The Ghost Factory

British Cellophane.

Growing up in the shadow of the British Cellophane factory in Bridgwater, Somerset, I often heard stories of its ghosts.

The factory opened in 1937 as a joint project between the French firm that owned the rights to the process for mass-manufacturing cellulose film and British textile company Courtaulds.

It was built on fields next to Sydenham House, a 16th century mansion with its own stock of strange tales as recounted in Berta Lawrence’s 1973 book Somerset Legends. The Duke of Monmouth, she suggests, haunts a bedroom where he is said to have stayed (‘said’ always being a danger sign in such stories) before the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685. The room overlooked an oak tree, and some years later a member of the Perceval family was lifted by “some invisible spirit out of the chamber beyond his window-bars and, by levitation, set in the oak’s branches”. The house was also the scene of violence during the peasants’ revolt of 1381.

In the 20th century, the house was used by Courtaulds for corporate hospitality and, beyond the security boundary, hidden behind foliage, attained semi-legendary status among local children. I was taken to the garden once as a child, on a hot but darkly overcast day, and found it unsettling – the perfect setting for a timeslip.

I spent most of my childhood living within five minutes’ walk of the factory and its famous stink – it was often called ‘Smellophane’ – and my father worked there in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the parents of many of my peers. Every Thursday morning, as I was walking to school, they’d test the emergency sirens, adding to the collective sense of Cold War dread.

The first person to tell me a ghost story about the factory was my childhood best friend whose father worked in the section of Courtaulds dedicated to the production of non-woven synthetic fabrics. I asked my friend if he remembered what he’d told me all those years ago and his reply (edited for clarity) was as follows:

Late one night Dad saw someone in a checked shirt at the end of the production line. There wouldn’t have been many people about at that time so he went to investigate but the person had gone and the only door nearby was locked. The bloke couldn’t have gone anywhere else. It turned out someone from the other shift had died in just that spot (drowned, I think, in a cooling tank, or dragged under the rollers) and had been wearing the same clothes as the figure Dad saw.

As an 8-year-old I’d simply enjoyed shuddering at this story but I find myself wondering today if his father – quite a joker – might have been teasing him. My friend thinks not: “Mum said he was absolutely convinced at the time and quite shaken.”

I also remember a variant of this ‘drowned in a vat’ tale told by another school contemporary: a figure spotted on a high gantry, then apparently falling from the edge into a tank; emergency services called, the vessel drained, but no body found.

Adapted from ‘British Cellophane’ by Noel Jenkins, via Geograph, under CC BY-SA 2.0.

I asked my own father if he’d ever found working on the site unnerving. He talked at length about the general twitchiness of factory life, especially working nights, practically alone in vast, echoing spaces, and the long stretches of boredom between bouts of strenuous labour. But as to specifics, he said:

The only experience I had was of something that passed through a corridor. It might have been that somebody opened a door and it was a cold chill or something… It was weird. It wasn’t something I saw, just felt.

My younger brother suggested I get in touch with a friend of his who worked on the site in its final years, who wrote:

[One] of the machines there, called C2, killed a guy back the 1970s and it was definitely creepy in that area. [He] was pulled into a huge heated steamrolling press. [There was no] reverse mechanism and the firemen had to sledgehammer the machine apart to peel him out.

With prompting, Dad recalled a similar story from British Cellophane – strangely similar, you might say – about an operator who got cocky while threading a length of film through the moving parts of a machine. He was pulled into the workings and then when the machine reached full speed it “tore his limb right from his shoulder, voom! He Dropped dead.”

My suspicion is that these were scare stories, garbled and embellished as they spread, perhaps intended to reinforce the importance of safety procedures, or merely to wind up new recruits. The arm-ripping incident my father recounted of course happened ‘a few years’ before he joined the firm, like all good urban myths.

It’s hard to prove that something didn’t happen but I can say that I have not been able to find any record of any events like these in newspapers, even though relatively less gruesome accidents at the factory were reported. (A painter died during construction of the plant; a laboratory apprentice fell from a landing stage with no barrier and later died; a foreman dropped dead while walking along a gantry; and Raymond Culverwell set a legal precedent when a truck crushed his leg: being late back from his tea break, the Court of Appeal ruled, he was not entitled to compensation.) Gruesome limb-tearing and crushing incidents at other industrial sites were frequently covered so the press were clearly interested.

After a version of this story first appeared in Fortean Times in 2018, however, I heard from Gavin Hogg whose grandfather, George Rogers, worked at Cellophane in the 1950s and 60s, and died while working at British Cellophane, in 1963. He asked his mother for more detail:

He was killed in an accident during the night-shift (22:00 – 06:00) and she writes that he was on his own at the time (I don’t know if she means just in the immediate area, or the whole factory). The official inquest verdict was death by misadventure.

