Meet Shirley Cordner Part 1

On the day I was born in Peterborough – 31st March 1956 – my Mum turned up at the Gables Maternity Home in a black car decorated with white wedding ribbons and with a ‘Just Married’ sign hanging on the back. Seeing her condition as she climbed out of the car, the nurses welcomed her with a hearty round of applause! Being Easter Saturday, the taxis had been booked decorated for weddings.
My Dad breathed a sigh of relief, glad to see me. As I was late arriving, he had been worried that if I didn’t come before 1st April, he’d miss out on his tax refund.
Eighteen months later, my brother Terry was born. This time it was a home delivery. We were lucky to live near the city park which became our adventure playground. As cars were few and far between in those days, we could also play out in the street.
My Mum tells me that our milk was brought to us by horse and cart and I was allowed to feed the horse everyday. When I got measles and had to stay in bed, the horse refused to budge from our front door until I was brought out to it wrapped in a blanket.
Nothing particularly memorable happened during my school years, but when I left and wanted to join the Police Force, I was refused because I needed to wear glasses, not allowed at that time. So I went to Southfields Catering College in Leicester for 2 years and studied Catering Management whilst living at the YMCA along with other students. During that time, I can remember us organising the odd march for higher student grants.
But to pay my way I worked weekends and holidays at a Co-op Filling Station. We filled the cars with petrol, checked oil, wiped windscreens, and took their money and Co-op Dividend number. It was there that I met my partner for the next 30 years. Michael Addison was born in Wereham and spent his childhood around Northwold. When he was 16 his family moved to Peterborough.
On leaving College my first position was with Lyons as a trainee manager in the shop at the foot of St. Paul’s cathedral in London. Shop and tea rooms were upstairs with a large restaurant downstairs, which filled daily with office workers paying with luncheon vouchers. A Lyons cup of tea had to be perfect, so before serving the public, we had to pass our Tea Making Certificate.
On my first night, I was told to sit on the kitchen worktops with the rest of the staff and the Chef came round with a large steam hose and blasted under the ovens. I was shocked to see the floor become a moving mass of black cockroaches.
But I soon found London a lonely place and became homesick. So after 6 months I returned to Peterborough and joined M&S in the food section for the very busy Christmas period. The best part was at the end of the day when we could buy ‘out of date’ food for half price. It helped pay the rent for my board.

After Christmas I was offered a trainee manager’s position in the food department, and put in charge of the cake and biscuit stands. Everday, a planogram would be faxed from Head Office. The cake stands had to look identical around the country, with swiss rolls centre stage and fast moving items at the end of the carousels.
Although M&S was a very good company to train with, this wasn’t my preferred career, so I applied to local companies for a Catering Manager position and was lucky when Perkins Engines took me on their apprenticeship scheme.
At that time, the company employed 12,000 people and provided 3,000 hot meals in the main canteen every 24 hours. They had 4 smaller factories around Peterborough and I started in one of those, cooking 300 meals a day. After 6 months I was relocated to the main canteen. It had a huge kitchen with 60 catering staff and 20 chefs.
All food was home-made. Vegetables came in fresh every morning and 10 ladies stood at freezing cold sinks preparing sprouts and peeling carrots, etc. A daily delivery of 80 stone of potatoes was prepared every morning by 9.0 am, first being ‘rumbled’, then ‘eyed’ and cut up for boiling, mash or chips.
1,000 ham or egg rolls had to be ready for 10.0 am shop floor tea break, which meant that 500 boiled eggs were peeled every morning, and smelt awful.
In those days, hourly paid workers had to belong to the Union as it was a closed shop. This included canteen workers who had their own shop steward. Just about every day, most management time was spent negotiating with the Unions over trivialities. When things went wrong our shop steward would blow a whistle and shout ‘All out’, which usually happened 2 minutes before the men rushed in for lunch. We had to lock the doors and let all the food go to waste.
Perkins held a yearly Sports and Social day hosted by a ‘celebrity’. It attracted thousands of families. In the hot summer of 1976, I entered the 3-legged Obstacle Race with a lady chef. We practised for weeks, determined to beat the factory apprentices. We won outright but were bitterly disappointed when ‘diddy David Hamilton’ (radio 1 DJ) refused to give us our medal. It had started raining, and he didn’t want to get his dark green velvet suit wet.
One of the smaller canteens with huge solid oven ranges, and with just 200 seats, needed to be refurbished and was closed for service. One Thursday at 4.0 pm the whole canteen blew up leaving a huge crater the size of a car park. Not a single piece of equipment was found, but claims for broken windows, smashed cars and broken garden sheds came from residents miles away.
By pure luck, no-one was killed. The men who usually rushed out at the 4.0 pm bell were delayed by 2 minutes as it was Pay Day!
It was believed that the cause was a cracked gas pipe leaking and filling the building with gas which was ignited by a spark from the 4 o’clock bell. Of course, we kept the firemen supplied with food and hot drinks for days. It was a sight never to be forgotten.

