In the years leading up to and after the Second World War thousands of women left school at fourteen to work in the bustling factories of London’s East End. Despite long hours, hard and often hazardous work, factory life afforded exciting opportunities for independence, friendship and romance. Of all the factories that lined the docks, it was at Tate and Lyle’s where you could earn the most generous wages and enjoy the best social life, and it was here where The Sugar Girls worked.
Through the Blitz and on through the years of rationing The Sugar Girls kept Britain sweet. The work was back-breakingly hard, but Tate & Lyle was more than just a factory, it was a community, a calling, a place of love and support and an uproarious, tribal part of the East End. From young Ethel to love-worn Lillian, irrepressible Gladys to Miss Smith who tries to keep a workforce of flirtatious young men and women on the straight and narrow, this is an evocative, moving story of hunger, hardship and happiness.
Tales of adversity, resilience and youthful high spirits are woven together to provide a moving insight into a lost way of life, as well as a timeless testament to the experience of being young and female.
The preface gives the reader a brief background of the two refineries. The employment conditions of the times and also the changes in modern Silvertown are also briefly touched on.
The reader is then introduced to Ethel, Lilian and Gladys whose families all have similar social backgrounds … and later on we get to meet Joan whose family have a different perspective of finances.
Their stories are narrated in chapters of their own and the language is such that you can imagine the women themselves sharing their experiences as opposed to an author re-telling their memories. I felt their personalities really came through which gave me the human element I needed to identify with them and helped me imagine how they felt. This makes something that could have been ‘dry and factual’ into a very enjoyable read.
Although there are plenty of facts about the Tate & Lyle refineries, they are woven in amongst the women’s lives. The reader follows them from their first days in the factory but also we’re with them on a day-to-day basis experiencing the life they lived outside of the factory. Alongside the women we get to meet their families and their co-workers and eventually their boyfriends and husbands. The reader learns about social history as well and ‘natural’ disasters ie The Great Smog in 1952 and the storm tide in 1953. As well as the ‘good times’ – WW2, war romances, evacuation, infant mortality, poverty, pregnancies outside marriage, adoption, domestic violence and politics are all a part of The Sugar Girls lives.
Tate & Lyle were such impressive employers with the way they looked after their employees (convalescent home, factory surgery, pensions etc) and rewarded them with bonuses and promotions. I must admit to having a giggle at the bidets … It was such a way of life for The Sugar Girls including the friends that they made at work, it was no wonder they didn’t want to leave when they got married!
A lovely touch for me is the epilogue – where we find out where the ‘girls’ are now in their lives.
From a family history/genealogy perspective, although there are many names mentioned, some names have been changed to protect identities so I’m not sure how useful it will be for someone trying to trace a specific ancestor/relative. If you have a family member who worked at Tate & Lyle then it’s invaluable for finding out many things about the company and the lifestyle.
I am giving the following rating:
As well as buying The Sugar Girls in one volume, you can also buy their stories separately. Retailing at the time of my review at £0.49 each in Kindle format.
The Sugar Girls separate stories
I’ve really enjoyed reading the blog on The Sugar Girls website and the pictures there bring the book to life even more. There are a lot of other things to browse through and I recommend you have a look.
I would like to thank the authors for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.