When British Bakeries announced the closure of it’s Mother’s Pride plant in Derry almost 16 years ago - in October, 1999 - it signalled the death of the last industrial bakery in the city.
Having opened in 1968, the plant had been in operation for over 30 years when the closure was announced. When the notice of closure came it meant that the last 84 remaining workers, many of whom had been there from the outset, were out of a job. The plant once housed hundreds of workers in a factory that produced goods 24 hours a day.
The company maintained that the closure was caused by an ‘over-capacity’ in the bakery industry combined with the limited size of the Northern Ireland market. However, union officials and workers at the bakery on the city’s Glen Road accused management of closing the plant without discussion and said they were aware of plans to sell the site for up to £4 million. A housing development has since been built on the former factory location.
Derry’s perennial complaint that Belfast will always win out in terms of employment was backed up by a company statement that the reason for the closure were “inefficiencies in the market place and the peripherality of the North West.”
Market demands, said the company, had forced them to centralise their operation in Belfast where 50 new jobs would be created. Management said that all of the affected Derry workers would be offered the chance to relocate to Belfast. In reality however, the upheaval and reorganisation of worker’s everyday life meant this suggestion was treated as little more than a lipservice offer by the Derry employees.
Regional officer of the Bakers’ Union conveyed his shock that the company had not entered into discussion with the workforce prior to the closure announcement.
“The worker’s have been treated very, very badly. The company tried to put on an act. There was no prior consultation and the workers are extremely angry. Anything we said in our meeting with management did not make one iota of a difference and they failed to tell us how they came to their decision,” he said.
Senior union officer in the area, Uel Adair, said at the time: “Most of the employees have been here since the bakery opened 32 years ago and the way they have been treated is absolutely disgraceful. There were no negotiations, no discussions - we were just told it’s closing.
Inglis Bakery became part of the Rank organisation (British Bakeries) around 1960, but still traded under the Inglis brand name. In the 60’s British Bakeries introduced two new labels, Mother’s Pride and Milanda. Inglis then took on the name Mother’s Pride. The Derry bakery when opened became Milanda, Derry. The Milanda label was dropped in the late 70’s in preference to Mother’s Pride, but for most people in Derry the bakery still retained its former name.
Industrial relations in the 1970’s in general were fraught to say the least and with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, things were, of course, destined to take a turn for the worst. The bakery industry was no exception, but in Derry it had a few other local peculiarities.
The constant inequity with their Belfast counterparts in terms of pay and conditions saw Derry bakers regularly at odds with management and on the brink of industrial action. Industrial action for bakers in Derry also brought the added danger that the halting of production would see their regular customer base turn to bakeries in nearby County Donegal who were only to eager to hone in on the northern market and undercut regular prices in order to establish a foothold.
A combination of all these circumstances saw the Glen Road workforce withdraw their labour in late 1979. The story of the strike made the front page of the ‘Journal’ on Friday, November 2nd.
The story began as follows: “There was confrontation at the gates of Milanda Bakeries in Derry yesterday, involving striking bakers, van drivers, police and members of the Milanda Bakery management.
“Two officials of the Derry branch of the Bakers Union told a ‘Journal’ reporter they had been responsible for the picket since the men went out on Tuesday. Almost 200 hundred bakers at the premises are involved and there is no production there at the moment.
“The spokesman said that on Tuesday night they instructed their management that they would let the Derry bread servers in and out without any hindrance, but that containers going ‘up the country’ with bread from the Derry bakery would be stopped.
“We were trying to ensure that whatever bread was in the bakery would be kept for the Derry area,” said one of the spokesmen.
“However, they claimed on Tuesday night police arrived at the premises and escorted four containers out of the bakery. Due to police pressure the men could not prevent the containers from leaving and, according to the spokesmen, if the bread had been allowed to remain in the bakery it would have been enough for the city until the weekend.
“The spokesmen said that they allowed Derry bread servers free access to the bakery, but that any vehicles from outside of the town, they believed might be bringing in bread supplies, they wanted to search before allowing them to proceed.
“The men said this had operated satisfactorily until yesterday when two vehicles from the Strabane are arrived at the gates.”
When a ‘Journal’ reporter spoke to men at the gates they said they had been refused permission to search the vans and police had been sent for.
At that stage they were told by a police officer that there were two more police landrovers ‘around the corner’ and that they had enough men to secure passage for the vans.
The ‘Journal’ continued: “However, the men said they were adamant that the vehicles would not enter without being searched by them.
“In addition to members of the picket, there were the van drivers and some members of the management on the scene.
“When two officials had finished speaking to the ‘Journal’, one police officer asked them could they go to the back of the first vehicle waiting to enter. The back door was opened and the men were allowed to see inside. It contained only empty trays. However, the second van then reversed into the entrance of the factory and drove off after the men refused to let it enter.
“Afterwards, the men said they were informed by management that the second van contained ‘Mr Kipling’ cakes.
“They said had they been allowed to search the van they would have allowed it to proceed even with its load. However they claimed, the driver had refused and they in turn refused to let the van enter the building.”
The bakery as well had been targeted by the IRA on several occasions throughout the Troubles, but on July 11, 1972 a 25lb exploded at the factory.
It was reported that two masked and armed men left the device at the security hut and gave a 20 minute morning. The area was evacuated and RUC personnel operating traffic diversions in the district at the time withdrew when two men were seen taking up sniping positions. As the British army attempted to drag the device from the building it exploded causing extensive damage to the bakery’s canteen.
No injuries were caused in the incident.