Jeremiah James Colman was once asked how he had made such a vast fortune from the sale of mustard. His reply was:
“I make my money from the mustard that people throw away on the sides of their plate”.
‘Old’ Jeremiah Colman, as he was to be known in later life, was originally a farmer and had also owned Bawburgh Mill. He had no children and was to adopt James, the eldest of his brother Robert’s fifteen children. Jeremiah was a devout Baptist, kindly, honest and a good master. Jeremiah Colman bought Pockthorpe smockmill in March of 1804 and sometime during the next ten years he demolished the old mill and replaced it with a towermill; to be known as either Bagshaw’s Mill, Bayfield’s Mill or St Paul’s Mill. The towermill had six floors and stood on land between Magdalen Road and Silver Road, approximately where Knowsley Road was later laid. After ten years had passed, Jeremiah Colman branched out when he leased Stoke Holy Cross watermill on the 3rd April 1814. He bought it as a going concern and paid £51 2s 0d to Edward Armes for his stock of mustard.
This is the point where the story of Colman’s Mustard really begins. It was from this moment when Old Jeremiah plotted his Company’s prosperous 50-year period at Stoke and gradually introduced a range of products, starting with the introduction of starch manufacturing. Under his ownership, between 1814, when he set up at Stoke, and 1851 when he died, wages rose regularly – although employees, including 8 and 9-year old boys, worked 12 hour shifts with two breaks and wages were 3d per hour. The working day for employees was normally from 6.00am to 6.00pm, although sometimes a shift could go on until midnight when some workers faced a long walk home.
‘Old’ Jeremiah had no children whilst his brother Robert, who was farming at Rockland St. Andrew, had fifteen – eleven of them were boys. It was the eldest, named James, who was adopted by Jeremiah, brought up and when he became 22 years of age, Jeremiah took him into his Company and gifted him partnership; the date was 15th February 1823. This date proved to be a significant date for the future development of Colman’s Mustard, because from that point Jeremiah shared the management burden of looking after a growing business, which in turn, opened up further job prospects for many people in and around Norwich. Young James began with a quarter share which increased to one-third in 1827 and half in 1831. Later on, two other brothers, Jeremiah the 2nd and Edward who were to represent the business in London, were also admitted into partnership; but this was not until 1844, six years before land was purchased at the Carrow Abbey district of Norwich for further expansion of the Company.
Before then, however, young James had to roll up his sleeves to sift and mix the mustard flour obtained from the crushed seed. Old Jeremiah remained at his desk, starting his day’s work at 7am, just one hour after the men had commenced their labours. With such commitment from everyone, the business prospered and by 1851 the firm was advertising mustard in casks, tinfoil packets, round tins and several types and different packages of starch, along with indigo and Prussian blue for laundries and manufacturers. The size of the business in those early days was relatively small and can be gauged from the records of a member of the Colman family who recalled his boyhood memories of 1834. Those memories included the moment when he watched Lazarus Horne:
“……who had only one arm, doing all the day’s packing himself; packing the mustard into wooden casks which, apart from a small amount of mustard being packed in bottles for export, were the only containers then used for the mustard flour……”
Then, on the 3rd December 1851, “Old” Jeremiah died; he was aged 74 years. Barely two years later, on the 24th November 1853 James Colman, his adopted nephew and successor, also died. It was his 24-year-old son, Jeremiah James Colman, who took over full control of the family business – he being the third member of the family to do so.
Young Jeremiah J Colman now controlled what was still a small local company selling modest amounts of mustard and starch. However, in the space of 50 years he was to build, what was essentially a mustard company, into a global brand by using innovative marketing techniques, hard-work, honesty and integrity. J.J. Colman also proved to be a brilliant innovator whose masterstrokes included creating Colman’s famous Bull’s Head trademark in 1855 and moving, in 1858, from nearby Stoke Holy Cross to a site at Carrow Abbey in Norwich. His decision to leave Stoke Holy Cross was brought about partly by an uncertainty about the lease renewal, coupled with the obvious advantage of working near to river and rail transport links which the City of Norwich offered. The young entrepreneur had also identified a ready-made workforce in the city – cloth workers made redundant by the decline of the textile industry in Norfolk and its exodus to northern mills.
