By Haydn Brown.
Jeremiah Colman was born 16 July 1777, the son of Robert Colman (1749-1807) and Mary (née Harmer); he was baptised on 6 August 1777 at Ashwellthorpe. Jeremiah was originally a farmer but went on to learn the business of miller at Bawburgh watermill, which was then processing corn, starting there in 1802.
In 1804 Jeremiah Colman transferred his flour milling business from Bawburgh, near Norwich, to Jeckall’s Pockthorpe Smockmill close to Magdalen Gates in the city itself.
Some ten years later, on the 3 April 1814 to be precise,, Jeremiah Colman leased Stoke Holy Cross watermill on the river Tas as a going concern, paying £51 2s to his friend, Edward Armes, for his stock of mustard. One of Jeremiah’s account books survived from that very moment and records this sum. That particular business move between the two men was picked up by the press late on 30 April, and also on 7 May 1814 with the Norfolk Chronicle announcing that Jeremiah Colman had taken over the stock and trade of the mustard and flour mills at Stoke Holy Cross near Norwich, ‘lately carried on by Mr Edward Armes’.
With clear colaboration between the Colmans and the press, Jeremiah Colman had the following advertisement inserted. In it, Mr Colman:
‘respectfully informs his customers and the public in general that he will continue the manufacturing of mustard, and he takes leave to assure those who may be pleased to favour him with their orders that they shall be supplied in such a manner as cannot fail to secure their approbation’.
There was, of course, the inevitable press and business speculation as to why Mr Colman had taken over the Stoke Mills, and it transpired that the Ames and the Colman families knew each other very well. One of the Colmans had been engaged to Sarah Ames, the daughter of Edward, and although she had died before the marriage could take place the closeness between the families was unaffected. No only that, but Jeremiah Colman continued to visit Edward Ames and his remaining two daughters, Ann and Maria, in Yarmouth. Jeremiah’s own daughter recalled some years later that:
‘their names always bring before my eyes a childish recollection of alarming looking personages and rich plum cake’.
Thus, began the Mill’s most prosperous 50-year period at Stoke when Colmans’ began its aim of increasing its range of products, one of the first included the introduction of starch manufacture.
Jeremiah Colman had no children and adopted James who was the eldest of his brother Robert’s 15 children. Jeremiah was a devout Baptist, kindly, honest and a good master. Under his ownership, between 1814 and 1850, wages rose. Boys of 8 or 9 worked 12-hour shifts with two breaks and earned 3d per hour. A working day was normally 6.00am to 6.00pm, although sometimes a shift could go on until midnight; many workers then faced a long walk home.
February 15th 1823 was the day when Jeremiah Colman took his 22-year-old nephew, James, into partnership. James began with a quarter share which increased to one-third in 1827 and half in 1831. Thus, progressed the J & J Colman business which was to have such a beneficial effect on the life of the city, County and leading eventually to a change of the greatest importance to an agricultural region – the efficient processing, packaging and distribution of foodstuffs by industrial methods.
“Old” Jeremiah died on 3rd December 1851, aged 74. Then, barely two years later on 24 November 1853 James Colman, his adopted nephew and successor, also died, leaving his 24-year-old son, Jeremiah James Colman to take control of the family business.
At that time, Jeremiah James Colman controlled a small local company, employing a hand-full of workers and selling only modest amounts of mustard. In the space of 50 years he was to build the company into a global brand using innovative marketing techniques and through his hard-work, honesty and integrity as a business man and proved to be a brilliant innovator whose masterstrokes included creating Colman’s famous bull’s head trademark in 1855.
Then, in 1862 when the lease on the Stoke mill ran out, J.J. Colman transferred his production to a new and much larger factory built on land at Thorpe Hamlet near Carrow Road in the south of Norwich. He had earlier bought the land from the Norfolk Railway, an early railway company that controlled a network of some 94 miles around Norwich. This railway company had been formed in 1845 by the amalgamation of the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway and the Norwich and Brandon Railway. Thus, the Colman company had secured beneficial railway and river links, and also a ready-made workforce in the city – cloth workers made redundant by the industry’s exodus to northern mills.
Increasingly, Jeremiah James Colman took a benevolent interest in his workforce as his company grew far further then the numbers he had employed at Stoke Holy Cross. He continued to follow ‘Old’ Jeremiah’s, benevolent principles of believing in education for the employees’ children. In 1864, twenty years before parliament made any provision for compulsory education, Colman built a school on Carrow Hill for his workers children; its motto – ‘Sat cito, si sat bene’ (quick enough if it is well enough) 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.’
A nursery was established for younger children and from 1864 a dispensary was set up for the benefit of his workers. In 1872 Colman set up a self-help medical club for his workers, encouraging them to contribute, matching their contributions with his own donations. By 1878, the Company had employed the first industrial nurse – a Philippa Flowerday. According to Reggie Unthank, in his blog about ‘The Plains of Norwich,
“Before being employed by Colmans at their Carrow Works, Phillipa Flowerday (1846-1930) trained and worked as a nurse at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. According to Rod Spokes, former Colmans manager, when the company’s dispensary was founded in 1864 a man was employed to visit male employees at home and report on cases of need. In 1872, Phillipa was employed to visit the families of the workpeople as well as assisting the doctor in the dispensary. She is therefore celebrated as the first industrial nurse in the country”
In recent years, Phillipa has been commemorated by a third Plain on the site of the old Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, known as Phillipa Flowerday Plain.
