Sex classes and Woolton Pies: Magic memories of Rowntree’s in words and pictures

The old Rowntree factory in York. Photographs: The Rowntree Society
3 Jun 2015 @ 7.46 pm
| History
York Remembers Rowntree

Read and listen to all the memories on The Rowntree Society website

For details of the Festival Of Ideas events about Rowntree’s, go here

At its peak, the Rowntree works was a town within a town. The factory had its own fire brigade, classrooms and sports facilities, and generations of the same families worked within its walls.

Now some marvellous memories of working at Rowntree’s have been unearthed. For the 18-month York Remembers Rowntree project, researchers recorded nearly 40 in-depth interviews with former employees. talking about their memories of Rowntree’s.

They also collected around 1,000 postcards with bite-sized reminiscences as part of the project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and hosted by the Rowntree Society.

Transcripts and recordings of the interviews are available on an interactive map on the Rowntree Society website. And the project is being celebrated with as series of events during the York Festival of Ideas – see panel for links.

Here are a few memories of Rowntrees in words and pictures…

Strict and noisy

Packers at Rowntree's
Packers at Rowntree’s
Hilda Boag was 14 when she started in the packing department in 1942. At first she wasn’t packing chocolates but dried egg powder and dried milk powder.

“Every Thursday we’d go to school across the road where the dining block was. And we’d have PE and tennis and rounders, and talks on sex and various things.”

Later Hilda was taught the trickier business of packing chocolates.

“People probably won’t remember now, it was a little box called Phantom. It was a red box – it didn’t last very long – and there would be about a quarter of a pound of chocolates in.”

It was hard not to give into temptation at first.

Some of the overlookers were very strict, watching if you popped one in your mouth. You had to be careful they didn’t see you!

Eventually you got tired, you didn’t want one.

It could be quite a noisy atmosphere.

At 10.30 every morning Music While You Work came on for half an hour. Then at half past three in the afternoon the same. We’d all be singing.

At the end of the war, Hilda was packing vitamin chocolate for men in the forces.

Sometimes we’d put a little note in. But we didn’t any answers! You put your name and address in and wished them well – wished them happy Christmas perhaps.

We’d have been in trouble if we’d been caught.

Her mum also worked at Rowntree’s.

At first she was working in what’s called Smarties now. But when she started they were called ‘Niblets’ – I’m sure that’s right.

During the war her mother worked in the secret munitions production line at the factory, “filling bombs”. She never told Hilda what she did, and died five years after the war.

Snogging and fuses

Women on the munitions line in the Rowntree factory during the Second World War
Women on the munitions line in the Rowntree factory during the Second World War

John Horsley joined during the war and started in cream packing.

I was transferred then to the fuse-filling line. And my job was to open the big boxes with lots of small aluminium canisters so that they could go into the yellow powder room – that was the thing – and be filled.

They were never told how dangerous it was, he said. But there were compensations…

One of the things I remember was, used to get very cheap lunch. And there was always one thing I used to like was called Woolton Pie, that was Lord Woolton, Ministry of Food, and it was a mixture of beef mince and vegetables…

And then we used to have the dancing in the ballroom and used to have your partners there and you’d swap over. We enjoyed things, it was different than it is now, ‘cos sex in them days was virtually banned until you were married but you could have a quick snog if nobody was looking.

You couldn’t have hot hands

That old Black Magic…
That old Black Magic…

Joan Sadler started work at Rowntree’s aged 14 in 1936. She soon became a dab hand at packing Black Magic boxes.

Before you started work, they gave you the dexterity test they would see how warm your fingers were. If your fingers, if you had hot hands you couldn’t go into the packing department.

We had to pack 48 boxes an hour. You had to cup every sweet. I can remember the design of the 4 sweets in the bottom layer, then the layer, the piece of paper you called a layer, then 8 sweets on the top, another layer and a corrugator and a guarantee with your check number on.

Workout at work – PE classes at Rowntree
Workout at work – PE classes at Rowntree

She attended PE classes and English lessons put on by the company.

When the war started she and some of the other girls were asked by a Miss Sherlock, who worked in human resources, whether they would attend dances with some of the soldiers billeted nearby.

Miss Sherlock found so many of us and wrote to our parents and said if they put on a coach, a little coach each week, or every other week, would they allow us to go out to Strensall to dance with the soldiers, and that’s what happened at the beginning of the war.

So quite a lot of us used to go out to Strensall nearly every week on a Saturday night, and then from there, you see, you’d get invited to Corporal’s Mess and Sergeant’s Mess.

Not much of a wage


Muriel Grey was another recruit straight from school.

I started Rowntree’s at 14 year old and I used to work from half-past seven to half-past five and Saturday mornings. I got for all that work, eleven and six pence and I gave my mother 10 shilling and it was 4d for a stamp and one and tupence pocket money.

I went into Card Box department. I was making fancy boxes and they were with tassels and ribbon and the one I was making had several sections for different kinds of chocolate and sweets. That was in 1940.

Two youngsters try out one of the tests staff had to take during interviews at a York Remembers Rowntree event
Two youngsters try out one of the tests staff had to take during interviews at a York Remembers Rowntree event

Later Muriel worked in the wages department – to get the job, she recalled, “I had to fit things, in holes in a thing like a child’s toy”. The work was challenging and she enjoyed the breaks from her desk at day school.

We were glad to go out of the factory. We went along to the dining block and there was a teacher called Doris. And she used to read to us in this sort of orchard part.

And she read The Secret Garden. Which to me, to this day is my favourite. And she would read so many paragraphs and then we had to go back to work.

Star turn

Jean Scott began her career aged 15 as a messenger and found the scale of the factory daunting at first:

That and the amount of noise, of, because you’d to go down that main corridor, which was quite a hard surface so there would be pallets and you know, there was quite a little bit of noise.

And music playing for the women in the factory.

Una Stubbs stars in a Dairy Milk TV advert
Una Stubbs stars in a Dairy Milk TV advert

Later she joined the advertising department and met a star.

It was when Una Stubbs was the dairy box girl. And she came to visit Rowntree’s and of course was shown everywhere but then was having tea with the advertising manager.

Jean was allowed to ask Una one question when she took tea and biscuits into the meeting…

What on earth am I going to ask her? But I was very impressed by the adverts and she had these tight capri pants so when I walked in and I was introduced to her, and I said “Can I ask you where you got those capri pants from?”

I can’t remember her answer ’cos I think I was too over-awed…

Memorabilia from the Joseph Rowntree Theatre are among more than 300 items donated to York Remembers Rowntree
Memorabilia from the Joseph Rowntree Theatre are among more than 300 items donated to York Remembers Rowntree

She also recalls the leisure activities put on by Rowntree’s for staff.

At lunchtime we could jive, which was great because there was somebody putting records on over at the Dining Block.

We could go to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre where they put a film on so by the end of the five-day week you had seen the film and you paid tuppence a day.

There was also the Joseph Rowntree Library and you could actually take out LP records to play at home as well as books.

It was your social life as well as work, you know, it was just that kind of place. Some of my best friends are girls that were at Rowntree’s with me and I absolutely loved it.