I was there : The Longbridge canteen

Noted Car Designer Steve Harper began his career at Longbridge as an Austin Apprentice. Here he takes us over to Bristol Road in order to remind us what lunchtimes used to be like…

How times have changed…


Steve Harper: Chips ‘n’ gravy

Pie, chips and gravy

Lunchtimes were always a bit of a treat at Longbridge. Well, I say that, but that depended upon which side of the wall you fell. By the wall, that was literally the case in the Main canteen, on the corner of Bristol Road, opposite ‘K’ Gate.

Here, there was a huge hall of clattering knives and forks, capable of easily seating 400 or 500 people, which opened its doors to all from 12.00pm to 1.30pm. This building also became a venue for evening cabaret, works announcements, and even had a social club on the ground level below.

Up a wide flight of well-trodden concrete steps, you had the ‘Works Main Canteen’ which featured a forest of simple Formica tables, and uncomfortable metal legged chairs. People, most in greasy overalls, queued in front of a big dispensing counter at the far end, which was not unlike an Army Mess Hall or at your old school dinners.

The universal soundtrack

The sound of mass munching was only broken occasionally, when some unfortunate soul dropped a tray or plate. The cacophony of jeers and cat-calls ran out as loud as on a Saturday afternoon at the Holte End. However, if you were staff, then you went through a single discrete door in the middle of an 8ft high wall, which separated the three quarters against one quarter of the canteen.

By contrast, in there, you were served by waitresses in smart black dresses and white pinnies with little white hats. There were clean glass jugs on each table, with fresh water, and four neatly placed Duralex glasses and cutlery, set out like a posh Sunday lunch. It was a waitress service, with a printed menu, rather than having to queue for your dinner.

Simply put, that classic industrial us and them was as evident at lunch, as for most other things in the factory.

The class system in action

The difference was that, on one side you had the grubby blue overalls, ‘toe-tector’ boots and cow-gowns, and on the other side you had people in their office wear: the best that Foster Brothers or Man at C&A or Marks and Spencer could offer. Flared corduroy trousers, plaid jackets and, if you were lucky a Ben Sherman shirt, with a jazzy kipper tie.

There was a second canteen at the bottom end of the CAB Buildings, and this was a slightly different affair. Once again there were two separate sections for staff and the workers. In this case the kitchen was in the middle, so the two areas of the building were separated from each other by a common kitchen serving the same food, along counters either side of the steaming kitchens.

Basically, the two canteens were fairly identical, however on the staff side, you paid a penny more for your dinner, and for that you had a few pot plants and a Lyons Maid fridge full of Zooms, Fabs and Cornish Mivvis.

Unwanted guests

Both sides featured the unwelcome fly-bys of an established family of sparrows which chirped away up in the rafters. It was not uncommon to hear someone’s cry of ‘feckin sparras’ when one had pooped on their head or in their food.

The food, as it was, was a fairly standard English fayre of meat, fish, pie or other things with vegetables. Well, you could call them vegetables, as it was usually a congealed dollop of something dished out by a fag smoking crone, that resembled cabbage, carrots or peas. Though there was never anything as exotic as broccoli or, God forbid, a SALAD. This was the 1970s, back in the days when people believed that spaghetti grew on trees.

Then, along the counter, as you dragged your aluminium tray along, unlike school, there were always chips. Wow a choice, you could have boiled, mash or chips and, to follow that, next in line there were jugs of thick ol’ gravy.

Now, gravy on chips, that’s a luxury…

Mmmm… pudding

Apple crumble and custard

Finally, there was the pudding section, with such treats as apple crumble, rhubarb pie and custard or classics like spotted dick. Many years later, when I was working in the Styling Department, we discovered that there was a ‘super canteen’. This was housed in the Main Building by the ‘Q’ Gate factory entrance.