The mid-19th century was a time of great poverty in Norwich following the dwindling of the textile industry. Land was cheap and labour plentiful. The grounds of the historic Carrow Abbey were selected as the site for the new factory and, without planners to satisfy, the Carrow mustard mill was working by 1858. Before long, flour and mustard mills began to appear along the bank of the river, with engine houses, granaries, and stores. The Company’s ‘Counting House’, still identifiable today, was built shortly afterwards for use as the administrative headquarters.
After Jeremiah J. Colman married Caroline, they set up home at Carrow Abbey, where they remained for 40 years with the head of a growing company able to give personal supervision daily to his business which was at the bottom of his garden. The Colman family had always been in advance of their time in recognising the need to look after the welfare of their employees. Even the wife of James Colman organised a clothing club at Stoke in the very early days. It was the move to Carrow and the great and rapid expansion of the business which accelerated the provision of social welfare for employees on a scale not seen in the neighbourhood before. In 1857 Carrow School began with 22 children in an upper room in King Street. This was followed by Colman building a school on Carrow Hill in 1864, years before education was compulsory. There was no better indication of the growth of Carrow Works than the fact that when, in 1870, the State took over responsibility for education in 1870, continuing in partnership with Colmans, there were 324 children on the school register. When the school opened, Colman sent a letter to each of his employee’s extolling the benefits of education. Here are a few highlights from that letter:
‘In these days of progress, that man is sure to be left far behind, who has neglected the cultivation of his intellect while he who strives to improve his mind stands a fair chance of raising himself in the social scale’
‘Remember the motto of your Reading Society ‘KNOWLEDGE IS POWER’, power for advancement, power to be good and to do good, power to be happy and to cause happiness to others’
‘It is of the utmost importance that you should teach your children to be punctual, neat and industrious.’
The truth was that the Colman family had always taken a benevolent interest in their workforce and, increasingly as the Company grew, they not only supplied schooling but contributed to the social life of its staff; for example: Christmas dinners in the granary, staff outings, a meals service for its workers – 4p bought hot meat, vegetable stew and a pint of coffee. Colman’s also provided a clothing club and lodgings for working girls, followed by a lending library and a pension fund; but these benefits were provided once the Company had grown to many hundreds of employees at the Carrow Works in Norwich.
In 1872 he set up a self-help medical club for his workers, encouraging them to contribute, matching their contributions with his own donations. Then, in 1878, the Company established a nursery for younger children, and employ an industrial nurse, called Phillipa Flowerday; plus, a dispensary set up for the benefit of his workers. Colman’s were also to build coffins for workers and their families, and build and rent out houses to workers and pensioners. The company owned hundreds of homes and accommodation was provided for many workers, but special provision was made for single women who were provided with low-cost accommodation. Most houses were in neighbouring Lakenham and Trowse, and some of the terraces were said to have had mustard-coloured front doors. He even provided public houses in which his workforce could enjoy a pint or two. – And, it did not stop there!
An onsite kitchen was opened, this provided tea or coffee in the morning and a hot meal for lunch, charged at cost. Workers who were off sick long term would have food parcels delivered to them at home courtesy of the Company; to do this, somebody was employed full-time to deliver these food provisions. A clothing club was also established; this made saving towards the cost of clothing much easier. Additionally, the company contributed to the savings scheme. From 1874 a dressmaking teacher was hired to help female employee’s learn new skills that could be used in the home and save money. In fact, a whole series of educational classes were provided free of charge to all employees. Jeremiah Colman then insisted that his employees were insured against sickness or injury, the Company ran its own scheme for workers who could choose between that or joining a Friendly Society. From 1864 the dispensary employed a doctor to work alongside the nurse.
In 1856, Colman’s employed just 200 people, by 1862 this had risen to 600 and by the time of his death in 1898 it was closer to 2,000. The story of the rise of Colman’s and of the work and life of Jeremiah James Colman is fundamental to understanding the history of Norwich in the 19th century. Colman’s influence could be seen everywhere and his morals, actions and achievements drastically altered the lives of many thousands of people living in Norwich. This rapid growth of Colman’s Mustard ran counter to the general narrative of English 19th century industrial growth. In an age characterised by child labour, unsafe working environments and long hours for low pay, Colman displayed a remarkable duty of care to his employees. Many industrialists of the time in this country claimed they could ill afford to treat their workers better or pay them more; to do so, would destroy their business and the nation’s economy. Jeremiah Colman proved that it was possible to grow a profitable business whilst treating workers with humanity and giving them some form of dignity.
