The Cracker Factory

Keepdrye Dartboards with Chromadising and the Cracker Factory to the right

I wonder how many of you remember Wagner’s Christmas cracker factory on the A127 in Laindon back in the 1950/60s. The building still survives but the Christmas cracker business has long since removed to China. It was owned by John Wagner with his sister Lillian in the office. The factory was run by Brothers Bill and Cliff Cowell and provided work in the factory for about 25 people and countless others in their own homes. In the factory itself they made the “expensive” crackers these were destined for the high class shops in London. The outworkers were from all over Laindon, Pitsea, Wickford and the surrounding areas; this was a prime job for mothers with young children, as they could work from home.

The work was delivered to them in a huge van with Richard and Bob the two lorry drivers. These women made the crackers from start to finish and boxed them ready for collection.

They managed about 6-8 gross a week (1 gross = 144) and 12 went into a box so they had to work very hard to make up the numbers and the pay was poor.

The factory was divided into separate departments. Upstairs the girls made the crackers and “finished” them (stuck the fancy bits on them). The box makers were also upstairs; they made the boxes and covered them with Christmas paper ready for the crackers to be inserted.

Downstairs were the big machines. They cut the cardboard into shape for boxes, the crepe paper to make the crackers and the tissue for the hats, as you can imagine there was a lot to do as they provided all the makings for the outworkers as well as those in the factory itself.

The snaps the bit that goes bang were bought in complete to be added to the cracker in the making, but everything else was made in house.

We did move down to Wash Road at a later date.

I can remember some of the girl’s names with apologies to those I have forgotten, blame it on old age. There was Peggy, Glad Brockwell, Marji, Florrie, Millie, Ethel and Freda.

They were good days thanks Mrs H. Eldridge.

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  • I loved reading this page. John Wagner was my grandmothers uncle, Lillian was her aunt. I can clearly remember my grandmother telling me about the crackers and her uncle. It has been great to read about this part of my history. I wish I could see some of the crackers, I wonder if there are any photos of them left?

    Dear Leanne, the link below will take you to another article about the factory which has some photos of staff members. Editor

    By Leanne Davies (13/09/2023)
  • The boilerman who Stripped off and washed himself with the hosepipe was my stepdad.

    By Joseph rudniski (08/06/2023)
  • I was looking for info on the cracker factory (thinking incorrectly that it was part of the Tom Smith company) and spotted Brian Baylis’s mention of Eric Cowell. I used to know him through school athletics competitions. He was a nice lad and a boxer and I often wonder about what he did later in life. I lived in Basildon and went to Fryerns.

    By Ian Metcalfe (01/01/2022)
  • My mother Hilda Porter use to make up Bon-Bons (Crackers) on a lift-up hinged table in my bedroom my dad Fred made for her and occasionally I was able to help out early 50s?

    By Kenneth F Porter (15/01/2021)
  • My mum Gladys Hutchins worked there for a short while.

    By Sue Tofts (15/01/2021)
  • I wanted to say that my family have had a small box of miniature crackers that my grandfather bought many many years ago. They are made with foil covered paper, silver, green and red and are about 5 – 6 inches long and are still in their original box. I was told that one was pulled but the rest are still intact with everything original still inside. My dad always said that they were older than my sister who’s now 75. They came out every year and were hung on the Christmas tree that my grandfather bought at a jumble sale. The tree was used until the branches couldn’t hold themselves up anymore. Ever since the crackers have been passed down as a family heirloom and were told never to pull them. So now the crackers are in my possession and will be put on my Christmas tree until I can’t manage to use them anymore. They will then be passed down to my daughter and then hopefully down to her children with the added message that they never be pulled. Who would have thought that a small box of crackers would have lasted so long and become a family heirloom.
    Sally Levy from Suffolk.

    By Sally Levy (20/12/2020)
  • Athough I left Laindon when I was only 18 months old, I remember my Mum, Beryl Stroud, saying that she worked at the cracker factory. That would have been around 1948-50.

