During the summer of 1966 I worked a week of twelve-hour night shifts at the bakery operated by J. Lyons and Co. in Telford Place, off Southgate Avenue. This was a famous restaurant chain and food manufacturing company, founded in 1884, which would later be a pioneer in the use of computer technology. The Crawley factory opened as a bread bakery in 1957 and was one of the larger provincial bakeries owned by the company. In addition to baking loaves, it produced the burger buns for all the Wimpy bars (the forerunner of Burger King) in the country and had a national distribution fleet. It also produced soft rolls, buns, crumpets iced cakes etc. (see https://www.kzwp.com/lyons2/provincial.htm ).
The pay was pretty good for the mid-sixties, but the work was both hot and exhausting. I was required to stand between two different production lines, removing trays containing five lumps of dough as they emerged from a proving oven, making a knife slit on each lump using a knife previously held in my teeth – pirate style – before loading them onto moving a belt to take them to an adjacent cooking oven. At the same the trays with the cooked loaves were emerging from the continuous moving belt of this oven. We had to pick up these hot trays and bang them on to a rubber bar to release the four cooked loaves on to a conveyor belt before throwing the empty trays on to a pile and returning to the proving oven just in time for the next emerging tray of dough. We needed to wear asbestos gloves as the trays containing the cooked loaves were far too hot to touch. Even so, you could easily burn your fingers or wrists if you were not careful. This work was rather reminiscent of the factory scene from Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6n9ESFJTnHs ) and I only stuck with it for one week before looking for alternative employment. My only other memory is of the extraordinarily plump pigeons that waddled around outside the factory, subsisting on the bread that was thrown away in bins at the rear. The workers were permitted to eat any damaged cakes or other products during their tea breaks, but very few ever did so.
I didn’t then realise it but this long-established company was losing money and in 1978 would be acquired by Allied Breweries. It would be broken up in the 1980s. (There is an excellent short film about bread making at the Lyons Bakery in Crawley during the early 1960s, made by a student at Guildford College of Art. It is available at the University of Brighton, Screen Archive South East web site.)
James Longley, Small Works Department
In addition to its major sites in Crawley and the surrounding area, the building contractor, James Longley & Co, had a small works department which undertook building maintenance and other small jobs, principally at Manor Royal, where they had a small hut behind the APV factory. I worked as a labourer there for four weeks in the summer of 1966, where among other things, I learned how to play nine card brag for pennies, with the permanent staff each lunchtime. The reason we were taken on was that the unit was always busiest during the two-week annual closure of the factories when essential building maintenance was carried out. On this occasion the temporary staff were employed to use pneumatic drills to lift the existing floor tiles of one of the larger APV workshops, so that new ones could be laid in their place. No ear protection was made available to us and the considerable sound of the drills was amplified by the echoes from the empty factory building. By the end of my first week, I was suffering from constant ringing in my ears which remained with me for the next six months before eventually subsiding. It was only later in life that I discovered that those two weeks of work had permanently impaired my hearing, but by then it was too late to sue.
The building firm, founded in 1863, was responsible for building much of the new town and many other important buildings in South East England. It collapsed in 2000 making 175 employees redundant, following a dispute with Chelsea Football club. A former school friend of mine had worked for the company in responsible roles for over thirty-five years. He not only lost his job and any prospect of finding another comparable one at his age, but he also lost his pension.
Chicken Farm – Peacehaven
I spent the summer of 1967 working as a labourer on a friend’s chicken battery farm near Peacehaven. This involved me staying there for five nights a week, only returning to Crawley for my bingo calling duties. The work required me to collect the eggs, remove any dead or diseased birds from the cages each morning, top up the food hoppers and ensure that the drinking water was clear. There was also mucking-out once a week, which involved winding a huge role of tarred paper laden with chicken faeces into a wheelbarrow and dumping the contents on to some waste ground nearby. The battery sheds were visited by local rats at night which crawled in through the ventilation ducts to eat the chicken feed and occasionally attack the birds. Thus, another duty involved a midnight raid where the farmer and I, accompanied by his Alsatian dog, entered the battery shed, quickly turned on the lights, blocked the ventilator and chased any rats, dispatching them with a club or a cutlass.
Looking at the attached photograph of battery chickens in cages I now feel a little bit queasy and ashamed of the work I was required to do. At the time, I felt that we could not afford to be sentimental about the birds, especially once they had ceased laying and were taken away in a lorry to be ‘processed’ into pet food and other products.
Most of the eggs were sent away for sale by supermarkets but the farmer also maintained his own delivery round to local shops, or institutions such as Roedean School, as direct sales were far more profitable. I suspect that some of his local customers assumed the eggs he was supplying were ‘Free range’ as they were delivered in open trays rather than packed in egg boxes and didn’t have the little red lion stamped on them.
The chicken farmer also kept two racing greyhounds but was unable to exercise them during the day as they were liable to chase any small dogs, cats or wildlife they came across and attempt to tear them to pieces. Thus, he would take the dogs out for a run on Peacehaven golf course after dark. On one occasion the dogs got hold of a huge badger and the farmer and I struggled to drag them from both ends of the poor animal. Fortunately, I was at the rear, because as soon as we succeeded in freeing the badger it gave a nasty bite to his rescuer before running off into the bushes.
(David Stoker, December 2021)