Tom Smith Crackers

From Sprowston Heritage Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Tom Smith & Co ~ Christmas Cracker Factory ~ 1970`s.

Typical 1970s crackers from the Salhouse Road factory

My observations of working for this Chris Payne.

I joined this company in mid-1972, having worked for a while after leaving school in the Clover Can Factory, and for a few months as a clerk at Anglian Double Glazing - which had turned out far from my expectations, and so I simply jumped ship as it were, to another berth. I worked there initially in the Warehouses, simply humping finished goods around, or loading trucks by hand, and doing some carton packing.

One of the other lads there was doing a course at the local tech during the evenings, and as I liked the work and the jobs I thought I would ask too, and duly got sent on a progression of evening classes, and then part-day-release courses in Storekeeping, Stock control, Warehousing, Transport and Distribution, and in Materials Handling, rising in the process from Warehouseman, to Raw Materials Stores and Goods Inwards Supervisor, via Transport Clerk. At that stage the Technical College Staff suggested I get some form of Higher Education qualification as a better general foundation, and as the management at Tom Smith & Co agreed, I left in autumn 1976 to go to the Lanchester Polytechnic (Now Coventry University, in the City centre in Coventry) where I took the 2 year HND course in Business studies as a full time mature student, working the summer between the academic years back at the Tom Smith works, and returning there having completed the H N D. (That qualification got upgraded later, with some further training qualifications and experience into a full degree in Business Studies.)

At that time (late 1978/early 1979), Tom Smith management were looking at evolving some kind of “projects manager” role for me, but in the country generally this was the start of the Great Recession of the 1980`s, 15% interest rates, mass unemployment, and all the rest of it, so the plan fell through as the economy began to falter, and I had to move on elsewhere to try to make a career.

Making the Crackers

Works Layout in the mid 1970s drawn by Chris Payne

Christmas crackers are made from a number of components and materials and as these make automated production difficult, a great deal of production was done manually, using machines to make sub-assemblies and components. Great reels of coloured crepe paper would be delivered; these had to be put onto cutting machines which slit them into narrower reels, as wide as a Christmas cracker is long. These would then be run onto reels of hard white sulphite paper upon which wheels running in baths had left long snail-trails of glue; and other reels of zig-zag cut silver or gold foil would be led down from above to be glued similarly to the top surface of the crepe; and then the joined triple strip assembly would be scissored across by machine, to make each individual cracker- paper. These papers were then sent as flat stacks to the production lines.

David Oates and “tiddles” – Gatling Gun Box!

Here an army of Female staff were busy wrapping little bundles of a paper hat and a “joke” motto around some little plastic toy, and putting them into a cardboard tube (just like a toilet roll tube, but shorter) and also putting in the “snap”.

Snaps were two thin strips of thin brown cardboard dipped in a bit of glue, and then sprinkled with a match-heads worth of Fulminate, then dried, placed face to face, and then wrapped in a bit of brown paper. Tugged sharply apart the Fulminate explodes via friction with the characteristic “SNAP” noise and whiff of explosive. These were made in China – of course – and imported for use in Cracker-making.

Naturally in bulk these represented (notionally) a dangerous explosive cargo, and several times we had struggles with H. M. Customs to get what were actually innocuous items delivered, once arriving as a Police escorted convoy complete with red flagged lorry with red DANGER-EXPLOSIVES signs all over it, to the alarm and astonishment of the general populace seeing this in transit from Felixstowe to Salhouse Road. The filled tube assembly is placed in the middle of the cracker paper, aligned as it will be in the finished product, and then two bits of plastic tubing are placed, one at either end of the cardboard tube. The paper is then wrapped tightly around the three tubes to make a cylinder. A string tied to the workbench with a duffel toggle on the end is then swiftly wound around the cylinder where the gap is between the centre filled cardboard tube, and the plastic tube end spacer.

A quick tug on the string squeezes the cracker, and the same is done again at the other end, giving the cracker it’s characteristic shape. The plastic spacing tubes are then whipped out of each end, and a “Scrap” which is a bit of embossed and coloured foil paper like a little picture (Santa Claus or similar themes usually) is then glued onto the cracker, which is then packed with eleven fellows into a box.

