Some years after retiring as manager of the Ambrosia Works in Lapford, Bill Sutton decided to write a short history of the place that had been his labour of love for 36 years (1932-1968).
The piece was originally titled The Rise and Fall of Lapford Creamery, but he had a change of mind. It seems he couldn’t quite bring himself to write about the factory’s closure eight years after his retirement. It had been his passion; he shared in the pain of its loss. Bill hand amended the title of the article to The Rise of Lapford Creamery.
The article is published, here, for the first time, made possible by Bill’s daughter, Mary, who has kindly donated her father’s original script to the Lapford Village Archive.
In 1917 a London business-man (Alfred Morris) took a taxi from Paris to visit his son Oscar, who had been wounded in the fighting and he had as a fellow-passenger an American named Hatmaker who was in France to teach them to dry milk by the Hatmaker-Just Method.
Mr. Morris had lost business in Germany (he was in the leather trade) and when Hatmaker suggested that he should start a roller-drying business in England he was more than interested. On his return he visited Wales where he had fishing interests, and put to his fishermen friends the suggestion that he would like to build a creamery there. This suggestion was frowned upon, and he then came to Launceston and discussed it with the Miller family, who owned hotels in the area. The White Hart, Launceston and the Arundell of Lifton were both owners of fishing rights, and Mr. Morris had fished there for several years.
Lifton in Devon, as opposed to Launceston in Cornwall, was selected and with Mr. Hatmaker as a fellow-director a start was made. Mr. Hatmaker suggested inviting a few food scientists to joia them, and Lord Luke – the inventor of Bovril – was the first to be brought in.
Oscar Morris was still in the Forces and could not take any part, but a daughter – later to be Mrs. Tony Cox – was the first canvasser, and when she had obtained a guarantee of fifty gallons a day a start was made. (Mr. and Mrs. Cox later lived at Elston House, Chulmleigh.) Tony Cox was a director of Messrs. Cox & Company, manufacturing chemists of Brighton.
I well remember the start, as I used to visit Launceston regularly. After the first rush of enthusiasm, there was a regrettable campaign to get Mr. Morris interned because of his German connections. He was a man of great charm and integrity, and the affair soon collapsed. Damaglou of Lapford later had to suffer in the same way in the Second World War. He was. not allowed to go through the station yard to reach his home; later he left us for Belfast, where he was not restricted in any way.)
The factory supplied powder for the Forces and all went well until the 1918 armistice. Then it appeared to the farmers that, with the end of the war, no powder would be needed. At this time there was some delay in payment, and I well remember the rumour spreading, with terrific rapidity, ‘Ambrosia is bankrupt’. Farmers were very worried about the future, but Mr. Morris was not to be beaten so easily. He engaged two first-class representatives who were able to persuade the authorities to use Ambrosia in child welfare clinics. Ambrosia was a name suggested by Hatmaker, copied from an American firm; no trouble was experienced in the use of this name until we sent puddings to the United States later on.
Mr. Alfred Morris’s influence was more than average. A Liberal, he stood for Brighton during one General Election; although defeated, he was highly respected in Government circles.
As business increased, Ambrosia was made at Langport in Somerset (Halletts’ Creameries) but effluent problems cropped up and it was decided to build another Creamery in Devon. Hatherleigh was selected, and shares were bought in the light railway there. This, however, fell through, and Yeoford was the next place to be considered; but the local council said that the roads were too narrow, so attention was turned to Lapford.
Consent was forthcoming, as with building and quarrying already at Lapford it was considered to be suitable for industry. Even now it was a case of small lorries, and one-ton vehicles had to be used. Later we went to thirty hundredweight, then to two-ton, and finally to five and seven-ton vehicles, although in many cases the roads were then, as now, the same width as in 1928.
Solomon & Renny contracted to build the Lapford creamery for £15,000. Extras came to £2,000. Their accounts were held by me until recently.
The first manager was a Mr. Mannington, who held the licence of the Yeo Vale Hotel. He lasted for about two years; he was succeeded by a Mr. Lavender from Langport, who stayed until 1932, when I was appointed. The interview was held in the firm’s London office, and I was asked questions such as ‘Can you be sure you can get five hundred farms on the books? At the moment we have one hundred, and they are gradually dropping off’. With the self-confidence of a thirty-year-old I said ‘Yes’. We reached 1,120 twenty years later. Another question was ‘Can you lead a staff of one hundred? Although you will be called Manager, we shall expect you to be a leader’. In fact, the staff reached three hundred at the peak.
By this time (1932) Oscar Morris was the Managing Director, and I had to serve under him at Lifton for three months before taking over at Lapford. At this time we had the idea of turning the Lifton village pub (the Arundell) into a first-class hotel, and I assisted in the transformation.
Mr. Morris’s other hunches included:-
- A creamery at Honiton. We inspected a site. It came into being thirty-five years later.
- A cheese factory at North Tawton. I got out plans and a quotation for plant and machinery. Twenty years later we have seen Express Dairies build there.
