Oh, to be a Dusty Miller.

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It might seem rather strange to have on the Sprowston Heritage website and article about milling based on R J Read’s which stood in King Street, Norwich. The simple explanation is the article is based around the memories of Keith K Fowler, born in Sprowston in 1936 Keith has remained a Sprowston resident throughout his life. Originally published in book form by Sprowston Heritage by Peter Sneddon, with the coming of the digital age we are now making it accessible on the Sprowston Heritage website.


Portrait photo of Keith Fowler.

From office boy to Miller, Keith’s journey as a worker in a 20th century Flour Mill, R. J. Reads, in King Street, gives us an insight, as to how the flour that made our bread, cakes and biscuits etc. was made. It also shows how the milling process got more sophisticated through industrialisation and better machinery. The old Watermills, Tide mills, Tower mills and Windmills that were once scattered all over Norfolk are all but gone, even Reads Mill has disappeared, and the building has now been turned into residential flats.

Other well-known companies have disappeared over the years from the heart of the City of Norwich, Engineers, Shoemakers and Timber Merchants, but life goes on and change must come. With Keith’s recollections, we have a record of that time and that is important. I am sure you the reader will be able to associate to some of Keith’s memories. He became the Manager of the Mustard Mill for another well-known company, Colmans in 1985 and he retired in 1998. Peter Sneddon. 2007.

From Childhood to National Service.

Windmills, mills and growing up.

As a young infant in a pushchair my parents made me a small handheld windmill, details of which they found in a book or magazine. They said this fascinated me, turning it one way and another watching the sails spin at different angles and trying to blow the sails if they would not turn by any other way, I expect this was my first initiation into the mystics of milling. During my early school days visiting parts of Norfolk by bus or train my attention was always drawn to the countryside with buildings dominating the skyline with sails, the windmills, used for drainage or grain milling, these could be seen along the Acle to Great Yarmouth road. Once in my teens, the Sprowston Secondary School, Recreation Ground Road, taught us about flour milling, mainly because of the “Harrison Post Mill” which was situated on Sprowston Road. Built in the early part of the 18th century the post mill was destroyed by fire in 1933. However the mill is displayed on the school badge to the present day. The Art class always highlighted “Old Crome`s Mill” which was painted by the artist Crome on Mousehold Heath, and the village sign has the mill as the outstanding feature on display as well. Village Sign. One of my early hobbies was fishing and swimming with the lads during the school holidays, we would cycle to Horstead Mill on our old spare part bikes and position them at the hedgerow in hiding as none of us had licences or permission to fish in the area, we could see no damage and were irresponsible of any dangers. The best area to fish was the mill itself with the many “flushes” and rapid waters rushing through the mill, plenty of bait surrounding the millpond, Bream, ells, Roach etc, was plentiful. We would creep and try to fish off the mill arches but chased off by vigilant mill workers.

Once I was caught by a mill worker but tried to wriggle out of my position and said I would like to look at a watermill in operation, I explained the workings of a windmill and the operator said a watermill is the reverse of a Windmill, the sail being a water wheel turning the machinery. He took me near the doorway and windows pointing out the workings of the mill, I can remember all the belts and pulleys moving round, bags being packed, but a very dusty environment. When I met up with my pals, they thought I had been caught and police had been called for illegal fishing and trespassing on mill property, when they heard my story, laughed well! You lied your way out of that one, who would want to work in a “dusty old hole like that”. I was still enthusiastic about the technology, which was learnt on that day.

Horstead Mill in the 1950s - the mill was gutted by fire in 1963.

My schooling days were rapidly coming to an end, one had to leave school at 15 years old, being an all-round average student, my best subjects were Art and Technical Drawing, there were very few education opportunities for school leavers in the early 1950`s, the country was still recovering from the aftermath of the 2nd World War. During the war years I unfortunately had a bad fall and had to receive eye surgery, this held me back for education, missing lessons and later sporting activities, especially football, and had to wear spectacles permanently. My interests at this time was turning to motorcycle sports Speedway Racing, there was no chance of owning a motor bike in the future, however I built a track bike from bits and pieces, collected from dumps and old cycle shops who felt sorry for me. I started riding for various village teams in friendlies but was promoted to the Norwich and District League riding for Sprowston Aces who were one of the best teams in the area. Table Tennis was another sport which I was advised to play, helping my eye concentration and movement following the small white ball, this helped enormously.

Where should I get a job?

