Summer Job working for Birds Eye

An interview with David Cooke

By Richard Dade

In this interview David Cooke reminisces on his summer time job working for Birds Eye, testing the peas in the field to make sure they were tender.

"Birdseye paid the best wages that you could find in the town. I was probably 18 by then and was probably one of my last summer jobs in Great Yarmouth and we were on 12 hour shifts from 6 in the morning to 6 o'clock at night or 6 o'clock at night to 6 in the morning so you had to alternate.

The wage went up to about 2 shillings to 2/6 for 12 hours; that's 25 bob a day. They had all these pea vining machines and every hour on the hour I had to go round to all the different machines there was about 6 or 8 machines in this field and you had to take out a sample of peas and put them in a box and you had to put these peas in a machine called a "tender-o-meter" .

Now if the peas were not tender enough, cause this is Birds Eye remember and the adverts on television fresh as the time when the peas went pop or something like that on their advert on television so they had to be fresh straight from the field straight to the factory to be frozen and so that was my job to test the peas.

So you could reject them reject this load of peas and you had to go out and tell the man on the machine that these peas were not tender so the whole lot got dumped and it was up to me to decide to do it and I had just come straight from school which was a bit crazy really. Anyway I did the job properly and at the end of that period of 6 weeks I had earned enough to buy my first car and I bought a Hillman Husky".

Photo:Photograph of a Great Yarmouth Corporation bus parked on Beevor Road, Great Yarmouth. This is outside of Birds Eye Foods at the riverside end of Beevor Road before this section was fenced off and became part of the factory site. It would have been possibly in the late 1950's or early 1960's. Maybe some of the Birds Eye ladies will recognise themselves or their colleagues.

Photograph of a Great Yarmouth Corporation bus parked on Beevor Road, Great Yarmouth. This is outside of Birds Eye Foods at the riverside end of Beevor Road before this section was fenced off and became part of the factory site. It would have been possibly in the late 1950's or early 1960's. Maybe some of the Birds Eye ladies will recognise themselves or their colleagues.

Courtesy of Bill Ditcham

This page was added by Richard Dade on 23/02/2008.
Comments about this page

I worked at Birds Eye Great Yarmouth from late 1957 to mid 1963 in the Quality Control Department.

During the greater part of the summer, when peas and green beans were processed, the factory operated non-stop except for a daily cleaning period of about 4 hours.

The men worked 12 hours Monday to Saturday and either 8 or 16 hours on a Sunday to effect a shift change between days and nights, i.e., either 80 or 88 hours a week.

A large number of university students were employed and everyone looked forward to the summer when they could earn extra money through the overtime.

Prior to 1960 harvesting, threshing and vining of peas were carried out in the field and vined peas were tested with tenderometers at a number of locations.

From 1960 peas were harvested and brought for threshing and vining to two large stations at Filby and Upton. Each batch of vined peas was tested with a tenderometer and graded 1 to 6. Periodically tenderometers were checked against control samples provided by Unilever's Research Establishment at Colworth House in Bedfordshire.

The tenderometer, as it name implies, measured pea tenderness by forcing a set of grids through a sample of peas. The resistance caused a counter weight to rise and also a pointer to move across a scale. Greater resistance caused the weight to move higher, the pointer to move further across the scale and a higher reading

The intention was that peas would be processed, frozen and placed in cold storage within 90 minutes of vining.

At the factory peas would be further graded using salt graders and later size graders. Peas were produced in 3 very high quality categories - Green Seal (or Birde Eye), Blue Seal (or Albatross) and Red Seal (or Market Day). Normally peas Graded 1 and 2 by the tenderometer would all be processed as Green Seal, Grades 3 and 4 would be separated into Green and Blue Seals, and Grades 5 and 6 would be separated into Blue and Red Seals.

The tenderometer reading was a good guide to pea texture for processing purposes but ultimately the category of the processed pea was determined by the factory quality controllers.

In my opinion the second category of peas (Blue Seal or Albatross) produced about 50 years ago were the best in terms of appearance, colour, texture and flavour and superior to the peas now produced by Birds Eye.

Peter Mancini, Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire.

By Peter Mancini
On 16/05/2008

I worked at Birdseye. Jan 1956 just after I was married. I started on the fish fingers conveyor belt, then went on to the end of the belt on the packing machine. I worked with a chap who had one leg. One had to be quick on this machine so it didn't clog up. I also sorted peas and strawberries. It was very good pay for shift work. I earned 7 pounds a week and in those days it was a fortune.
Doris Beckett Western Australia

By Doris Beckett
On 11/01/2010

This Pathe News film featuring frozen pea production at the Birds Eye factory during the 1950s is interesting Best wishes Duncan Kirkwood

By Duncan Kirkwood
On 03/09/2010

I also worked at Birds Eye in the late 70's when my children were little and we lived very near the ferry, so it was convenient.  I hated the job really, as it was so boring.  My main concern was the awful overalls and hair nets we had to wear - I was very young and fashion conscious then!  I started off packing beef burgers off the conveyer belt into boxes.  You had to be very fast, or the beefburgers would be coming at you from everywhere!  The new shift was meant to be in place before the old shift finished, so the conveyer belt never stopped.  If someone went off before the new shift had got in their place there would be a MOUNTAIN of burgers to sort out!  The only time it stopped was when the box machine got jammed up.  I used to be fascinated with this machine, how it folded the boxes and made a perfect box.  I didn’t like the noisy machines either, and everyone else seemed to be able to lip read, but hadn’t got the hang of that yet so used to nod and say "yes" a lot.  The women had different breaks from the men, and we had a 5-minute "fag break" every hour.  I expect it was officially a loo break, as it was taken in the loos.  I didn't smoke so when the supervisor said to me "You can go for your fag break now" I said I didn’t need one.  The next time she took me by the hand and led me to the toilets, and said "You've got to stay here for 5 minutes, because if some people don't go we will lose it".  So I used to have to stand with everyone smoking all over me, I expect I stank of fags when I got home.  I think we got cheap food in the staff shop though, but I didn’t have a freezer then so it had to be burgers for tea yet again!  The best bit was the ferry ride across the river to work, I used to love that.

By Kath Jackson
On 28/01/2013

As a student, I 'worked' at Birds Eye for one season sweeping up under the French bean top & tailing machines. I was taken aside by a supervisor on my second day and told to 'slow down' as I was setting a bad precedent. Rather like Kath, I was also 'advised' I needed to take an hour's break every hour to allow the other half of the shift to do their bit. And the reason nobody clamped down on this sort of behaviour was that all the supervisors had played that game themselves when on the production line so had no leverage to enforce discipline. No wonder the factory ultimately closed, the workers (and management) brought it on themselves. And as for the machine that boxed the tin foil containers of Gravy with Sliced Roast Beef (more gravy than beef - hence the description), it was rather interesting when the foil containers stuck to the belt rather than slide into the box the machine had so precisely assembled resulting in a crushed foil container and razor thin slices of beef and sticky gravy all over the machine. From that point it just got worse and worse! And the recipe for Rissoles chalked on a blackboard next to a giant food mixer. Wow, that was something else! I seem to recall it specified tens of pounds of individual ingredients like bone meal, salt, spices and the like and a whopping 28 pounds of meat! Whilst I eat frozen veg, I've never touched a commercially produced so-called 'meat' product since.

By Jeffrey Bean
On 11/09/2013

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