    By Ray Stroud (14/07/2017)
  • As a child I viewed homework from the Bon-Bon factory that my mother did as a curse.  Friends, neighbours and family all had a part to play in this task.  There were three parts to the making of the hats that were to be found in Wagners Christmas crackers:  1 sticking – cut shaped folded pieces of coloured crepe paper had to be glued and stuck down one side to make the circle complete.  2 spotting – small shiny diamond or circular pieces of paper then needed to be glued with a small brush and a huge pot of smelly glue on to the centre of the hat.  3 rolling – this consisted of folding the completed hat several times and then rolling it to a uniform size to be finished by being held with an elastic band twisted twice around it. Many times visitors would sit around the dining table with their cup of tea, chatting and all the time performing one of the functions described.  Like demented automatons, sticking, spotting or rolling. This would be a reciprocal thing, as when visiting someone we would all be expected to do our bit for them.  I hated it!

    When somewhat older I worked for a time at Chromadising, next to the cracker factory.  I recall seeing the boiler man from there on many occasions, he would fill a bath tub with cold water from a hosepipe, then undress behind a sheet of plywood and with a tin bucket proceed to bathe himself.  This was outside and would be in all weathers even in winter!  Are all Laindoners this crazy?  If so, I fit in reasonably well. 

    By Donald Joy (23/08/2015)
  • Regarding bonbon factory, Joan Merchant my cousin 31/10/12 her mother worked at Primrose House as an outdoor worker.  It was situated at beginning of long Crown Hill.  I am going through all contributions now I am up to date with communication so will probably comment more!

    By Thelma (02/03/2014)
  • My Mum was also an outworker, rolling the hats for putting in the bon-bons, plus on the odd occasion, my brother Barry and I would play with Eric Cowell, as he lived in nearby Basil Drive until his parents moved to St. Nicholas Lane. His parents were lovely people.

    In order to get the hats and return them in sacks, Mum would push an old pram to and from the factory from Tyler Avenue, then unmade, and return with more to be rolled, and I can remember this pretty well despite my age now. Many a late night was had by us in rolling these.

    By Brian Baylis (22/02/2014)
  • Greetings! My name is Gillian – I have had a small Christmas cracker business in Canada for the past 20 years – trying hard to restore some of the original Victorian fun of games, puzzles, gifts and treats. For the past few years I have been trying to research the history of Christmas cracker factories (other than the famed Tom Smith one) to get a better idea of Christmas cracker production over the years. I was so delighted to hear about Wagners and to read all of your comments. I have four questions. 

    1) I wonder if some of you would be willing to let me quote some of the factory and out door worker comments you made above. 

    2) Can any of you describe some of the Wagner crackers? What were the contents like for the “expensive” crackers that went to the high class shops? What were the mottos like – poems? jokes? How were the crackers ‘closed’? Were they tied? 

    3) Do any of you have any photos of the crackers made, the inside of the cracker factory or photos of crackers being made in homes? Are there any actual Wagner crackers remaining somewhere?? 

    4) Do you know of any other past cracker factories in England? Thanks so much for your time. 

    I thoroughly enjoyed all of the comments above! 

    PS: By the way – have you seen this wonderful film footage of crackers being produced in 1910? Click on link to see

    Editor: If you wish to see the sort of material Gillian makes and markets click on the following link Gillian Crackers. You can contact her via her web site but please remember that this is your archive and is the home for your memories of our community 

    By Gillian McCrostie (24/08/2013)
  • I can remember making crackers, our hall was full up with them.  The tie factory was in the Old Fortune of War which is DGT Wheels now.

    By Alan Taylor (09/06/2013)
  • Adding to the above my Mum was an outdoor worker, she used to make the little fans that adorned the crackers. Gold dust got everywhere in our house! My father made her 2 big carriers for her bicycle, one at the front and one at the back, in order to carry the boxes with the finished fans to the factory.

    As Christmas drew near I would sometimes be up until 1 or 2am helping Mum to finish her workload. As my dad was a night watchman for Brown and Tawse, he was never aware of this as I am sure he would have been cross. Although the pay was appalling it did help immensely towards Christmas, because money was always scarce. Not that I was made aware of that fact particularly as a child. I suppose most of us were in the same boat at that time.

    I think my Aunty Ada Sykes (Ayres) worked in the factory at one time (possibly before she started her family), but I remember she eventually became an outworker making the giant crackers. Her hallway was always full of the very large boxes which only contained one cracker. I think the factories mentioned were absolutely essential back in the 40/50s.

    As a footnote Ada went to Australia in the late 50s on the £10 passage. My parents stayed in Laindon/Langdon Hills until they passed away.