Then an onsite kitchen was opened and this provided tea or coffee in the morning and a hot meal for lunch, charged at cost – 4p bought hot meat, vegetable stew and a pint of coffee. Workers who were off sick long term would have food parcels delivered to them at home courtesy of the company (somebody was employed full-time to deliver these food provisions.)
This benevolence did not stop there; Colman also built and rented out houses to its workers and for those of its pensioners who had retired from a lifetime of serving the company. Many of the houses were in neighbouring Lakenham and Trowse areas, and some of the terraces in which these houses stood were said to have had mustard-coloured front doors. Special provision was made for single women who were provided with low-cost accommodation. He even provided public houses in which his workforce could enjoy a pint or two!!
Colmans contributed towards its staff well-being with such treats as Christmas dinners in its granary plus regular staff outings They also provided a clothing club; 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 to save money. In fact, a whole series of educational classes were provided free of charge to all employee’s. Colman insisted 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. A lending library and, as if to cap all these benefits, coffins for those of its workers and their families.
There was even a works magazine and, with Art Nouveau well in vogue, the artwork surrounding the title page reflected this. The content was always topical with a good spread of photographs throughout. Individual headings included topics like the clubs and societies that employees could join and take an active part in. There was a gardening club to join, and that section would include illustrations via photographs showing examples of healthy plants and those on the other end of the scale. The Company’s footballing club was no forgotted with past cup winners etc. publicised. Then there was the Musical Society which boasted both a military band and an orchestra. There was, from time to time, plenty of other topics which found their way into the magazine.
There was a large fire on the 30th June 1881 in the mustard packing factory. After this Colman acquired a 600-gallon steam engine (see image below) for use at the site and employed a dedicated team of fire fighters.
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. He expanded the range of products under production to include laundry blue, flour and starch. When Jeremiah James Colman was asked how he had made such a vast fortune from the sale of mustard he replied ‘I make my money from the mustard that people throw away on the sides of their plate’.
Being aware of the rise of Colman’s and of the work and life of Jeremiah James Colman himself 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. Clearly, the rapid growth of Colman’s Mustard runs counter to most people’s understanding of 19th century industrial growth, a time characterised by child labour, unsafe working environments and long hours for low pay, Colman, on the other hand, displayed a remarkable duty of care to his employee’s. Many industrialists of the time claimed that they could ill afford to treat their workers better or pay them more and to do so – that would destroy their business and the nation’s economy. Again, Colman demonstrated his ability to dramatically grow a profitable business whilst treating his employee’s with humanity. 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 and 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 when 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 helping people, but he also believed that once helped, people had a duty to do everything in their power to help themselves.
Such was Colman’s religious conviction that he was even tempted to turn down the opportunity to run the family business in the first place; he feared it would impinge upon the time he could devote to religion and self-improvement. He also questioned the morality of wealth and feared he would become corrupted and greedy. In time, he became a close friend of four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone, who offered Colman a baronetcy; Colman declined 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’.
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 Colman’s 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 bulls head and in 1865 they gained a royal warrant from Queen Victoria. Colman’s products are still used by the Royal household today.
Colman’s was 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.
Outside his business interests, Jeremiah James Colman also 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 City 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. However, 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’s ‘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) and fought for and won having a preservation order placed upon the city walls.
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.
In the winter of 1896, he visited Egypt with several family members, for the purpose of offering re-cooperation to his ill son Alan. Sadly, Alan died in February 1897 and the family headed home, however Colman procured over 250 artefacts whilst there. In 1921 these were donated to Norwich Museums by his daughters and include an Egyptian shroud! After his son had died, he purchased and donated the land that was used to build the extension of the Jenny Lind Hospital.
In the space of three and a half years Colman lost his son Alan his wife Caroline in 1895 and then his mother in 1898, himself dying at home in Corton, Suffolk shortly afterwards. His funeral procession numbered 1200 people, which is perhaps the greatest indication of how important Jeremiah James Colman was to so many people in 19th century Norwich. Today, Norwich has much more than just Mustard to thank this gentleman for!
In 1973 the firm celebrated 150 years of business since the first partnership, and to commemorate the occasion opened the Mustard Shop in Bridewell Alley, Norwich, which has become a firmly established tourist attraction. In 1995 Colman’s was bought by Unilever, and became part of the Van den Bergh Food Group. In January 2001 Van den Bergh Foods merged with Bestoods UK Ltd to form Unilever Bestfoods Ltd. Material relating to the Colman brand would. from that year, be found in the Unilever Bestfoods collection (UBF).
Colman, H.C., Jeremiah James Colman: A Memoir, 1905; Norfolk Chronicle.