Do you remember Colchester's Trebor factory?
PUBLISHED: 20:00 09 January 2019
Charlotte Smith-Jarvis wrote recently about her favourite childhood treats: chocolate 'cigarettes'. (Very un-PC now!) It reminded Steven Russell of when one of our local towns enjoyed sweet dreams. Here's a Refresher course…
For years, some of Britain’s favourite sweets poured out of a Utopian factory in our neck of the woods: Trebor Mints, tongue-tingling Refreshers and blow-the-roof-off-your-mouth Extra Strong Mints. Unfortunately, bitter winds would blow this way.
Twenty years ago this month, Cadbury (which had taken over Trebor) announced plants would be closing. One was Colchester, which employed more than 200 people. Production was heading north.
Trebor was born in Forest Gate, east London, on January 4, 1907. By the 1970s, it was Britain’s biggest maker of sugar sweets.
In 1976, needing to modernise and grow to stay ahead of competitors such as Bassett, the firm revealed it was investing £15million over three years.
In May, 1977, Colchester learned it was part of that bright future. It was getting a new £3m factory on a greenfield site, replacing one at Ilford.
There was more: the complex on the corner of Wyncolls Road and Severalls Lane sought to show the way forward.
Traditional industrial practices such as clocking-on were not part of the enlightened new world, and there was one entrance for all – regardless of job. Management and workers ate in the same restaurant, parked in the same car park, worked the same hours and had the same sick leave arrangements.
Staff were organised in small groups and given considerable power to manage themselves, and an industrial psychologist had considerable input into the factory layout.
The Colchester episode formed part of Matthew Crampton’s book The Trebor Story, which we featured six years ago.
He explained how the company wanted to get away from “an inhuman hangar concept”. The Colchester factory “was applauded for its humanity. Its redbrick construction, connecting smaller connected spaces – mostly one-storey – contrasted with the vast windowless facilities typical of the day.
“Architects Arup Associates thought hard how to maximise daylight and provide warm social spaces within the building.”
Staff were encouraged to take responsibility – operators, for instance, were trained to carry out basic maintenance on their machines.
“Each work group monitored its production and drew up its own work schedules; it also organised sending finished stock to the warehouse, maintained quality standards and trained new recruits.
“Rather than layers of line managers, there was only one product house-manager on each production line, with teams left to solve as many problems as they could.”
Building work started in 1978, and Colchester began producing Trebor Mints in 1980. Refreshers followed in 1981 – the year the factory was officially opened by Employment Minister Jim Prior – and in 1982 the production of Extra Strong Mints moved from Maidstone to a state-of-the-art automated line at the Essex factory.
Matthew’s book explained too how Sheffield University spent three years monitoring the plant “and found that job satisfaction and commitment to the company were higher than ever recorded in British industry; absenteeism and labour turnover were among the lowest recorded.”
Of course, halcyon days don’t last forever. By the end of the 1980s, private family concerns such as Trebor faced the might of global competitors who were combining and growing.
Nestlé bought Rowntree, and Cadbury Schweppes swallowed Bassett Foods (including Jelly Babies and Liquorice Allsorts). Pretty soon, the Marks family knew it would have to find new owners for Trebor.
Some caught what was in the wind. Matthew quoted Niall Christie, Colchester’s works manager, as saying: “Odd things happened, like we’d be asked to do a stock check on all our machinery spare parts – something we’d never done before…”
Cadbury Schweppes snapped up the firm for £146m – £21m being shared between workers past and present.
Niall Christie said: “Someone who had been there only ten months got a thousand quid, a huge sum in those days. Those who’d worked longer got much more.
“Everyone sat around speechless. It was beyond their wildest dreams. They were thinking ‘This’ll pay for a holiday, buy a car, pay off the mortgage, settle my debts. They thought Christmas had come ten times over.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful afternoon. We didn’t get a lot of work done, but I’ll never forget it. I wasn’t surprised the family did it, but I was surprised at the scale of what they gave.”
Before the new millennium dawned, though, Cadbury announced Colchester would close. (In fact, 14 years after buying the company, it had shut every Trebor factory.)
Matthew argued in his book that the Marks family had always displayed a powerful sense of loyalty to staff. “Their new Colchester plant did not feature night shifts because the directors, ignoring the scorn of some business advisers, felt such practices were inimical to family life.”
He added: “One might argue such paternalism was like the better sort of colonialism; it treated the natives decently, but didn’t give them the vote. But at least it treated them well.
“And given the powerlessness of most workers within the flexible, global markets of today, there is something to be said for a time when jobs typically lasted for decades.”
The Trebor Story came out in 2012. Copies can still be bought, including on Kindle, via muddlerbooks.com