    By Pat Aspinall (05/04/2013)
  • My wife Peggy also worked at the cracker factory post war when Bill Brockwell, with whom I went to school, was manager, at this time one of her workmates was Pam Lucas, the wife of Peter Lucas who became well known locally. 

    I can understand Patsy’s comments in respect of homeworkers as after leaving the cracker factory my wife began making ties for a business located in the Old Fortune of War. To help her improve her production, we bought an industrial machine in a cabinet which was far superior to her small model, but in the small room of a house was very noisy and the vibrations were felt in other rooms. Peggy was forced to discontinue this work as it was affecting her eyesight and caused severe headaches. She still wished to continue working as she always liked to have some money which was her own and not committed to housekeeping and so she went to work at Yardleys until her retirement. 

    Regretfully her retirement was not a very happy one as she became diabetic and suffered strokes which left her almost totally incapacitated and after a number of years I became unable to attend to her 24hr a day needs and she ended her life in the BUPA care home in Ghyyllgrove which had all the necessary equipment for her needs.

    By W.H.Diment (31/01/2013)
  • I remember going to the bonbon factory with my dad. John Wagner used to wholesale the crackers to him. His name was Arthur Noble. He would get his first lorry load towards the end of October. I remember going to Bill and Margaret Cowell’s home. I think they had five children, their daughter always made a fuss of me and my sisters, I used to love going there. It was a great shock I believe Bill was struck down by a virus and died.

    By Victoria McCabe (nee Noble) (30/01/2013)
  • Oh! The Bon-Bon factory. My mother made the crackers for a few weeks to earn a some extra pennies in the early 1950’s. We were roped in to help, orange & red crepe paper, glue & glitter every where. I still have a Players cigarette tin with the remains of the left over glitter flakes from that time of mums foray into out door work. I can’t bring myself to throw it out as I remember her up to her elbows in the mess muttering about “Sweated Labour”. Not one of her better ideas.

    She tried again working for the Raincoat Factory again I think was somewhere near the Fortune, sewing on buttons to the garments. That did not last long either as collection and delivery was made by the workers and the pay really was appalling. That was the end of her foray into home work.

    By Patsy Mott (04/01/2013)
  • I have smiled from ear to ear reading this post, I am Bill Cowell’s grandchild. After a few family gatherings I have heard of the “Bon Bon” factory. I never new my Grand Pa Bill, but to read a lot more about Bill on here, and people’s fond memories humbles me!

    Editor: click on this link to see photographs of Elizabeth Ellerby and some of the workers at the Bon Bon factory link

    By Susan Cowell (03/01/2013)
  • My mum, Alice White, also used to work at the Bon Bon factory but as I was born in 1948 I don’t remember much about it apart from the stories she told

    By Joan Merchant nee White (31/10/2012)
  • I remember the Christmas cracker factor my mum used to make the crackers at home and my brother used to take them back to the factory we lived in Salibury Avenue until we were compulsory purchased by the council.

    By M. Filbert (22/12/2011)
  • I am Bill Cowell’s daughter and it has been wonderful reading the memories that many people have of the cracker factory, John Wagner and of course my father. Unfortunately dad died in 1964 leaving my mother Margaret with five of us aged between 5-18. Dad’s brother Cliff also died a few years ago. I still clearly remember being taken to the factory as a child and it seemed like some kind of wonderland! My elder sister Linda used to trek from school (Laindon High Road) to the factory every afternoon and pick up the post then walk all the way back to the postoffice with it!

    By Wendy Barnes (née Cowell) (15/12/2011)
  • Hello Wendy, you will not remember me, however you may remember my sister Beryl who was on occasions your baby sitter when you lived in Nicholas Lane. I was in your sister Linda’s classes all through our school years. Still in touch occassionally with her, I also remember your brother Eric.

    By Eric Pasco (15/12/2011)
  • Hallo Wendy Barnes, I was very friendly with your dad, Billy, also with Cliff. They were both regulars at the St. Nicholas Church Saturday night dances and also on Wednesdays at the British Legion Hall, but the latter were DIY dances using a gramophone. I never saw Billy after the war but met Cliff many times and he attended my youngest son’s wedding. I believe he was then working at Marconi.