There was no compensation or any financial help for my grandmother and her two daughters – my Mum would have been 21 at the time and her younger sister would have been around 16-17.

Mum says that the factory destroyed all the evidence after the accident and changed the machinery.

A little digging turned up an account of the inquest from June 1963, which set out the details: at about 5am, Mr Rogers was alone, his colleague having stepped outside for a few moments, and accidentally put an amount of vinylidine chloride into a hot vessel rather than a cool one, whereupon it instantly vaporised and gassed him to death.

Again, no falls into vats, or torn limbs, but this does echo my own father’s explanation for the uneasy atmosphere in the factory, which is simultaneously more down-to-earth and scarier than any ghost. The premises was, he says, often dense with chemical fumes, and he would frequently find himself wading in pools of toluene, a liquid solvent known to cause hallucinations. It’s easy to see how that sort of thing might combine with the disorientation of shift work, and those grim shock tales, to generate paranoia, confusion and even strange visions.

Though none of that, of course, explains how Perceval got into the oak tree.

The Famous Bridgwater Manchip

Bridgwater Famous Manchips

I ate my first manchip when I was around 8-years-old.

Dad pulled up outside in the sky blue Cortina and came running into the house – actually running — holding a paper bag transparent with hot grease. He was shiny-faced with excitement, a rare occurrence in those days of night-shifts, money troubles and headaches.

“Manchips! Bloody manchips!”

He said it as if my brother and I should know what a manchip was.

We, thrilled to see Dad thrilled, couldn’t wait to see what was going to emerge from the wrapping.

“Ooh, ow, hot, Jesus wept!” he said, throwing the thing from hand to hand.

This was why he’d been in such a hurry: the manchip, we learned, is a dish best served dangerously hot.

There were two in the bag; my brother and I got half each.

What we were presented with was a pocket of flaky, rolled pastry filled with semi-molten jam and dusted with granulated sugar. It was lardy and not especially sweet, the jam a mere smear. It was, frankly, a let-down after all the hype but we played along and ate up while Dad, apparently reverting to childhood for five bites, made yum-yum noises and licked jam off his factory-scarred fingertips.

Perhaps we confessed our disappointment or maybe Dad just guessed but, either way, I never saw another manchip. That is, until December 2017, with my 40th birthday looming, when I made a return trip to the old home town.

Walking up Cranleigh Gardens and waiting to cross St John Street I saw a chalkboard sign outside Judith’s Bakery: “Bridgwater Famous Manchips Sold Here”. Bridgwater’s famous manchips? This being the 21st century I Googled it while I waited for the lights to change and was astonished to read that, yes, the manchip is Bridgwater’s own contribution to the culinary catalogue.

The origins of the manchip, like those of most even slightly interesting things, are vague. They are sometimes also called ‘manchits’ or ‘manchets’, and the Oxford English Dictionary traces the similar ‘manchet’, meaning fine wheat bread, back to the 15th century.

A more obvious Bridgwater connection occurred to me, though: I was at school with several Manchips, and the Manchip or Manship clan has been a prominent one in Bridgwater for a couple of centuries. In fact, if you look up distribution of the surname Manchip in 1881 you find that every single one, give or take, lived in Somerset.

Nobody seems to have pinned down the exact origins of the Bridgwater manchip though Glyn Hughes has tracked down a 1938 reference to lardy pastries using that name which would seem to demolish the popular myth that it was a response to rationing during World War II.

Armed with the variant spellings I was able to find a tantalising reference to ‘french rolls and manchets’ in the precis of an 1885 book about St Mary’s Church in Bridgwater and (this is a bit complicated) an 1899 letter to the Taunton Courier in which a correspondent recalled a Taunton baker, Mr Betty, “famous for the excellence of his breakfast manchips” (20/09). Perhaps most useful, though, is this letter to the Taunton Courier printed on 22 June 1946, which contains reference to the foodstuff itself:

The reference to Manchets in last week’s Herald carried my memory back 50 or 60 years to the days when small boys went through the streets of towns in this part of England very early in the morning, crying “Hot Rolls and Butter Manchets” or “Buttered Manchips” or “Buttery Mansions” or some other variation of the last two words. These Manchets, Manchips, or Mansions were a plain kind of flat dough cake, or tea cake, kept hot, cut open and buttered for breakfast…. [As] far as my memory serves me they were eaten in my young days only, or at any rate mainly, at breakfast time.

That’s odd, isn’t it? No jam. Not notably lardy.

I’m going to keep looking for more information but here’s my current assumption: ‘manchip’ was being used to describe a kind of fancy roll in Somerset during the 19th century but its use dwindled until it was reinvented during or after World War II as something sweeter and more pastry-like.