These boxes were then paper wrapped (later “sleeved” = wrapped in thin plastic film) before being craft-paper wrapped into packs of 4 or 6 boxes (later shrink-wrapped) which were the units of sale.

Product Range

What was in the box – one of many styles of crackers

As well as the standard crackers, which were made in about 80 to 100 different varieties in cheap, middling and dear sorts, and ranges for customers like Boots-the-Chemists and Sainsbury`s, Tom Smith also made “Table Decorations”, a sort of super-cracker to which paper “sprays” and textile “fans” and clusters of artificial flowers were added, and with better quality filling novelties inside them. These were all put together by hand, and sewn down onto foil boards, in pretty boxes, as premium things for the festive tables of those who could afford them. Again those came in ordinary, good and luxurious grades.

The ones we called “Coffee and Cream” which were colour-themed Beige and Chocolate brown are an abiding memory of a pretty thing to grace a table with. The best sort of all the Crackers were things called “Supremes”, which were kept, locked away in a special cage for special customers and to hand out to people the Directors wished to sweeten each Christmas. Also there was also a “Studio” which as well as working on new designs, overlooking “samples” for sales fairs, and other special work, would also produce bespoke things with individual fillings for customers like the Royal Family, or the seriously mega-wealthy.

Then there were things called “Snow Novelties” a cardboard frame made to hold dozens of party hats balloons, throw-streamers and small toys, wrapped in white polythene fleece and bits glued on to make simulacra of Giant Snowmen, Santa Claus, Penguins, Chalets, and sundry other objects. Those were aimed to appeal to the people organising children’s parties.

Early crackers produced by the company.

Factored Goods

And finally there were “Factored Goods” a range of things like Artificial Xmas trees, lights and tree decorations, tinsel, paper streamers, boxes of fancy paper party hats, and all the other trappings of Christmas. All these were bought in, in bulk, to be sold on with the company’s own products. Later in my time there the Company started producing “Catering Crackers” which were simply loose crackers in plain boxes of 50 or 100 which were intended for restaurants and hotel type functions. And tiny crackers were also made from bits of coloured foil, more stuff to festoon the tree with.

The factory floor with mechanised production but even then there was much handwork.


As well as making products in-house, there were many “Outworkers” who set up shop in their own homes, in the Norwich and suburbs area, plus a small team of van men to deliver the material and collect the made-up articles for final packaging back at the factory. Most of these workers were women with young children and often two or three would get together, with the kids, to create a small communal workshop. It wasn’t quite like Dickensian images of poverty-stricken people crouching in the light of rush dips to sew buttons onto cards at a farthing a dozen, and the piecework rates were about the same as those the factory “girls” were earning.

Tom Smith employees at a social event. As with other companies there was a strong social element to work!

The End of the factory

Tom Smith used to manufacture from anything up to 15 months, before getting their money in from the customer firms they supplied, which was fine until the era of rising costs and rising bank interest rates happened in the 1978-1990 Great Recession. At that time Rowntree-Mackintosh closed, and the Merchant Bank which held the other half of the shares in Tom Smiths saw their dividend vanish, and so the company was bought out by the existing management. They struggled on with it for several years, and by cutting costs managed to break even and pay the bank loan instalments, but no more. As most of them were reaching retirement age they sold the company on, and unfortunately it is alleged that then “Vulture Capitalists” apparently moved in to asset strip the firm.

I was long gone by then, but tales of swish new BMW cars being delivered and paid for by the company, only to promptly vanish; of dubious “Directors Loan Accounts” being created; and of whole truckloads of goods being sent to “Customers” who never appeared in any Sales Ledgers, have reached my ears down the years. Tom Smith`s was a very nice little business, even though the main product may have been an utterly superfluous thing , a silly thing, and a subject for jokes; It paid it’s way, year on year, and provided jobs for several hundred local people, and for many others, both in the UK and abroad, who supplied it. It had a management team who cared about the work and cared about the workers and who were intent on keeping the business a successful operation. And it was all destroyed by the actions of Greedy men without morality and by Incompetent Politicians on Ideological-dogma-driven Crusades. Shame on them all. It still rankles. “There is no alternative” they said. Well I say YES, there bloody well was!

Chris Payne September 2014