    By W.H.Diment (15/12/2011)
  • My mum can be added to one of the outworkers. We had a back room which was used for cracker/hat making. I can still remember the smell of all the paper and glue. Although it was hard work, it was also a time for socialising – our neighbours used to come in and give a hand to ”Pin” (my mum’s nick-name).

    By Andrea Ash (nee Pinnell) (15/12/2011)
  • Hello Mr Diment, I am so glad you remember the dancing at the hall as you say “a most unlikely venue” but I must add all our family wedding receptions were held there in 50s and 60s. Will I ever forget after each wedding walking down the grass hill to the hall for the receptions.

    The Saturday morning jumbles there were also a must visit. The last time I recall using the hall was for a party I arranged for the Pound Lane residents for the Queens Silver Jubilee. Does anyone else remember that? We all had a great night.

    By Gloria Sewell (29/09/2011)
  • Hallo Gloria Sewell, you report on the ballroom dancing at the St. Nicholas Church Hall. Despite amost unlikely venue, there were some very proficient dancers prewar, apart from John Wagner and quite obviously your mother there was Frank Gammon and his partner, a young lady from Westcliff whose name I cannot remember, but whom he later married. The people who attended were regulars and it could well have been called a club. The hall was something of a community centre and other regular functions which took place there were male gymnastic classes on Thursdays run by Eric Barfield and Fred Tallboys. A similar ladies class was held on Tuesdays. There was of course Sunday School classes and post war cubs and scouts which prewar were hel d at St. Peters hall. I have memories one of which I have recounted in respect of Mr. Hope the caretaker and verger.

    By W.H.Diment (28/09/2011)
  • Hello Mr Diment, I can remember my mother Violet Davies then telling me she used to go ballroom dancing in St Nicholas hall. She was a lovely ballroom dancer and won some competitions this would have been about 1938-1942 I will never forget watching her in awe as she danced the foxtrot to Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered. Beautiful!

    By Gloria Sewell (27/09/2011)
  • Further to Colin Ferrier details about the cracker factory, I am sorry that Bill Cowell died. He and brother Cliff were also regulars at the dances at St. Nicholas Church Hall. His father Ray I knew well as a Bipol player and if my memory is correct moved into the Rayleigh Area and I may have played cricket aginst Colin at Rayleigh.

    By WHDiment (23/09/2011)
  • The factory was opened pre-war by John Wagner in  a large house in the High Rd., Langdon Hills.  I knew John fairly well as an accomplished ballroom dancer who regularly attended the Saturday night dances at the St.Nicholas Church Hall. After the dance finished as many as possible would climb into his Triumph Dolomite and others follow on foot to a large wooden cafe adjacent to the Fortune of War, where we would drink tea and continue dancing to an old wind up gramophone. 

    When war came, John  was interned.  The A127 factory came into being after his release. The manager of the new factory was Bill Brockwell, with Billy and Cliff Cowell as assistants, although Billy was one of his prewar employees. The forelady, if that is the right word, was Hilda Negus. 

    When the factory closed, Bill Brockwell entered the licence trade and did part of his managers training at the Fortune of War, Cliff Cowell obtained a position at Marconi’s but I do not know where Billy Cowell went to.

    By W.H. Diment (22/09/2011)
  • Bill and Cliff Cowell were my mother’s two brothers, her name being Elsie Cowell. John Wagner was a long standing friend of the Cowell family and lodged in the 40s and 50s with my grandmother and grandfather in Samual Rd. 

    The family also assisted John prior to the war in establishing his original factory, Primrose Lodge which was on the right hand side of Langdon Hills High Rd at the start of Crown Hill (just past the Berry Lane turning). I believe Primrose Lodge closed at the beginning of WW II. Whilst I cannot recall when the Arterial Rd premises closed, I do know that it was a short time following the tragic death of Bill Cowell. Some time later cracker production restarted in a factory unit in Rayleigh but ceased following the death of John. Hilda Negus, whom I remember well was certainly the forelady.

    By Colin Ferrier (22/09/2011)
  • Hi Joe, you asked about James garage. If you look on the message board under “Laindon Service Station” there is some more imformation on it.