My father was employed at the G.P.O. (Royal Mail) as a Postal and Telegraph Officer, which he was very conscientious and had ambitions of me to join him in a “job for life” organisation. However, all good plans don`t always work out, my ambition was encouraged as I wanted to be a Telegram Boy and have training to ride their 250cc BSA motorcycle and learn to drive a van, in those days only the rich had cars and motorcycles. This career move came to abrupt end when the GPO policy was people wearing spectacles would not be employed to ride motorcycles, I was now disillusioned and did not want anything to do with the Post Office. My Father was sad as he wanted me to follow in his footsteps and he knew they had regular income, which would help the household income. My parents were then putting pressure on me to get a job before leaving school, as there was only one breadwinner in the family. I was helping out with a morning/evening and Sunday morning paper round and saving enough money to purchase a cycle for work. The art teacher at school said I had exceptional talent in the field of art and arranged an interview at an art studio with links in the advertising world, but unfortunately training would cost money and my parents were unable to agree to that.

In desperation my father said, “What do you want to do”! My pals and I would cycle past Reads City Flour Mills in the summer days on our way to Lakenham Swimming Pool, there always seemed to be plenty of females around the two shops near the Mill, thinking that must be fun working there with all the girls. (I later discovered the girls were from Colman`s on their break).

An Aerial view of the working mill site.

To my amazement when walking past Read`s with my father to the football matches at Carrow Road on Saturday afternoons, the Mill was running, and the white coated millers were standing watching the crowd passing them.

My father said “That’s the sort of job you want” sarcastically! “They have a vacancy in the newspaper for a junior clerk and you can write do sums, well why don`t you apply, I’ll come with you and see what prospects there is with the boss man at the mill”. I agreed and went for an interview… later a letter arrived and said they would employ me on a monthly trial as office boy. My parents were pleased, but I was not, as I was getting more earnings on my paper round than earnings at work and paying board money, I kept the Sunday paper round to make ends and did not have enough for my new cycle.

Starting work as the ‘Boy’

On my first day at work I was made very welcome and was taken around to meet everyone in the office, my predecessor was waiting for his call up papers for the Royal Air Force National Service, that’s why they needed the vacancy job to be filled. My tutor Lawrence was what one might call a streetwise person, clever and a little devious; he always had an answer for everything, he was soon giving me the pedigree of all the personnel from the top executive to the lowly humblest person on the bottom rung of the organisation ladder. He was full of confidence and having a new understudy gave him even more! My first week was nearly over before it had began when a man dressed in overalls walked straight into the office carrying a Hessian sack, the women in the office suddenly started getting up from their chairs and moving swiftly away out of his presence, then he turned to me, hand on my shoulder and said “I know you, you’re one of the young fishing poachers at Horstead Mill, caught yar”, he then untied the sack and pulled out the largest live eel I have ever seen. “I bet you have not caught one like this” these for the governor’s dinner. (Jack Read). The women were huddled up out of his way; he `winked` at me and said “them girls like having a stroke of my live eels in my sack when I leave them on the desk tied up”, I think I knew what he meant, must admit being terrified at the time, on his return from the governor’s office he handed me a brown envelope, “open it” he said, with a smile, inside was a fishing river pass to fish at Horstead Mill legally, thus I discovered that R. J. Read and Horstead Mill had the same owners.

From there on I started my training, learning the basic admin duties within the office, being on a month’s trial I had to be on my best behaviour and impress `don`t want the sack`. A checklist arrived with of all my daily duties, basically a `dog’s body` for the office staff.

Drawing of the mill layout as it was in its final form.

As the weeks passed by and my month’s trial was over, I had a meeting with the Company Secretary Mr. Lunn, he was satisfied with my progress, but with Lawrence leaving to go into the Royal Air Force for two years National Service, more responsibility will be placed on me to keep things running smoothly. Duties highlighted, Reception communicating with Farmer’s deliveries, Customer Enquiries, checking feed stuff permits, (even with World War II over) Government Rationing was still in operation in the early 1950`s, visiting all mill areas with messages, visiting the Post Office with `franked` envelopes to be posted. Deliveries into Norwich City centre with documents became more frequent. My nickname soon became the `boy` for the site, have you seen the `boy`, where’s that `boy`, tell that `boy` to come and see me when he gets back etc. I was very conscientious in whatever task I was given, but there was no way of promotion as there was a settled team and no vacancies in the foreseeable future. I was gradually learning the business and helping out with the wages clerk, I discovered the rates of pay of those employed at the mill, when I told my father he said, “it’s a lot more than he could earn and why don`t you have a chat with the mill manager, he might give you some guidance”? On approaching the mill manager in his office, which was positioned in the Laboratory where they also baked the bread daily and quality tested it before the flour was delivered to the customer, his assistant also explained all the other tests that were done on the imported and local Wheat consignments, which arrived by river or road. My interest and enthusiasm was growing, even the mill teams welcomed one when I crept out of the mill office to view the next stage of the process or progress wherever I went. The mill manager said there were no vacancies, and nobody could be employed in the mill, until they reached the age of twenty years and then would have to start at the bottom of the ladder and its heavy work and not everybody’s cup of tea. One has to work their way up, to get into the mill. As I was so keen he felt sorry for me and gave me some advice to get to the top of the tree in the Milling Industry. You need to have a four-year apprenticeship to learn the trade, he gave me the Milling Technology Text book so I could study, but it seemed liked double Dutch and a bit frightening. If I had to learn this and take the Norwich City College exam, would I be up to it I thought? Is he trying to fog me off! He then said, “you would do well to take my experience to heart if this is the career you wish to follow, but always remember there is no substitute for experience, listen to the miller’s out there, they have been with the company man and boy, and maybe! Your generation will have a better education than they did”. This gave me some thought returning to the office.

