BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - British flags fluttered outside chocolate-maker Cadbury's sprawling Bournville site Tuesday as employees lamented the news that a beloved national brand was falling into American hands.
"Hang your heads in shame," read one banner, capturing a feeling at the company's home in Birmingham in central England that patriotic pride as well as future prospects for employees were at stake in the takeover by U.S. giant Kraft.
"It is history, and what is England without its history?" asked Janet Wright, a 59-year-old machine operator, who started work at the Cadbury factory at the age of 15.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he wanted to protect British investment and jobs at Cadbury, illustrating the political sensitivity of the deal in an election year.
Cadbury has been in Bournville since 1879 and the sense of community remains strong there, compounding the fears and disappointment felt by the workforce.
The site, which employs about 2,500, consists of a mix of sturdy 19th-century brick buildings in the style of the 1930s and square blocks reminiscent of the 1960s, stretching as far as the eye can see and reflecting the company's long history.
"It's not just about jobs, it's also about being British. It's the end of a great British company," said one woman, 51, who did not wish to give her name but said she had worked at the factory for 31 years and had met her husband there.
Felicity Loudon, a member of the fourth generation of Cadbury's founding family, said the deal was a tragedy.
"I think my grandfather and great grandfather and great, great grandfather would all be turning in their graves. I think the idea that Cadbury could be anything but British would be just a horror story to them," she told Reuters.
The company's Quaker-inspired tradition of caring for staff, established by its founders, is still in evidence despite the family retreating from the day-to-day running of the business.
The site has a dentist, chiropodist, swimming pool and pensioners' club, and a clocktower stands over a war memorial decorated with poppies paying tribute to dozens of Cadbury workers who died in the two World Wars.
Some workers live in company houses at discounted rents, and when the supermarket chain Tesco opened a store at the site it was barred for a time from selling alcohol.
Myriam Jordan, 82, who worked for Cadbury for 15 years, as did her father-in-law for 46 years, still receives a free Cadbury parcel at Christmas and a free trip every year.
"It adds a bitter taste having an American company buy Cadbury's," she said, returning from the pensioners' club.
The uncertainty over job security has angered the workers.
"Everybody I have spoken to, from the lollipop lady to the people in the school playground, said they would stop buying chocolate bars if Cadbury is taken over by the American company," said a 54-year-old woman who had worked at the firm for more than 20 years and did not wish to give her name.
But some felt the great Quaker traditions had disappeared over the years, with diminishing pension and pay packages.
"They set up a great legacy but all that has gone," said Pete, 48, who declined to give his second name. He had worked in production for 17 years. However, even he was despondent about the likely takeover.
"Better the devil you know," he said.