Lilian Barnes, a young syrup filler at Tate & Lyle's Plaistow Wharf refinery, in 1951
At the time, Silvertown was still bustling with the working docks and more than 20 factories. The two Tate & Lyle refineries on the ‘Sugar Mile’ – virtually the only factories left there today – were the most popular because they paid the highest wages, gave bonuses three times a year through a profit-sharing system, and had an unrivalled social life thanks to their social club, the Tate Institute. The Institute – now derelict – laid on regular dances and parties and sold subsidised rum shipped in from the Jamaican sugar plantations, while the company had regular beanos to Margate and Southend.
In those days, Tate & Lyle was still a family firm, and the Tates and Lyles would tour the factories at Christmas to say happy Christmas to their workers, while presents and parties were laid on for employees’ children. “It was very hard work, but really when you think back we was treated really well and looked after,” says Betty Brightmore, 82, one of the women interviewed for the book.
The factories even had an onsite bar, open during the working day, and on Christmas Eve the tradition was for the girls to get drunk in their lunch break. “When they came back a lot of them were so drunk they’d have a ‘paper cage’ where they put paper and bags ... and [we would] put them in the cage until they sobered up a bit. There’d be at least half a dozen in there,” recalls former worker Jim Fittock.
Tate & Lyle was considered to be a company that “really looked after their workers”. The factories had an on-site doctor, dentist, optician, chiropodist and hairdresser, and staff were vaccinated against polio, X-rayed every year and given annual check-ups if they were under 18. Sick workers were sent to a convalescent home by the seaside at the company’s expense.
Girls were proud to be seen in their Tate & Lyle uniform, which was considered glamorous despite consisting of factory-issue dungarees, checked blouses and turbans to cover the hair. They took in their uniforms by hand to make sure they were figure-hugging, and would stuff the turbans with stockings and underwear to make them higher and more fashionable. The Blue Room, where the sugar packets were printed, was known unofficially as the Beauty Shop because the girls there were the prettiest. One six-foot stunner even ran off to join exotic dance troupe The Bluebell Girls in Paris.
Workplace romances were so common that company magazine The Tate & Lyle Times printed pictures of the latest newly-weds, and the factories gained the local nickname of “the knocking shop”. Extra-marital affairs were common and one foreman and a forelady conducted a furtive romance in a storeroom accessed only by a ladder. They regretted their choice of location when two young men spotted them going up there one day and promptly removed it. A young man in charge of the storerooms used them to have sex with sugar girls in, and even loaned the keys to married men who had mistresses.
There were a surprisingly large number of factory sports teams and clubs, from football and cricket to archery, judo, rifle shooting, photography, amateur dramatics and pet clubs. The company sports field, which no longer exists, hosted an annual sports day that was the highlight of the working year, and included a beauty pageant judged by movie stars like Derrick De Marney, Paul Dupuis and Dennis Price.
The employees were still intensely loyal to their respective factories – the Plaistow Wharf refinery, set up in 1881 by Abram Lyle, was known as “Lyles’s”, and the Thames refinery, founded by Henry Tate in 1877, was known as “Tates’s” – and did battle against each other in cricket, football and other sports, to win the “inter-refinery shield” each year. Many of the people working at Tate & Lyle in the 1940s and 1950s were the fourth generation of their families to do so.
Women played an important role in the life of the factories. The great sugar-packing operation on the Hesser floors was female-dominated, with girls filling the bags of sugar and stacking them in parcels, while the departments where the famous Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins were made and filled were also staffed by young women. In the can-making department, the clatter of the tins was so loud that girls learned to lip read to talk to one another.
During the war, the factories’ workforce became female dominated for the first time and women took over many men’s roles, including the hot and sweaty job of the panmen who boiled up the sugar liquor. Production continued even when the area was heavily bombed during the Blitz, the women rushing to the factory shelters and then carrying on with their work as soon as the all-clear sounded.
But with large departments full of teenage girls – and a few boys – there was ample opportunity for fun. Pranks were common, and initiation rituals included having sugar or syrup poured down your dungarees. Most departments played music for the girls to sing along to while they worked – the result of a surprise visit from factory director Oliver Lyle in the war years.
“I worked in the syrup department,” recalls Eliza Attenborough, 93. “The forelady’s office was up a flight of stairs so she could see all over the floor. We were singing one day, ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’, and Oliver Lyle was walking through and the forelady told us to be quiet. Oliver Lyle went straight back up to her office and he told her to mind her own business, and he bought us a radiogram. And every two months, we used to get a catalogue and pick out the records we wanted to listen to.”
Nowadays, the factories’ workforce is greatly scaled back and most of the jobs once done by sugar girls are performed by machines. But many women who worked there in the 1940s and 1950s made lifelong friends at Tate & Lyle, and view their time there as a golden era of independence, friendship and romance before they left to get married and start families. “Everybody got on so well and everybody was so friendly,” says Eva Rodwell, 76. “When you worked there you had friends for life. They were the best years of our lives, when you look back on it.”
The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End by Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi is published by Collins, priced £6.99. Buy this book at a discount at Saga Books.
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