A section of the business which fascinated me, was visiting the Corn Hall in the City of Norwich on a Saturday morning, collecting wheat samples for the Guv`nor or messages to the wheat buyers on occasions. This seemed an exclusive world or men’s club where communication with Farmers and Dealers took place, gathered round their Corn Merchants on their advertising and numbered stands, positioned all around the hall (there must have been at least one hundred stands in total). It was a very noisy but happy atmosphere with farmers bargaining over their grain prices. The dress at that time was raincoats and hats, expect the coats had large pockets, to hold the samples they had brought to the Market.

The Norwich Corn Exchange in Exchange Street in the 1950s. The exchange was demolished being replaced by an extension to Jarrolds Shop in the 1970s

This was another part of the jigsaw I was beginning to understand, but no input only observations on my part, into the business of buying and selling grain. Read`s held the monopoly on imported cereals, Coasters discharging their cargo daily at the Silo on the riverside, this grain was then distributed around Anglian region, Rationing and Permits ceased in the 1950`s.

One sector I was always reluctant to venture in my early days working from the office was the women’s Self Raising Packing Dept. Where about ten “girls” packed flour into small 1lb-3lb, mainly for the household market. The forewoman warned me that all new office boys would have an “initiation” when they visited their working environment. What's an “initiation” what do they do! Take one`s trousers off and hoist them up the flagpole, pour Self-Raising flour down your underpants, remember you have been warned she smiled and walked away. However over a period of time I did find they would accidentally “knock into you with their flour powdery covered white coats transferring the powder onto your nice blue pinstripe suit, then wanted to hand brush your suit, to remove the dusty particles, swiftly I would return to the office with all the evidence on my clothes for all to see, the male staff in the office said “we know where you have been! We would not dare or have the courage to go up into that sector, you must be a brave “boy” they are all man-eaters, especially the young ones”.

The Small Bag packing dept. filling 3lb bags of SR flour.

On the serious side, the girls had to work very hard keeping their production line going; in those days there was very little automation, in nearly all the jobs you had to use your hands, moving 10 stone Flour Sacks with the aid of a hand held sack wheelbarrow, shooting the full sacks into Hoppers, where the Mixer Dressing Machine blended the flour with additives Sodium Bicarbonate and ACP, which had been carefully metered in to save the housewife from adding Baking Powder, this type of flour mix is called Self Raising flour. The Plain flour variety did not have any of these additives as the flour came straight from the main milling process. After mixing, the fine powdered flour travelled to the packing off point, where one of the girls placed an empty labelled bag under the small discharge spout, which volume metrically filled the small paper bag, the top of the filled bag was then folded and sealed neatly with glue. Allowed to stand before placing a dozen small 1lb or 3lb bags carefully into a large outer wrapping, sealed and stacked up to 5ft in height from the floor as temporary storage. Random sampling by the mill team and also a laboratory Quality Control Team took place at regular intervals.