Regardless of its origins, my second ever manchip, eaten hot on the platform at Bridgwater station as I waited for a train back to Bristol, was delicious – fat slicking the tongue, just enough fruit acid to tame it, and flakes of pastry falling like gold leaf around my feet. Once I’d dusted myself down and wiped my fingers on the paper bag, I knew I owed Dad an apology.

Striking Out

Underneath a motorway bridge.

One day when I was about 13 I realised I could just walk out of town whenever I liked, with the only limits being time and the weather.

My home town is really one big outskirt – not confidently urban, but not quite rural either; a place where you can stand surrounded by concrete and factories while enveloped in the stink of manure.

I was raised as a town boy – the countryside was a thing you sped through in a car on the way to the seaside or Taunton – but couldn’t help wondering what was out there, beyond the sign that announced our twinning with La Ciotat and Uherské Hradiště. What was on those hills I could always see in the distance, where snow sometimes sat while town was as grey as ever? What was up that lane? Where did the filthy old river go?

First, I tested the boundaries, walking a little further each time. The motorway felt like a barrier but I crossed that easily enough, my flat feet slapping their way across a pavement barely used. On the other side, just barely, I found the hamlet of Horsey and thought, well, there it is: I’ve walked to another place. I tried the same on the other side of town, passing under the motorway this time, and found Dunwear.

Then I really stretched myself, walking beyond the point where the pavement ended, past the absolute feathertips of town. Trudging alongside the A39 was dangerous which added to the thrill but I knew the rules (face the traffic) and there were verges to retreat to if need be.

A tractor on a country road.

It’s impure countryside out that way: stalked by crackling pylons, littered with fast food wrappers and fly-tippings, and with the constant sound of the motorway boring away like a dental drill. At certain stretches it feels as if there’s more roadkill than road. But compared to the estate it was open, wild and fecund.

That time I made it to the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, which looks like a river but was built by men. There was a path that I wanted to follow but it seemed as if I’d already gone too far from home so I turned back.

Next time, I did go that way, stopping to eat a sandwich with a view across fields of gaudy yellow rapeseed, with the tower of Sutton Mallet Church in the distance. I may have read some poems, which was the kind of thing done by the kind of person I thought I wanted to be then. It was warm and insects as big as shuttlecocks made ceremonial flypasts. I thought, ah, there it is — this England I’ve heard so much about.

I went out time and again, taking different routes, going beyond and beyond again, until one day I was taken with the most pathetic, suburban version of exploration mania you can imagine and didn’t turn back when I should have. Stranded in Huntspill as night fell I found a payphone and called to be picked up. In the car home, with aching feet and muscles, I felt like Edmund Hillary.

All of this, I suppose, was training for life, a kind of straining at the leash. Timid and reticent as I was, and am, I never wanted to stay at home forever.

First stop Bawdrip, next stop the world.

Old Familiar Rooms

Blank window.

Yesterday, I went Home.

When I say Home, I mean Bridgwater in Somerset — a town I haven’t lived in since the 1990s, where I didn’t live for large chunks of my childhood, and where even my parents no longer live. But I was nursed there, went to junior school, secondary school and sixth-form college there, and so it is and always will be Home.

Perhaps I felt more than usually moved by the experience this time because I really had no reason to be there. I was delivering some Christmas presents to a cousin but, honestly, I half engineered that as an excuse to visit. No, this time, I was there because I wanted to be, with the express intention of giving the old place my full attention.

I felt quite overcome at times, standing opposite the house where my uncle died, passing my cousin’s workshop, and then wandering through terraced streets where various members of my family lived at one time or another. I didn’t remember the curve of the road or the beautiful soft-edged red brick. Its Victorian completeness, or complete Victorianness, had never struck me before.

For a full minute I stared at a derelict property, boarded up as long as I remember it, and somehow as faded and poignant in real life as an unlabelled Polaroid from the back of a discarded album. How could something so small, so mean, be so beautiful?

Dead street.

That habit some people have of reflexively dismissing their home towns as ‘dumps’, ‘toilets’, ‘the arse end of nowhere’, has never afflicted me. I’ve always insisted that I am fond of Bridgwater even though I know — of course I do — that there’s nothing much to recommend it to strangers. (Carnival, perhaps?) Hating one’s home-town has always struck me as a bit of a cliche, to be frank, like introducing yourself as ‘A bit of a cynic’, or saying that your band’s music ‘defies classification’. A sort of low-fat alternative to any actual personality.

Still, that contempt for the familiar must have been lurking, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. When I was 17 I was tasked with writing a script for a short film at Bridgwater College and what poured out was a grotesque stream of consciousness full of cracked paving stones, foul sewers, and grim reflections on the town’s sinister history. “Where did this come from?” asked the lecturer when I handed it in, perhaps concerned that I had previously unsuspected psychiatric problems.

On this visit, the same fear and loathing manifested in a strange tug of emotions. Much as I was delighted to be there I could also feel a tightening in my spine — a sort of shudder-in-waiting as my fight-or-flight response came out of sleep mode. It was as if my stranded teenage anxiety met me off the train and was following me around like an insinuating familiar.

