Hotting up - How I boosted Somerleyton Hall and helped publicise Colman's

Cilla Black at Colman foods works, Norwich, 23rd January 1976.

Cilla Black at Colman foods works, Norwich, January 23 1976 - Credit: Archant Library

Journalist and Norfolk publicist Paul Thomas continues his series looking back on working with some of the county's biggest names

Five years into my publicity firm’s Norfolk life, business was booming. Tourism accounts, boating holidays, beer – and one of our earliest accounts – promoting stately Somerleyton Hall and its estate, plus Fritton Lake, for Lord William Somerleyton. 

Paying for publicity then was an adventurous step for aristocracy.

By now David Storer, my first appointed PR executive, was helping me win great coverage for our accounts and we turned our minds to raising dramatically the low number of visitors to the beautiful Somerleyton Hall – showing off its beautiful rooms, setting adults and children the challenge of finding their way into, and back out of the intriguing maze, riding the model railway and much more.

The late Lord and Lady Somerleyton in the Winter Gardens at Somerleyton Hall. Pic: Archant library

The late Lord and Lady Somerleyton in the Winter Gardens at Somerleyton Hall - Credit: Archant Library/Bill Darnell

It worked well – and Lord Bill and Lady Belinda loved the success. David Storer, reminiscing today, said: "We and Lord Somerleyton tried to attract visitors with a different theme every year. I remember visiting a sweet shop in Earlham - the owner of the miniature railway, his hobby and he ran it at Somerleyton at the weekends.

“Other attractions included the replica Crown Jewels owned by the Church of England Children’s Society. A senior executive came to meet Lord Somerleyton, and I was invited for lunch as well. It was served in the large dining room by Jimmy the butler. Just the three of us sitting at a huge table. On my return to the office my colleagues were curious what had been on the menu. It was bangers and mash, but very tasty I recall!

“Now, it has been good to see Somerleyton featured on the BBC in recent years - Antiques Roadshow and Countryfile. And, of course, as a stand in for Sandringham in the current The Crown series on Netflix,” said David.

Somerleyton Hall

Somerleyton Hall - Credit: Submitted

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In the old days, with no worldwide web – printed newspapers were your prime communication with your clients’ customers plus clients’ own employees. I saw a future here for Publicity Plus Ltd. House journals telling staff about their business, and customer newspapers.

Colman's was then big in English food sales – to Europe, other continents too. A great Norfolk firm, founded in the 1840s and still so important in the 1970s - with hundreds of staff in its Norwich locations who wanted to know more about their mighty firm and its future – then many more foods than just the hot stuff Mustard, world-renowned.

Over the next years Colman Foods, then part of Reckitt and Colman in Norwich went for a house journal which we called Carrow News – that place being just part of their great Norwich work presence in those days. 

Colmans Carrow Works, 29 January 1960.

Colmans Carrow Works, January 29, 1960. - Credit: Archant Library

We wrote about much – staff, products, world sales – celebrities, including then star and singer Cilla Black who came to Norfolk to meet Colmans staff. Carrow News got us into PR for them too, including at times amusing work for that red-hot sauce – mustard, then the most famous in the world. 

But sadly, today, not made in Norwich anymore! Colman’s is now owned by Unilever and run from Staffordshire and Germany, not Norfolk any more! And the last mustard made in Norfolk was in 2019.

We won other house journals – including for Bernard Matthews the turkey producer – and Dow Chemical Company, an American firm in King's Lynn. We decided to start a division of PPL – Progressive Publications. Soon a very exciting job arose for us. Years earlier, following my arrival in Norfolk from Fleet Street, I had met a nice guy, Peter M, who worked for Dunlop which used to sell Dunlopillo, a bedding material, to a caravan manufacturer called Beauvale.

A Colman's van from about 1910, made by Bassett Lowke, toy manufacturers.

A Colman's van from about 1910, made by Bassett Lowke, toy manufacturers. - Credit: Archant Library

Beauvale wanted a PR exercise which would cement their loyalty with all these caravan manufacturers. They had explored various ideas – including sporting events with caravans being trailed at speed – and somebody suggested the British Caravan Road Rally, run as the Monte Carlo Rally, but towing caravans in a high-speed overnight jaunt through the mountains and rough tracks of Wales and the North of England.

It didn’t get much publicity though and Peter suggested PPL could produce a mass circulation newspaper the next day after the event – and it could be distributed through all their caravan manufacturers and loads of other sources.

 I said it would work – but cost a lot of money, needing top journalists and fast print – but Beauvale accepted an adventurous budget and plan and off we went.

The first rally centred on Snetterton, Norfolk, then with increasing success, it moved to Silverstone – and major recognition in the motor sport world. We were out all night, indeed for 36 hours of reporting/photographing the event, producing the paper, out next day – all without sleep!

Lord Mayor's Procession. Colmans Mustard float, June 1978.

Lord Mayor's Procession. Colmans Mustard float, June 1978. - Credit: Archant

The Dunlop Beauvale Rally News as it was called was a huge success – and went on for four years, becoming a mini national newspaper which subsequently also reported on the caravan industry and its latest developments. This led to our appointment as Caravan Club PRs – and I went looking for more clients who wanted customer newspapers – and also journals aimed at educating their staff.

Oh, those were the days, so different from today!

Helping the Lord’s sailing cause charitably too

Some 20 years later Lord Somerleyton asked me to help him charitably – to promote the fund-raising Excelsior Trust, which he chaired. Excelsior, a unique and authentically restored 77ft sailing trawler was built a century ago - in 1921 in Lowestoft and is the last remaining example of the Lowestoft smacks which fished off the east coast during the early part of the last century

Lord Somerleyton, still a friend, was getting old – even more than me, and seeking someone to help grow, and market Excelsior Trust. I volunteered, became a trustee, and even invested several thousands of pounds in a painting of the old ship and other photographs boosting her image – and possible preservation for the future.

The Winter Garden at Somerleyton Hall. Picture: Archant Library/Publicity Plus

The Winter Garden at Somerleyton Hall - Credit: Archant Library/Publicity Plus

We also needed to find a new chairman to take over from Lord Somerleyton – and I approached Geoffrey Copeman, then vice-chairman of Eastern Counties Newspapers who was still very active in many fields. Geoffrey accepted the role and the saving of Excelsior, seriously, began.

Geoffrey, my PR, and film-maker Andrew Pinder and our video and broadcasts helped Excelsior grow again over the years. After I had retired from that work, former PPL executive Mary George took over and is now doing a major job, increasing awareness of Excelsior even more.
<BLOB> Paul’s biography, My Life, My Way, telling much of Norfolk business grow over two thirds of a century, is available from £10.75 including post and packing from: paul@paulgwynthomas.co.uk