When Jeremiah James Colman died, he left £2,000 in his Will to the employee’s trust and the money from this was used to set up a pension fund. By the time he had departed Colman had built up a system of nurseries, schools, medical care, food provision, housing and pensions. A system of protection for his workers from cradle to grave – 50 years before the creation of the welfare state!
Why did Colman feel the need to provide such assistance? He could very easily have turned a blind eye to the plight of his workers, like the majority of his contemporaries did. He was no social revolutionary, in an age of socially radical ideologies Colman was politically a liberal. He was however a devout Christian paying strict adherence to the Protestant religion. This drove his belief in a strong work ethic but also his compassion for his fellow man and his ethical approach to business. Colman’s brand of charity was that of self-help, he believed in giving to help people, but he believed that once helped people had a duty to do everything in their power to help themselves.
Such was Colman’s religious conviction that at a young age he had been tempted to turn down the opportunity to run the family business, for he feared it would impinge upon the time he could devote to religion and self-improvement. He even questioned the morality of wealth and feared he would become corrupted and greedy. As a future close friend of four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone, who offered Colman a baronetcy, Colman was to decline the offer saying:
‘anything I can do to promote the principles I have always supported … I am glad to do, but I much prefer that it should be without the reward or rank a title is supposed to give’.
Outside of business, Jeremiah Colman had a great sense of civic responsibility stating:
‘Men should go into municipal affairs to see what they could do for the town, instead of seeing what the town could do for them’.
At the young age of 29 he was elected to Norwich Town Council. He was sheriff in 1862-63, mayor 1867-68, in 1869 he became a magistrate for Norwich and then for Norfolk in 1872. In 1871 he was elected as a liberal MP for Norwich, serving for 25 years but his political career was mixed. He did not thrive in the Houses of Parliament as a Liberal MP, in part due to his poor oratory skills, but also because he very quickly became disillusioned with national politics. He was however much more successful as a local politician he sought to end the corruption for which Norwich was well known.
He was a part of Norwich Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society, this group met regularly and spent their time writing, reading and debating the great questions of the day focusing on politics, religion, society, and morality. He was closely involved with the successful launch of the Eastern Daily Press in 1870; a newspaper that is still going strong today. He also fought for, and won, having a preservation order placed upon the Norwich City Walls – or what was left of them after the City had decided to remove the ancient city gates in the previous century.
Colman was one of the leaders of a subscription campaign that sought to argue for all public buildings in Norwich being used for the public benefit. By 1886 they had been successful in securing both the Castle and Blackfriars Hall for public use. At the time Colman was a trustee of Norwich Museums, whose collections were then housed in a purpose-built building on Exchange Street. After closing as a prison, the castle was offered to both the city and county councils for purchase, but they were unwilling to meet such expense. Briefly the decision had been made to allow the castle to become a ruin, however banker John Henry Gurney purchased the castle, and it re-opened as the museum we know today.
So how was a small local company able to transform itself into one of the top 100 British companies in just under 50 years, whilst simultaneously providing a decent living for its workforce? Well, Marketing was the key to their success, and Jeremiah James Colman was the man driving this forward. In 1855 they adopted the now instantly recognisable bright yellow packaging with the distinctive bull’s head and in 1865 they gained a royal warrant from Queen Victoria. Colman’s products are still used by the Royal household today. They were one of the first companies to really push forward the marketing of their products to a consumer market. As early as the 1840’s Colman’s made the decision to start selling their products in much smaller packages (penny tins). This enabled smaller amounts to be purchased more cheaply which opened up a huge new potential customer base. Railway carriages were decorated in the distinctive brand colours to transport their goods across the country. Before the age of Television this allowed the whole country to see the Colmans imagery.
By the 1870’s Carrow had its very own marketing department, and by the late 1890s they had started hiring famous artists to create high quality advertising posters for them. Including the illustrator John Hassall and later the painter Alfred John Munnings. The growth of the business rested on the increasing nationwide and world-wide demand for the limited ranges of its quality products, and on what today would be known as good marketing. The selling and marketing were carried out by other members of the Colman, and carried on through their sons and grandsons from the Company’s Cannon Street offices in London.
