The sweet story of a Tate & Lyle sugar girl

By Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi , Thursday 19 April 2012

The Sugar Girls, a new book about Tate & Lyle's factory workers in the 1940s and 50s reveals the heavy, repetitive work, sexist regulations and sometimes hazardous conditions they endured – but also the great sense of community and unrivalled social life that the factories provided, and the fierce loyalty that they inspired. This story of Betty Brightmore, an orphan taken under the kindly wing of a manageress, goes some way to explaining why
Gladys, left, and her best friend, Betty, on a Tate & Lyle outing in the 1940sGladys, left, and her best friend, Betty, on a Tate & Lyle outing in the 1940s

Betty joined Tate & Lyle in the Canteen, towards the end of the Second World War, when sugar girls regularly had to leave their work and rush down to the factory air-raid shelters. She was just 14, and her parents had both died a few years previously, leaving her and her siblings orphans. But Betty was fortunate to have the labour manageress of the factory, Miss Smith, taking an interest in her welfare.  Most sugar girls viewed Miss Smith as a terrifying figure – they even nicknamed her ‘the dragon’ – but, unmarried and with no children of her own, she always did her best to look out for orphans who worked for her. 

When Betty got in trouble for talking back to the manageress in the canteen – a difficult and bossy woman called Vera – Miss Smith could have sacked her, but she chose not to. Instead, she had her transferred to the Blue Room, where the iconic Tate & Lyle sugar bags were printed. 

There Betty made a friend for life in Gladys Taylor, a mischievous red-headed tomboy who was always getting into trouble.  With no parents to get her up in the morning, Betty was always running late, especially when they were on the early shift, which started at 6am. But Gladys lived nearby and would come round and knock for her every day, marching up the stairs and shaking her awake if she was still in bed. 

Together, the two friends made the most of the factory's generous social facilities. Betty dragged Gladys along to dances at the Tate Institute, the company’s social club, founded by Henry Tate in 1887 and the most popular nightspot in the area – and took part in the regular company-sponsored beanos to Margate or Southend. Meanwhile, Gladys roped Betty into taking part in the relay race at the annual sports day.  Unlike her friend, Betty was not a naturally sporty type and was reluctant to run for the factory, but nonetheless the team swept to victory overall in the competition. 

Having Miss Smith looking out for her proved a saving grace for Betty.  With no parents, it had been left to her and her sister to raise their younger siblings between them, and in the end juggling this with her work at Tate & Lyle began to take its toll.  Betty started losing weight, and her colleagues at work notice she was becoming increasingly tired at work.  Soon she was missing whole days at the factory, and Miss Smith came round to her house to visit her. 

Back at Tate & Lyle, Betty was summoned to the personnel office, but far from giving her the telling off that her colleagues in the Blue Room expected, Miss Smith made her an offer – she proposed to send her away for a fortnight on full pay at the company’s convalescent home in Weston Super-Mare, to give her a chance to recuperate.  Betty spent a restful two weeks by the sea, far away from the smog of the East End factories, and came back rejuvenated and able to face the world once again.  Thanks to Miss Smith’s intervention, she was able to keep her job at Tate & Lyle. 

When Betty got married in 1950, the rules stipulated that she would have to leave the factory, but she never forgot the close friendships she had made there, or Miss Smith’s kindness in looking out for her.  She and Gladys are still in regular touch today, thanks to the bond they formed over sixty years ago at Tate & Lyle. 

The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett and Nuala CalviThe 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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