staff; seems strange now with unemployment. I went to the local employment office and talked to people there trying to sell the job to get staff. It was more and more difficult to employ men for the bacon so we had ladies coming in to be trained. I remember one store where one worked on the sales floor and were interested in doing it. The biggest problem was the weight of a side of bacon, it was generally too much for a lady to lift or was expected to lift. We introduced the practice of cutting the side into three sections at our central warehouse before delivering to stores.
British Home Stores would increase their food range further with more grocery lines with biscuits, tinned foods and wine. We were the first to offer takeaway sandwiches. I was involved with putting new items in, new counters, the organisation and planning of spaces and so on. I travelled to more stores outside my regional area. I was later asked to participate in a project to prepare bacon to pack in plastic so it could go to stores ready to be laid on trays. Joints were cut to size, weighed and priced.
I got a shock returning to the London area after holiday as I was called into the office. Bacon preparations were changing and there was the possibility of an area manager job. Instead of promotion I came out an hour later redundant. They were pretty fair though as I could ask to leave straightaway and be paid up to the end of October, like gardening leave; or I could work in Norwich. They let me have time off to look for another job. It was a horrendous shock. Six of us were made redundant and a deal with Sainsbury’s meant there may be opportunities with them. They contacted us about interviews and I had mine in Norwich, but the job was in London. Living in Norfolk with a young family I turned it down. I applied for lots of jobs, had plenty of interviews but no offers. My wife’s uncle worked at the Post Office and suggested I apply for work for the Christmas period. I did and succeeded; this was 1981. I worked mainly in the sorting office on Thorpe Road. I enjoyed it and spoke to some people who suggested I apply for a job. So I applied and got a job with them in March. I was out of work for about ten months.
I started working full time for the Post Office and delivered the mail. It was all men with several of us starting together; we had a good camaraderie. I quite enjoyed it. I had some night shifts; a month of nights at a particular time. People from the EDP would give us copies to deliver and bring in bundles of spare copies for the staff. During the hour break we had I sat there and saw an advertised job for a wholesale grocer while looking through the paper. I had all this experience in grocery; the Post Office was okay but perhaps a bit of a waste. You could take exams to get postman higher grade but promotion was a matter of seniority and length of service. I would have obtained higher grade quite soon but thought I’ll apply for this job.
The wholesale grocer was Copeman’s in Norwich – a family run firm. I had an interview and got the job. Going to an interview when I had a job meant I was more relaxed, so I wasn’t bothered whether I got it or not. I did want the job and received a job offer for far more money than my salary at the Post Office and had a company car. From thinking it was the end of the world when I was made redundant to a far better salary a year and a half later was a good move in a way.
I started at Copeman’s as an area rep for Norfolk in October which I thoroughly enjoyed, but four years later I was made redundant again because the company was taken over. Fortunately, Read Woodrows – the Norwich flour millers – were advertising for a rep. I applied and got the job. I was only selling one commodity now instead of several. I went to bakeries all over Norfolk to sell our flour which meant I had to take samples and take orders. We also made own brand flour for companies which opened up opportunities across the country. This meant I had to travel north once a month to places like Newcastle, Manchester and Hull; perhaps to Newcastle on a two month cycle. There was a lot of travelling involved which I quite enjoyed. Those five years were probably the happiest years.
The company was going to develop when the inner Ring Road was being planned. It was to go past the mill. I thought we needed to go to a green field site and the move was a long term project. In the end they probably weren’t doing so well and decided to close down leaving me redundant again. However, I had clients in Norwich and other flour millers wanted to move in. I was head hunted and received three job offers. I had an interview with Heygates – the flour millers based in Northampton – and got the job. They already had big connections with Norfolk with a mill in Downham Market and a big farm in Swaffham.
I joined Heygates on the 1st of February 1993. I covered Norfolk, Suffolk, parts of Cambridgeshire and Essex. I worked from home and was my own boss; there was little interference from the office and I would go to the Northampton office perhaps three times a year. I worked there until I retired in July 2008.
David Dowe (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive in Poringland on 2nd February 2016.
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