This was an amazing building with an imposing semi-circular façade and the ‘Austin’ name proudly above the doors, flanked either side by the Royal Appointment heralds. Inside the entrance, it was filled with scale models from the notable cars modelled in brass, in neatly arranged glass cabinets.

It was the domain for the senior management, so this ‘Restaurant’ had tablecloths and unmistakably a chef. He stood at the side of the Hall, with his pristine white overalls and tall fluted hat, adding an air of uniqueness to the proceedings.

We had the opportunity to be there on an evening, on a couple of occasions, especially if we were working a ‘ghoster’, an all-night shift, in the Studio, to prepare the clay models for a major review. Then the chef would stay behind, to prepare an evening meal, which was usually a fry up: bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, black pudding, etc.

This was a different world to a clatter of the Works Main canteen, this was refined luxury, this was definitely us and them.

18 Comments

  1. ” Well, you could call them vegetables, as it was usually a congealed dollop of something dished out by a fag smoking crone, that resembled cabbage, carrots or peas.”

    YES! “Cabbage! Carrots! Peas!” – exactly what the ‘crone’ chanted at the school canteen
    when I was at Totnes Grammar school in the 1950s. The dining room was where the local members of the RAOB – the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo – would meet. Great stags’ heads looked down on us as we ate our stodge covered in high viscosity gravy and custard.

  2. Thank you, Steve; substantial echos of a very similar setup at Rover’s Meteor Works, Solihull, back in the day. For myself, I chose to go to the Sports Club at lunchtime, in company with a pal who was an inspector on the Range Rover Finishing Line. Our routine was two pints and a pork pie with an occasional packet of crisps or peanuts; alternatively, some rather nice sandwiches. We had comfortable armchairs to sit in at a small circular table, with a view out over the playing fields. All very convivial and, to our mind, a distinct improvement on the staff canteen in the main works, as it was nice to have a complete change of scene.

    My flamboyantly-mustachioed boss decided that, for reasons only he knew, he didn’t like me going there and tried to force me to change and to have my lunch at my desk. Given that I was a staff member – and therefore not receiving any overtime pay, simply an annual salary and that I was generally working six days a week and not infrequently seven – I took exception to his demands, which proved a catalyst for my decision to move elswhere. For that I have to thank him, for without that and a couple of other factors, I probably wouldn’t have been living in Australia for the past 50 years!

  3. Reminds me of reports that when Toyota started in the UK occasionally you would find Japanese employees putting custard on their chips – understandable given how dissimilar the cuisines are. When I worked at International House the building was shared with Peugeot and some Land Rover staff were known to slip over to their restaurant/canteen since French catering standards were somewhat higher….

    • A bit like when I worked for Eastern Electricity, the restaurant at Wherstead Park where all the directors worked had the best grub, but it was hit and miss at Rayleigh and Bury St Edmunds (they use to publish the weekly menus just to tease you!). If we could get a meeting room (in the Georgian part of the building) at Wherstead we would always grab it with both hands, but that was as rare as a 9 Bob note.

    • My Dad went on a business trip to the USA in 1985 he & some fellow workers stayed at the same hotel & had a buffet breakfast. One of them nearly poured raw waffle batter onto his breakfast thinking it was custard! Luckily a waiter noticed in time!

  4. What a great reminder of the “us and them” attitude that prevailed in those days . As a computer operator working in GOB we not only enjoyed the staff canteen with waitress service we also enjoyed a very special perk as a result of our job .
    Someone managed to convince the management that as we worked a 24 hour shift system we could not leave the computers unattended for “toilet breaks “ which required a short walk along GOB. So outside of office hours us lowly operators were priveledged to have use of the “ manager”s toilets . These were locked and we were given key access where we were amazed to find they had “soft toilet tissue “.
    Even in those days we found it strange that managers had such a benefit .

    • When my father worked at Dagenham, they went out on strike in time because they found out that the management had coloured soft toilet paper and they the had nasty stuff.