I also caught myself trudging at times. Though I knew I should be move to be once again on Monmouth Street, for example, my legs and brain conspired to loop me back in where I left off. For whole stretches I forgot to look at all, as if I had somewhere to be by a certain time (I didn’t) — town is town is town.

Railway cottages.

Perhaps its natural to have that desire-hate, comfort-fear, fascination-boredom relationship with places you truly know.

As it is, this time the balance tipped towards the positive. I saw things for the first time that I’d seen a thousand times — ghost signs, the gorgeousness of the old Edwardian cinema, the sprinkle of classical buildings at Cornhill that speak of a time when the town had pretensions, and even the space-age oddness of the stillborn shopping mall. I looked at — was mesmerised by — the golden reeds on the riverbank backlit by a bone idle winter sun that had barely lifted itself above the bandstand in Blake Gardens.

I suppose my advice might be that if you’re going to wherever you call home for Christmas, and dreading it because it scares or bores you, or some mixture of both, try looking at it as a stranger might. Forget what you know, forget the well-practised routes your muscle memory insists upon, and let yourself love it.

Clatter, Pop, Hiss, Clang

Industrial wasteland.
Bridgwater c.1999.

Through the scratched visor I can see my hands in heavy duty gauntlets fumbling another dented aerosol into the cradle and slamming down the handle. The nail on the end of the lever pierces the can and the gas escapes with a satisfying bang, followed by a nosebleed of Hammer Horror red as the penetrant dye inside leaks into the oil drum beneath. I give it a shake to release the last of the liquid and hurl the crumpled shell into the skip at my side with another pleasing sound – this time, a cymbal crash.

This was my summer job between school and sixth-form college – puncturing cans that for one reason or another hadn’t passed quality assurance – and I rather enjoyed it. For the first time in years, and for the only time for years to come, I didn’t have revision or reading to do, and the mindlessness of the task suited the state of my post-GCSE brain.

For a dorkish introvert like me the situation was perfect, too. I’d worked on the shop floor in the factory proper for several stretches and found the constant supervision and chatter more exhausting than the labour itself. Out in the yard, it was different. Once or twice a day the foreman would appear from the side door to ask me how it was going, or just give a questioning thumbs up; sometimes someone would turn up with a fork lift and dump another load of cans into the TO DO box, usually with obvious glee at my misfortune; but mostly I was left alone. Looking through a chain-link fence and out across blonde-tipped wild grass, I could breathe.

River scene in black and white.
View along the river Parrett to the Wylds Road Industrial Estate c.1997.

Well, breathe is the wrong word. I had to wear a forest green body suit, coarse on the inside and glossy out, to protect me from being sprayed with solvents. The mask preserved my eyes and also insulated me from the worst of the fumes, but meant I could hear myself respire, and had to peer through a warm fog of my own making. It was hot in there under the kind of summer sun I’m sure they cancelled after about 2001 and I sweated like tinned ham.

Because it was so hot, my favourites among the dinged and mislabelled cans were the ‘air dusters’ which when popped gave out a magical breath of cold wind, dusted my gloves with ice and chilled my fingertips.

Oddly, doing this job is the only time I’ve ever been high. At the end of the day I had to clean my suit, removing the grey, sticky layer created by one puff after another of solvent, dye, orange-scented label remover, varnish, lubricant, and any number of other goops and greases. I did this job in a stairwell using rags and a can of the firm’s strongest ‘degreaser’. My induction, which took about five minutes altogether, included a stern warning to do this with the door open, which having grown up on anti-glue-sniffing propaganda in the 1980s I took very seriously. But one day, somehow, the stop slipped and the door betrayed me, gliding soundlessly into its frame. Innocently, I kept spraying until the job was done, but when I stood up my legs had disappeared. I knew they were there, I could see them, but I was hovering above the ground. I smirked, then frowned, then giggled, then felt sick. I realised what had happened and drifted out on to the shop floor. Oddly, nobody noticed that I was levitating, though I was sure everyone was looking at me – all those eyes! I bobbed up to the first person who crossed my path and said, earnest as ever, ‘I think I’ve abused solvents by mistake.’ As they guided me outside, manoeuvring me like a loose barrage balloon, I oscillated between laughter and seasickness. I gave someone my Klix key, I think, which is how I ended up with a beige plastic cup of foul, powdery vending machine orange pop which definitely tipped the scale from hilarity to nausea. My legs rematerialised after a few minutes along with a crushing headache. I haven’t felt inclined to repeat the experience.

For months after I finished the job I dreamed about it – a looping cinemagraph of concrete and blue sky soundtracked by the distant digestive grumbling of the factory and the clatter, POP, hiss, clang of one can after another.