The Self Raising plant (as it was called) the girls working there had to be physically fit, have dexterity and technical knowledge of the product, they all seemed happy in their environment talking and singing. This was another area, which I was becoming familiar with, another part of the milling process. I visited the Loading gang office in the mill many times a day delivering orders and invoices so that the foreman could organise the daily deliveries to the customers, everything was in bags or sacks, all “the donkey work” one might say but very organised, these men all looked like “grafters” and very fit, but very dusty. You could see that they worked in a mill as very few wore hats and their hair was full of dust and strangely their eyebrows. I learnt how, but was never caught, because I had witnessed the trick they would play on one another! If someone was talking below the foreman’s office and not working at that time, a large open flour sack was thrown like a umbrella over the unsuspecting employee’s head, it could with a good shot cover the top half of the body to the waist, viewing out of our office window the word soon got round look! Who’s going to get the “sack”, then laughter within, at someone else’s expense, it was all good fun. Being the office `boy` junior clerk one could be very gullible, being bottom of the company structure, thus everybody would be senior to me. The day in question one of the mill workers said Mr Jack (Read) is calling for you from the staff toilet, “where’s the `boy` tell him I wish to speak to him urgently, both of us ventured outside the door, he was still ranting with some choice words. I asked, “what's the problem”, thinking it might be a medical problem and he needed help. To my amazement all he wanted was a new toilet roll, someone had taken the staff one and left a newspaper cut into squares, each with a hole and a piece of string holding all the squares together, it had been tied to the water pipe. I ran back the office, collected the new toilet roll, the office staff thought it was hilarious and a few had some comical remarks. Returning to the `bog` (toilet), I threw the toilet roll over the top of the door, to a satisfied customer, I then swiftly disappeared into the mill. Everyone must have known what had happened or they were trying to make a point to the men at the top, their grievance for the same quality toilet paper. To my surprise, one sunny afternoon, for whatever reason, birthday anniversary, I did not find out, Mr Jack invited all the office staff to Hapton Hall, his residence, we all piled into the travellers cars and off we went. On arrival we were all made very welcome, drinks, sandwiches, visits to the Hall rooms and grounds, then the guests had a game of short lawn bowls.

I stood back as I thought that bowls was an old mans game but was soon placed into a team. It was a most enjoyable day and one to be remembered by all. In the distance one could see the Harvest in full swing, the light blue lorry (R. J. Read) was also in the field, this lorry belonged to Horstead Mill, expect some of the mill workforce were redeployed during the harvest period. Another unusual duty as office boy was turning the pages of the chequebook, using blotting paper to dry up the ink without smudging the signatures, Mr Hecter would sign first and leave Mr Jack the cheque book to sign at his leisure; each cheque had to be duel signed. Mr Jack would like a tipple of drink, which had a strong aroma, when concentrating on their finances; I was standing while Mr Jack was seated, each cheque signed, turning the pages, he would look over his spectacles and say “don`t you like drink” `boy`, “no sir” I replied! “Oh you think you will go out of here pissed then”, Mr. Hector being very diplomatic just smiled.

Sport of Kings.

Being the now established office `boy` on site, I would be given a small brown envelope sealed, to give to Freddie or Charlie only, and then asked on my return “did you find him”! OK! This was getting a regular thing, trekking along a dusty track, being a little naive, I asked no questions. The main rendezvous was the Recero Dept. Where mysterious meetings at the back of a large wooden panelled partition stretching the whole length of the building, with enough space to house several people, it was dark as there were no lighting, however natural light was available through the dusty windows on the riverside, which could be raised slightly from the bottom and slide upwards, anyone from the riverside could not see in, because these windows were never cleaned, as camouflage to the going ons! A secret betting syndicate was in progress; newspapers were spread across the window cills and the people in question were studying, form, distance, meeting, jockey’s and prices, all putting their theories to the test. In those days the Betting Business was illegal, Police would turn a blind eye, unless some do-gooder would complain, then it was a “nod and a wink”. The bookie would employ runners, who worked in large factories or the work places, runners would carry a small Hessian sample bag, containing coins and betting slips with bogus names. It was obvious there was a lot of money in the racing game, but only one winner in a race, some would say a “mugs game”. The runner would wait for his dinner break, then leap on his bicycle and pedal like mad to the betting office before the off! Or using the early shift operator, who would leave off at 2pm to place the bets. A radio was available but hidden in a secluded space away from prying eyes, but word soon got round when a big race meeting was being broadcast.

I was to young and innocent to be bothered with losing hard earned wages, but I must make a confession, the office staff with some of the mill gamblers decided to run a sweepstake at a shilling a ticket. I drew “Never Say Die” ridden by a young 18-year-old jockey, his name Lester Piggott, and it was his first Derby. One of the senior staff in the office said “that’s an omen you should bet a shilling each way, if it comes in a place you will still make money, I was gradually being slowly drawn into this reckless speculation wrote out my ticket and handed it to the bookies runner. Thinking that’s the end of my couple of bob (Two shillings). To my amazement the horse came in at 33-1, I was in the money with the sweepstake and my independent bets, I felt like a millionaire. Word spread like wildfire, the `boy` had won, and I received various comments, some not very complimentary, from bad losers. Mr Jack Read, one of the owners, said, “I hear you’re in the money! I’ll give you some advice no one makes money gambling, then he told me he owned a horse Pegasus II”, ridden by Gordon Richards, Champion Jockey, it came last! On his desk he had a memento of a horses hoof (which held his collection of pins), he said, “If you carry it no dog will attack you”, I did not know if he was pulling my leg. Was it poor old Pegasus`s last race?