In 1896 an important change took place in the structure of Colman’s Mustard when the partnership became a limited company with a capital of £1,350,000. The first chairman was Jeremiah James, who was succeeded after his death two years later by one the London cousins, Frederick Edward Colman.
By Acquisition and Amalgamation
The growth of Colman Mustard over 150 years or so did not come about solely by the introduction of new products, methods of manufacture, and increasing sales. These played their part, but so did the Colmans’ gift of creating the means by which competing firms could be taken over. This policy of expansion by acquisition appears to be as old as the 20th century, for it was in 1901 that a rival starch-making firm of Orlando Jones & Co. was absorbed. Two years later, principally interested in their competitor’s mustard and spice trade, Colmans took over Keen Robinson & Co., but found they had become one of the most important baby-food manufacturers in the country through sales of Robinson’s Patent Barley and Patent Groats.
The period up the first world war marked the continued transformation of Colmans from a paternal 19th century business employing a great deal of labour, and relatively little mechanised, to one using mechanical processes tending towards automation, and backed by the different financial approach of the limited company. Then in 1936, Colmans became a public company and two years later, in 1938 joined forces with Reckitt’s of Hull to become Reckitt & Colman Ltd. The amalgamation was in the fateful year of Munich when, to all but the optimists, war was inevitable.
Carrow Works was severely damaged by air raids during the war. One in 1941 destroyed four buildings including the cereal and mustard departments and a year later the seed granaries, starch, blue and advertising departments were blitzed. In 1943, six months after his son Alan had been killed while flying as a war-time ferry pilot, Mr. Russell Colman retired from the board. For the first time for 130 years there was no Colman on the Norwich branch among the directors. In the main the heavy burden of carrying on the business under the difficulties of wartime fell on the shoulders of Sir Basil Mayhew and Mr. H. A. G. Salter.
In 1945 the Reckitt & Colman Group was joined by another large business, Chiswick Products Ltd., manufacturers of polishes and similar lines, building up towards what were a world-wide range of foods, wines, soft drinks, household goods, toiletries, pharmaceuticals and industrial and other products. Probably the most significant developments of recent years were the acquisition in 1968 of the Norwich-based wine company Coleman & Co., long known for its tonic wine, Wincarnis. Because of the similarity of names many people thought that this was always a Colman product, but until 1968 it was not, although a hundred years before Colmans bought up Colemans of Bury St. Edmunds, a small mustard and starch manufacturer. The proprietor, Mr. W. J. Coleman, a chemist, then developed the tonic wine. Colemans had by this time become a considerable business as shippers and distributors of branded wines. Reckitt & Colman extended it by further acquisition of the business of Edward Robinson and, in 1969, of Moussec sparkling wine.
When the Colman family picked the site around the old Abbey at Carrow something like 160 years ago, they were really looking ahead. Despite automation, computers, and mechanical processes not dreamed of by the early employees who put the mustard into large and small containers by hand, there was a sizable number of workers in the Food & Wine Division in Norwich. It was a point touched upon by Mr. James Cleminson, who came to Carrow in 1960, was appointed managing director of the food division in 1970, and then went on to become chief executive of the then £200 million parent company, Reckitt & Colman Ltd. At the 150th Anniversary of Colmans in 1973, James Cleminson said that it was appropriate that the Company should acknowledge the debt owed to predecessors when he opened a mustard shop in Bridewell Alley in Norwich.
“I am sure”, he added, “that they would regard it as more important that we should maintain their progressive outlook for the future.”
In 1995, Colman’s became part of Unilever’s Van Den Bergh Foods when it was purchased from Reckitt & Colman PLC. As part of the acquisition, Unilever acquired the dry sauces, condiments and mustards sold under the Colman’s brand name. In 2018, Unilever confirmed that it would close its base [Colmans] in Norwich! They went on to say that a transition period of moving production from Norwich to Burton-upon-Trent and Germany would begin in the autumn of 2018 and would continue until the end of 2019. To sweeten a bitter pill for many, Unilever said that it planned to open a new milling facility near Norwich for the production and packing of Colman’s mustard powder!
Eastern Daily Press – ‘Mustard – Seed of a Great Idea’, Friday 9th February 1973