      The gravy/custard mix up reminds me of when as a kid in the 80s we went to Butlins out if season for a 11 a side football competition with my brothers team. It was spring half term, so all the staff were fresh and new, though not exactly “local”. Our waitress was from somewhere on the continent (could never find out where) and her English was non existent. Our first evening we had roast pork, with mystery veg, and rather congealed gravy. One of the dads asked if he could have some more gravy, but it didn’t show during the main course. We are having dessert, spotted dick with custard when she comes out with the gravy saying “gravy yes” and had to be stopped from ruining dessert! Fair to say I have never been back as I found the food worse than school!

  5. Lyons Maid fridge full of Zooms, Fabs and Cornish Mivvis

    That had me laughing out loud for ages, as that was just what our local cinema had, when I went every Saturday afternoon for the Children’s Film Foundation serial, cartoons and a Film, those were the days, but we were lucky we also had Mr Men lollies… LOL

  6. Wonderful yarn which reminded me of my several visits to Longbridge in the mid to late 90s and the wonderful Brummies I met there in both ‘staff’ and ‘worker’ roles. Never visited a canteen, though.
    In a previous life, I recall a senior HR auto industry executive who was tasked with ending the ‘old’ them and us’ perks, such as management car park spaces closest to the main entrance door and separate management and worker canteens, as, with encouragement from the newer, Japanese side of the joint venture, Japanese style – ‘all in this together’ integration was being introduced – they stopped short of a universal uniform being worn by both management and lone workers as seen in some operations in Japan.
    My HR contact achieved this with not a little success but told me wryly of initially receiving flak from senior management now forced to compete for car park spaces on a first come, first serve basis and eat the same food served from the same kitchens at the same canteen tables as the blue collar folk.
    Eventually it all sorted itself out and he was rewarded with a lucrative promotion to go on and achieve some of the same sort of change at an English unit of the vast parent company, after his former MD boss was promoted to greater things at the European operation.

  7. The whole them and us culture of the seventies and, to a lesser extent, the eighties seems laughable now, particularly as many companies have a more egalitarian approach to catering services: they don’t have any or expect everyone to queue to use a couple of microwaves. Otherwise, most people eat in the same canteen, regardless of grade, and those companies that retain a full canteen often offer something far more healthy than chips, pies, gravy and overcooked veg.

    • It’s a bit like that at the office I work in, where support staff & solicitors with law degrees share the same facilities.

  8. I visited Longbridge as a supplier frequently in the 90s Occasionally we would end up having lunch in the canteen close to the elephant house. I don’t remember the food, but all the chairs were upholstered in that orange stripey deckchair moquette from the MGB / Marina.

  9. An awful lot of the industrial unrest in this era was down to this us and them attitude – In that respect Management (if you could call it that!) was just as much to blame as the Unions, this was all swept away by Japanese transplants as everyone became an “Associate” and had similar terms and conditions – if differing pay packets. The good old days? – not really.

    • @ Paul, the canteens at Longbridge were probably typical of the them and us attitude in many workplaces until 30 years ago. Everyone was seperated by grade, with manual workers having the worst conditions and the poorest choices on the menu, while management had waitress service, alcohol and three course meals. No wonder a lot of workers became fed up and started listening to union militants who said they were on their side.

  10. Love this article.

    Having done sourcing (amongst many other weird and wonderful things) for many organisations one thing I learned was when doing catering is that in manufacturing that the healthy option is like specifying a handbrake on a canoe – no demand for it!

    Good chips and you are popular 🙂

  11. Same when I worked at Hepworth & Grandage in the 70’s where I served my apprenticeship (of Hepolite and Powermax pistons fame). Works and Staff canteens then the Directors dining room where they served drinks. When working in the drawing office used to still see my mates in the works canteen instead of the staff one. My ex-wife once had lunch in the directors dining room as a visiting Manager from the local Jobcentre while I had lunch with my mates in the works canteen.

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