Works Outings.

The mill and office outings special, something to look forward to throughout the year, places of interest for the potential trip in the future would be discussed, between a small committee, a list of places of interest placed on the notice board. The employees could then put their name against their preferred choice. Each Friday payday, the collectors would come round and visit each person and collect their subscription. Private coach trips were the in thing during the 1950`s and 60`s, there were not many private automobiles on the roads; it was very rare that an employee owned their own car. Bosses and the Outing’s committee would agree on a Saturday to run the day trip. On the day of the outing, everyone would arrive at the mill to catch the coaches; employees were dressed in their Sunday best, the females in their brightly coloured dresses, hairdo’s and hats. The males in their best suits, collar and tie, “Brylcream” down hair, what a transformation from their drab overalls, coats and hats, during their working day at the mill. Even the office staff looked more fashionable than normal. The excursions would mainly be to the seaside within the East Anglian region or a trip down to the “Smoke” (London), breakfast, dinner and a show at the Palladium. The atmospheres on the coach journeys were always fun, singing, laughing and occasionally someone would try their hand at being a musician on the harmonica or comb! I remember on one trip one of the mill worker`s dressed up as a vicar, he looked the part with his dog collar and hat, he kept it on all day raising his trilby to the passing public, he even received a free cup of tea in a café we went into. On the way home the coach would stop for a quick drink or discharge some liquid, nobody would get tanked up, just “merry”. The coaches would drop everyone one off at their nearest point, so one did not have to walk very far, getting a taxi home would have cost an arm and leg, the trips were always well organised and there was always a tale to tell after the event, not guilty! It seemed the fortunes of Norwich City Football Club have always been at a lower ebb, the humiliation of having to seek re-election to the Football League, the club had a financial crisis, collection boxes were all around the City, the money collected, helped to keep the Canaries club going. Eric Dunn, ex. RAF Intelligence Officer who worked in the office became the Supporters Club secretary for the football team and encouraged nearly everybody to become a member, “every little helps”! He would say, “like the lady at the seaside having a pee in the sea”! Norwich had recruited a canny Scot from Dundee, to run the team as Manager, his name Archie Macaulay; he laid the foundations to the famous FA Cup run of 1959. At the mill, coaches were arranged to attend the away matches, don`t think the bosses had much say in these trips, our Supporters Club representative must have pulled a few strings for the girls tickets as all the men had to queue with the other supporters, these queue’s during the cup run were enormous, from the ground, over Carrow Bridge, past the Carrow Works round the corner to the Pineapple Public House, the people of Norwich were hooked. On February 14th 1959 the 5th round away tie at Tottenham (Spurs), North London, when we arrived the streets were filled with noisy and colourful City fans in their yellow and green with a number of mascots, we could not believe our eyes when we arrived early at the White Hart Lane ground in Tottenham. The ground was rapidly filling up with Spurs and City supporters about 67,000 tickets were sold, we were all getting separated from our work colleagues, the crushing that took place was awesome and frightening to us country yokels, none of us had experienced anything like this before, the girls had disappeared from view, we did not meet them until the end of the match, they could not cope in the crowd and stood outside the stand. Some of the stands had seating but the majority of the fans stood, packed like sardines in a can, people were being lifted up over the heads of the spectators, their bodies moving horizontally, conveyed downwards to the edge of the football ground, (Some adults needed treatment by the first aid people, but most of these moving bodies were children, who being unable to see because of the size of the crowd, were moved to the front. Editor). The home crowd knew exactly what to do when the crowds at the back pushed forward like waves at seaside, back and forward all the time, to avoid being crushed against the safety rails you had duck under them, this was all before the match had kicked off. Once the match started you were stuck in that upright position, if you had your hands in your pockets there was no way you could get them out. The match was exciting and with Canaries Terry Allcock giving us the lead, only for the victory to be denied by Spurs last minute equaliser (justice was sweet, when we won the replay). However once we arrived to board the coach, one colleague said I’ve “lost my watch” another mate looked down and said “so have I” then another, they had all managed to keep close together at the match, but were amongst pickpockets and thieves, one colleague said “my wife told me not to take my best watch to the football match, I’ll be in the dog house when I get back home. Everyone else was in fine spirits on the coach, some being dropped near their home, others collected their cycles stored at work, and some were a little bit wobbly on take off as they left the mill, after a few “bevies” during their day up the “Smoke”. A good team performance, on and off the field, a day to remember.

National Service.