    By Gloria Sewell (19/09/2011)
  • I worked at Wagners from 1962 to 1965. My name then was Pam Atkins and Hetty Eldridge was my supervisor. My mum was Lou Atkins and she made up the parcels for the outdoor workers with Ethel Scurrel and Pat Harrington. I have photos of some of the girls and some names I can’t remember, here goes with those I can. Sisters Vera and Betty Green, Lil Marshall, Pat Richer, Barbara Jackson, Betty Godard, Paula Glass, Dolly Jacobs, Maud Meggs, Eve ?, Betty ?, Nell ? (who was Welsh) and her friend Miriam ?, Elsie Oliver, Hazel Gray, Gladys Goodwin (I think). Some of these girls worked with Joan Hartley: Jean Clark (Bob’s sister), Olive from Colchester. Hazel Sheppard who worked downstairs, was my mum’s friend and neighbour.

    By Pam Quarman nee Atkins (18/09/2011)
  • Does anybody remember the day of the Cracker Factory raid? It happened one beautiful sunny Sunday morning in May 1967. We heard a rumour via our telephone that the owners had gone bankrupt and had announced to the children of Laindon that they could go and help themselves to the remaining stock. My brother and myself decided to walk across the field to see for ourselves (we lived just a field away from the ‘Bon Bon’ factory). We looked through the hedge and sure enough, dozens of children including some of their parents were taking away boxes of crackers, some being loaded into the back of cars. A couple of hours later, we received a second telephone call saying that the rumour had been a hoax and the Police had been called. We decided to take another walk and on peering through the hedge again, we could see the parked Police cars and the Policemen shooing away the children and their parents. I never found out the truth about how the incident came about, but do know there were a few extra crackers to pull in Laindon that following Christmas.

    By Nina Humphrey (nee Burton) (16/09/2011)
  • Does anyone remember James Garage on the other side of the A127 just at the top of Kings Road

    By joe rudniski (16/09/2011)
  • I helped my stepfather in the Sixties to stoke and clean out the boilers at that bon-bon factory there was the anodising plant on the same site.

    By Joseph Rudniski (15/09/2011)
  • My sister Sylvie and I would make the crackers for mum as well. Everytime I pass the building in the car I recall it all so clearly!

    By Anita Smith (15/09/2011)
  • I remember bon bon factory my mum used to do outwork for them, I remember helping her make crackers. She also used to do outwork doing ties how Laindon has changed since those days, not for the best I can’t help thinking.

    By Keith Nock (14/07/2011)
  • My mum (Joan Newman) worked at the cracker factory and was working there when she got married in 1949. She was presented with a set of silver and white crackers for her wedding guests. My aunt also worked at the factory (Lou Hunt).

    By Christine Joan Maloney (04/07/2011)
  • I remember this cracker factory very well my mum was one of the outworkers. I recall our hallway being full of boxes, and I would have to come home from school and make a certain number of the crackers before I was allowed out to play. Mum later went to work at the dartboard factory as a silk screen printer, and I think this factory was on the same site.

    By Jean Pattle (23/05/2011)
  • John I recall the tie factory at the side of Kentex cleaners this was I think in the Forties/Fifties a couple of my aunts worked there. Whether it was the same tie makers I’m not sure?

    By Gloria Sewell (23/05/2011)
  • The Christmas Cracker or “Bon-bon” Factory was situated on the south side (London bound carriageway) of the Arterial Road (A127) west of the New Fortune of War roundabout. It was close to the “Keep Dry” Dartboard Factory, with the SX Tools Engineering works last in line travelling westward. It is definitely known that, of the three, SX Tool was turned over to manufacturing components for military use in WW2, but were the other two? Oh, and talking of manufacturing, what was done at Pavie’s Necktie works at the Old Fortune of War during the same period?

    By John Bathurst (22/05/2011)
  • I remember this factory very well, only we referred to it as the Bon-Bon factory. My friend’s sister worked there and we could always tell which colour crackers she had been making as the crepe paper stained her hands.

    By Anne Burton (20/05/2011)
  • When we first moved into King Edward Rd about 1948 my mother used to get outdoor work from the cracker factory. We used to have a room full of toys, hats and motives she would have a metal roller a pot of glue and a box of elastic bands we would all muck in in the evenings to help make them. We had a very large hall just as well because it used to be full of boxes of crackers. My brother Fred and I could have any little toys that were left. I recall a big white lorry would come round to collect and deliver them, quite a number of families used to make them at home.

    By Gloria Sewell (20/05/2011)

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