Mr. Oscar Morris often started work in his office at 6.30a.m. and was a tremendous worker for some hours; then he was off to hunting or fishing, having done more in a comparatively short time than many a stolid nine-till-five businessman. His fellow Directors never understood this.
When I moved to Lapford in June 1932 I was given full charge and told that I would have to be responsible for all that happened. Luckily, I found some good men and women there and those I engaged backed me to the full. The country was still in the depression period of the nineteen-thirties, and the going was tough. I worked in the factory during the day, and called on farmers during the evening. A Mr. Channon had been the Chemist at Lapford; while awaiting his replacement, I had to fill the dual role of Manager and Chemist for some time, as I had formerly been a dairy chemist and bacteriologist with United Dairies.
Channon had suggested the canning of cream to increase business and had laid the foundations for this, but I was left with the job of getting the scheme going. The first can went through on the 20th July 1932. Mrs. Clark placed it on the line. The result was astoundingly successful, and we soon had tremendous orders. Woolworth’s stocked it in six hundred branches, and sales leaped ahead. Farmers had to buy more cows, and looking back I can see the mistakes that were made; for instance, dealers dashed off to the Midlands and bought diseased cows which gave poor milk, and we ran into all sorts of problems. Chemists were brought in, both to work in the laboratory and to control the manufacturing processes in the creamery.
Lifton then built a large canning plant and helped to cope with the demand.
In 1937 we decided to expand into other lines. Creamed Rice (another of Oscar Morris’s ideas) was to be the first, and Lifton was given the chance to start as Lapford had been the creamery to start canning cream. After a time they admitted defeat, and I was asked to get my chemists (Silverstone, Tucker, and Damaglou) to see what they could do. Within a fortnight we had produced a good pudding, and from then on we made the two products (cream and milk puddings) up to 1939, when cream-making was banned.
For the duration of the Second World War. The puddings were taken up for the War Office, Ministry of Food, and the Red Cross. Packing of National Dried Milk (skim from New Zealand) meant taking on more staff, and pudding-packing exceeded our capacity at Lapford. Premises at Winkleigh and North Tawton were used.
Staff Welfare was not forgotten during all these years, and the Social Club was a great force in the creamery and village life. The football team flourished, and in one year we played a final at St. James’s Park, Exeter. At the outbreak of war I had three cups in my office, all won by Ambrosia Football Club. Motoring, table-tennis, cricket, darts, and several other activities kept us at the top so far as morale was concerned.
The Pension Scheme, now accepted as a normal part of life, was suggested to me one night when I was touring the works to encourage the staff. When you realise that the basic wage rate was then (in the early nineteen-thirties) 32/6d. for a 48-hour week, you can well imagine that the staff needed encouragement. The engineer was Wilfred Rickerby and, although it took a lot of time and talk to get it into being, in February 1934 we started the scheme which has been of such tremendous assistance to many members.
Home Guard matters during the 1939-1945 War would mean a talk on its own, and both Lionel Parish of the village Home Guard and Oswald Sandercock of the Ambrosia Platoon could raise many a laugh if asked to speak.
UNIONS: On the subject of Unions, now part of normal life, a few words might be of interest.
When I was with United Dairies, we had no union either at Stratford E.15 or at Ilford – the two dairies for which I was responsible.
At Lapford we were approached at various times over the years, but no great interest was shown.
My approach to this matter, and the way I put it to the staff, was:- Whilst we were a family concern and the Directors were so interested in their workers, no union was needed; but if we became part of a large concern – remote in every way from the people they employed – a union might be a good thing.
Ambrosia were the first to give:-
- A fortnight’s holiday with pay.
- A Pension Scheme worthy of the name.
- A bonus for service. This ranged from 5/- to 10/- per year of service.
Mr. Alfred Morris was a pioneer in suggesting profit-sharing, but could not get his fellow directors or the members of the staff to take much interest.
W. H Sutton
I. AMBROSIA STARTED AT LAPFORD IN APRIL 1928.
This was on a Sunday, and some locals said the creamery was bound to be a failure because of this.
Mr. Alfred Morris was asked on one occasion to receive a deputation dealing with a request that there should be no milk collection or manufacturing on Sundays. He told them that surely they were elevating him to an undeserved position, as he played no part in making cows which gave milk on all seven days.
II. A HIGH TEA was held at Lapford just before the factory opened, and Alfred told the farmers that the firm would deal with 5,000 gallons of milk a day. If this figure ever got to 10,000 he would build another factory.
We dealt with up to 50,000 gallons a day, which of course meant extending the factory and providing more machinery.
Only one farmer who attended this tea-party is still alive – Henry Cheriton of the Old Rectory, Clannaborough.
III. If asked to name one item of which I was proud, it would be difficult to answer. I should have difficulty in choosing between:-
- The promotion of the Pension Scheme.
- The spotting of young people with ability and getting them into better-paid jobs, or to colleges and universities to train for degrees or diplomas.
- Succeeding in leading people, as I had so glibly told Mr. Alfred Morris I was capable of doing.
IV. PARTIES – False Teeth – Co-op Cream
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