The day Sunshine went out of the lives of Gorleston people - and hundreds of jobs were lost
- Credit: Chris Hopkins’ Matthes Collection
It was the day the Sunshine faded from the lives of many folk in the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston area, and far beyond.
What had seemed a well-established and thriving former family business suddenly closed. The decision to axe the entire Matthes empire was an economic bombshell affecting many families.
Hundreds lost their jobs locally. The bakery in Gorleston’s Englands Lane was closed, as were shops far and wide.
Also shuttered were its restaurant and function suite in Yarmouth’s King Street - later occupied by the Great Yarmouth Mercury staff - and the Englands Lane shop with reception room above.
The family enterprise was launched in 1898, 120 years ago. It all went stale 40 years ago this Spring.
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Sunshine was the name of the bread baked by Matthes, a brand leader in the town where it was founded and a big seller in other parts of East Anglia to which the company spread.
It seemed inconceivable it would ever close, bringing disappointment to its customers and the harsh reality of redundancy to a large workforce in its bakery, support and transport departments and widespread shops.
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In 1974 the giant Spillers Foods took over Matthes’ bakeries and shops, staffed by 1,800 employees in total, nearly 700 of them in East Norfolk... and four years later closed the entire enterprise!
Many branded the Spillers’ decision as cynical and typical of big business crushing opponents with total disregard for their heritage, staff, popularity, efficiency and importance to local economies.
MPs took up the cause, a delegation went to Whitehall, residents added their support to efforts to persuade Spillers to rethink. But despite the anger, deep down it was felt that it was all a lost cause.
Nobody likes to see a local business shutting up shop because they have become old friends, familiar employers in our everyday lives.
Although major competitor Purdy’s on North Quay in Yarmouth and smaller family bakers hereabouts probably managed to maintain their traditional doorstep delivery after their major rival vanished, and benefitted from its demise, housewives were pessimistic about how long it would last in the climate of change and so-called progress.
At the peak of Matthes’ dominance, hundreds of thousands of loaves were being baked weekly at its plants in Gorleston and Norwich, in addition to cakes and confectionery. Every night a fleet of bulk transporters delivered to 13 distribution centres throughout East Anglia.
A few years later Spillers shut the entire company, including the bakery and a chain of 37 shops in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
One could not help but wonder why Spillers acquired Matthes in the first place, or why the Norfolk baker had accepted the take-over, but whatever the motives, it evoked anger and resentment among townsfolk, even those who were neither redundant employee nor loyal customer.
In those days, before the advent of the all-powerful supermarket, bakers and milkmen called at homes either daily or three or four times a week.
In my childhood, the Matthes roundsman arrived at our Gorleston home by horse-drawn cart every other day, delivering bread, cakes and pastries. The milkman from Long’s Dairy called daily, long before we were up. The greengrocer visited every week.
Of course, few households had cars in that era, so anything delivered saved carrying home heavy bags on the bus, or walking if the shop and customer were not on a bus route.
The Matthes family moved from London to Gorleston in 1898, taking over the Englands Lane bakery of a Mr Riches. Seventeen years later, the first delivery van was bought - a Ford (EX176).
A new confectionery factory was built in a meadow across the road in 1929, and expansion across East Anglia followed.
And in 1938 the Sunshine Bakery was erected beside the confectionery factory.
I am grateful to ex-Matthes driver Chris Hopkins, 70, of Laburnum Close, Bradwell, for supplying photographs and information.