The History of Freemans
"The whole place was enormous, it was so big you'd think you were going in the cathedral"
In the late Sixties Freemans, already one of the top five catalogues in the country, decided to look for a base to create a massive new distribution centre...
They planned the largest warehouse in Europe, but it had to be central to road and, most importantly, rail links. At that time Peterborough had just been designated a New Town with space to offer and flexible planning laws. But it was serendipity that one day a Freemans’ management team bumped into Charles Swift, leader of the Council, railway driver and passionate New Town enthusiast. Did he know of a likely location? Of course he did!
The old Westwood airfield beside the railway offered a perfect location. In next to no time the land was leased, a warehouse planned, topped out and built, and on 31st October 1968 Company Chairman Tony Rampton declared it open with a golden key.
"We all had blue overalls. And the factory was ginormous, we had to ride bikes around"
ON THE WAY UP
Mail order catalogues started in the nineteenth century with the spread of the railway system. The first catalogues mainly sold seeds and books, but soon included clothes and other household items. The leading exponent was Sears in the US.
However, Freemans, started in 1905, was one of Britain’s earliest and soon became its largest with over 30,000 agents.
By the post-war boom it was one of the big five along with Littlewoods, Grattan, Empire and Kays. Freemans was one of the first catalogues to include colour photography and telephone ordering and the very first mail order business to be floated on the stock market.
In 1988 the Company was taken over by Sears, but they promoted the Freemans brand and increased the business by taking on distribution for other companies.The 80s and 90s were the high point of the catalogue business.
At its peak the Warehouse accommodated a workforce of over 3,000, and the majority were women, often from the same family.
Freemans offered a shift system that particularly suited female employees, especially if they had children and needed to juggle home commitments: women working on the afternoon shift would often look after their friend’s children in the morning and those working in the mornings would return the favour when their shift finished at lunch time.
Many of the jobs were offered on a six month temporary basis. Often the intention was to stay for the Christmas period to make the most of the toys on offer in the staff shop, however the reality was, that many women stayed for years and become permanent members of staff.
And just as Peterborough’s population was both increasing and becoming more diverse, so did Freemans’ workforce. In 1972, Asian families were expelled from Uganda, and Peterborough was one of the first, often controversially, to offer them welcome, and many of the women found themselves at Freemans.
“I speak Urdu and
Punjabi, but if
somebody spoke to me
in their language, and I
understood it, I would
always answer back in
PICKING & PACKING
The workforce was divided into various departments.
Goods In took in every sort of item from suppliers from all over the world, all monitored by Storage and Stock control. The pickers then selected the items ordered and put them on a conveyor belt to deliver them down chutes to the packers. The work was often very physical and involved “picking and packing” heavy items such as drills and sets of saucepans.
Every 20 minutes the packers were presented with a new set of items, the quantity of which depended on your grade. A woman could choose to be high grade and handle a lot of items or low grade to receive fewer, work slower or gain a few minutes for a cigarette break within her 20 minutes. The top workers managed to do both!
The forty years of the Distribution Centre covered one of the most active periods of technological change, with the introduction of new machinery, computers and other communications progress.
Almost no one escaped some facet of this advancement.
STOPS, STARTS & RETURNS
A conveyor belt had been constructed right over the railway mainline so that parcels could be transferred directly to the Post Office Parcel Office.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland and other later actions brought different interruptions. If it was a fire evacuation, everyone went out into the grounds around the warehouse, and usually let back in after the proper checks had been made. But a bomb threat meant that everyone had to be moved further away to the car park, which meant that security couldn’t carry out any security checks!
Perhaps the most notorious department was ‘Returns’ which received items back from customers because of being the wrong size, unsuitable, or whatever the customer decided! This resulted in some strange occurrences - the stories are legion and speak for themselves…
"We found a bag of prawns and a membership card for a strip club in a man's pocket, with a note from the wife saying it hadn't been worn because it was substandard. So we sent the jacket, prawns and strip club card back to her!"
Freemans was almost completely unionised and little changed without the agreement of both Unions and Management.
The 70s and 80s were highpoints of Trade Union activity and, like many other companies, Freemans had its share of walk outs and disputes over pay, conditions and demarcation.
However, unlike most, Freemans was also extremely vulnerable to strikes in outside agencies such as the Post Office and the railways, each of which could severely damage its core business. Eventually Freemans created its own carrier service and lorry fleet to reduce its dependence on other agencies.
“One woman, she laid in front of a lorry… They couldn’t do anything, but she refused to get up and they had to turn the lorry away”
THE FREEMANS FIVE
THE TIME OF OUR LIFE
“If I hadn’t worked at Freemans, I wouldn’t have been able to buy my own house.”
Talk to anyone who worked at Freemans and they are bound to have a story to tell. It could be their first job, a temporary holiday cover, or the start of a long career and sometimes it was life-changing.
THE STAFF SHOP
Everyone who ever worked at Freemans talks about “the shop”!
It sold some of the returns, if they were still in reasonable condition, and items that were ex-stock or had gone out of fashion – all at considerable discounts with bargain days sometimes increasing reductions to 75% off. Goods included fashion, toys, bedding, jewellery, kitchenware, furniture, carpets, televisions, stereos and even lawn mowers! If it was sold in the catalogue, then it could end up in the shop.
Only open out-of-work time, word soon spread when discounts were offered, and staff would run from the warehouse to the shop to secure their place in the queue.
The company reserved the right to search employees for stolen goods as they left work and being pulled in for a search could result in missing out on the bargains in the shop but refusing to be searched could result in dismissal.
“I am still wearing a dress I bought in Freemans staff shop. It was a Selfridges dress and it was long and black and full of sequins. Oh, it’s beautiful! And I still take it when we go on cruises these days.”
“You’d walk in and it was all neat, everything was hanging or on the shelves and by the time everybody walked out it was all on the floor.”
FREEMANS - ON THE WAY DOWN
The writing was on the wall for Catalogues with the rise of the credit card, which made credit terms universally available. Then the arrival of the internet revolutionised the act of shopping from the comfort of your own home.
It was then the infamous Philip Green, backed by the Barclay Brothers, stepped in and told Sears they had the wrong strategy and should sell Freemans to him. He promised that he was in for the long haul and wasn’t interested in a quick profit.
As the January Investments accounts of 31st January 2000 show, Green immediately sold Freemans to Otto Versand of Germany making a profit of£221 million. Otto’s owned Grattan’s catalogue and rumours started about which company would predominate.
But the memories carry on at the Retirement Club and the Trust that was set up in the name of its first Chairman, Tony Rampton, to look after past employees in their old age.