I worked at Perkins for 14 years, starting as a trainee and finishing as General Manager of all catering sites. But when outside caterers were employed instead of In-house Staff, I was made redundant.
So, in 1988, I went to Butlins in Minehead, Somerset, as a General Manager over all the catering that had to be paid for. A different manager looked after the free ‘inclusive’ meals.
At that time it was the largest residential holiday park in Europe, sleeping 10,000 guests and with a staff of 1,000. I had 14 restaurants to manage 24/7 for 9 months of the year, together with 25 ice cream stands and mobile hot dog and potato stands. The restaurants included a 400-seater pizza house, 250 seat fish restaurant, 3 x 300 seat fast food venues, 400 seat traditional English restaurant, 200 settings in the a la carte cabaret restaurant. Besides the 10,000 residents, we also fed 5,000 day visitors and 2,000 staff.
As well as myself, there were 2 managers, 14 restaurant managers and 200 catering staff. In those days, the staff were on poor temporary contracts, low pay and very basic accommodation, so staff turnover was very high. It upset me that so many were from orphanages. Made homeless at 16, they roamed around holiday camps to find somewhere to live as well as work.
The camp was alive with music and noisy people 24hrs a day. One night, when on the night shift, I went to the Medical Centre at 3.0 am for a quiet cup of tea. That was when I saw the black body bags, as it was normal to have 10 deaths a week in peak season. Bodies were moved from their cabins at 3.0 am so that other holiday makers wouldn’t be disturbed. This is the National norm for a population of 10,000, especially when men had played with the kids all day, and then partied all night. But Butlins were very caring and professional when dealing with a death, and helped the family with all arrangements.
Minehead was the largest resort with lovely countryside, but Bognor Regis had the best entertainment. It was a pleasure to meet a number of ‘stars’. Barry White was our top act, Little and Large, Shane Richie and Billie Jo Spears also performed. Ray Reardon was our resident snooker player.
During the winter months, all Senior Managers went recruiting in the North, spending a week out, staying in a different town each day. My first day recruiting was in Manchester. We arrived by taxi at the ‘dole office’ where we had booked Interview Rooms. Seeing this long queue snaking round the block, I thought a film star was in town, but all these youngsters were queueing for a Butlins job! Each Department had a separate room with as many tables as would fit in. The youngsters were asked where they wanted to be working and sent to the right Interview Room.
We needed 1,000 recruits for a new season to supplement the staff who returned. Bars got the good-looking ones, chalet cleaners were known as Chalet Monsters, Fairground and Pools had athletic males, catering had anyone with 2 arms and 2 legs. Although one year I had a lad with a wooden leg! So later in the year on an arranged date, the recruits were brought in to Minehead on buses from each of the towns.

Everyday was eventful. We had a number of IRA bomb hoax scares when we had to evacuate every building. During my second year, an Arsonist targeted the camp. After a few small fires, one night he succeeded in burning down a very large theatre.
At Christmas, guests would arrive with their own Xmas trees and decorate their chalets. Every Friday night, any one in a suit got chucked in the pool by drunken guests. I did manage to avoid that!
I loved living in Minehead. It is surrounded by beautiful villages such as Dunster, Porlock and Selworthy, with their well-maintained historic buildings, thatched cottages and tea rooms. The Quantock Hills surround the town and were a delight to go walking through to get to the sea front. While waiting to move into my house, I rented a flat above the Blue Anchor railway station house. It was like living in the past. The steam train would stop regularly outside the flat filling it with white steam, the smell of soot, and the whooshing noise from the engine. It was very nostalgic.
The Somerset Hunt was active in the 80’s. I found it very distressing to see a beautiful stag being chased to death. The full hunt in all its colours was a sight to see when they rode through the centre of Minehead on Boxing Day, but not such a delight when walking the dog up in the hills one bumped into them.
Time to change jobs again. This time I became an Essex girl and moved to Colchester as General Manager for the 4 BT restaurants in the area. But I think this is enough for one reading, and I will entertain you with what happened there in the next edition of the Pump. Watch out for it!
Shirley Cordner

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