Joan’s lost purse

The following extract was read by Duncan at the Sugar Girls book launch at The Hub in Canning Town on 28 March.

Joan had joined Tate & Lyle expressly for the social life, and she was determined to make the most of it. She could see that her old friend Peggy already had an established group of her own among the sugar girls, so she set about building a new set of friends. It wasn’t difficult for Joan, whose cheerful self-confidence, natural chattiness and naughty sense of humour acted as a magnet to those around her.

She had soon found a best friend in Kathy, a shy, sweet-natured girl who was the perfect complement to Joan’s big personality. Kathy came from a local, factory-working family: her sister was at Tate & Lyle too, and her father spent his days getting his hands stained black at an ink works. She was a decent-looking girl but she was remarkably thin, which she considered a personal disaster. To disguise this perceived flaw she always wore high collars, fixed with a brooch. ‘Why can’t I look like Lana Turner or Jane Russell?’ she would moan.

Kathy and Joan could often be found at Mrs Olley’s pie and mash shop on Rathbone Street, or at Chan’s Chinese restaurant, one of the few places you could get dinner after the cafes and fish and chip shops closed. Kathy would eat as much as she possibly could, but invariably stayed as skinny as a rake.

Joan had another new friend by the name of Rosie. She had a little chubby face and came from a family who, unlike Joan’s own parents, knew how to party. Many was the night that Joan and Rosie would collapse exhausted onto to the put-me-up in Rosie’s front room after roller-skating all evening at the Forest Gate rink – only for her brothers to carry on partying around them as they slept.

A sugar girl called Doris, meanwhile, whose sister Lily also worked on the Hesser Floor, shared Joan’s passion for shopping. Unlike most girls at Tate & Lyle, Joan didn’t have to pay ‘housekeeping’ because her family were so well off, so she could dedicate every last penny of her wages to fashion. She would get paid on a Thursday, and by Saturday the money had usually evaporated.

Joan and Doris’s favourite haunt was the market at Green Street, Upton Park, where they had dresses made in imitation of the film stars they had seen at the cinema the week before. If they were feeling really flush, they went to Blooms in Canning Town, where bright new colours and fabrics dangled tantalisingly.

But it was at the window of Queen Bee’s at Green Gate that Joan truly fell in love. There, in the display, were the first half-cup bras she had ever seen in her life.

‘Cor, Doris – look at those!’ she said, her face pressed to the window. ‘They must be what the actresses wear.’
‘You’d fall right out of them,’ her friend protested.

‘Yeah, that’s the point!’ she replied, already adding up in her head the number of weeks’ pay it would take to buy the whole lot.

Every Friday thereafter, Joan visited Queen Bee’s and handed over as much of her hard-earned cash as she could afford. Week after week she returned, until the whole window display was safely in her underwear drawer at home.
There, when no one else was around, she tried on the exotic new items in front of the mirror. She had no particular use for fancy lingerie – not yet at least – but the sheer glamour made her feel like a million dollars.

Like all good consumers, Joan quickly tired of her latest purchases and was soon aching for new ones. Not long after the bras had been triumphantly attained, she set her sights on a fresh target: an exquisite green suede coat that she had seen in the window at Blooms.

‘I’ve got to have it,’ she wailed to Doris, ‘but I’ve spent this week’s wages already!’

‘We’ve got a bonus coming to us next Thursday,’ her friend reminded her, ‘you could blow that.’

‘But how can I wait that long, knowing it’s there?’ asked Joan, reluctantly allowing herself to be led away from the shop.

The following week, Joan made sure to plan a big night out with the girls, to show off the new coat she was intending to buy. After they had picked up their pay packets on Thursday afternoon, she and Doris got the bus to Canning Town, Doris paying the bus fare on the way there and Joan promising to pay it on the way back, as was their usual arrangement.

They headed to Ideal Hairdressers, where they could be found every Thursday, having their hair curled and set in preparation for the weekend. ‘Do it like Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder,’ instructed Joan, scrunching her hair up at the sides to demonstrate.

As the hairdressers bustled around them, the two girls chatted about the outfits they were going to wear on Saturday night and where they would go. Doris favoured the Lotus Ballroom at Forest Gate, but Joan had her heart set on the Ilford Palais.

They were still debating the question half an hour later when they got to the bus stop. As she mounted the bus, Joan reached into her bag for her purse to pay both their fares as agreed. She and Doris were both carrying large open bags, which were not only trendy but handy for stuffing any last-minute buys into on the way home.

‘Where’s me darn purse?’ Joan said, scrabbling around inside. ‘I can never find anything in this huge bloody thing.’
‘Get a wiggle on, love,’ said the man behind them in the queue.

Joan had to admit defeat, and she and her friend pushed back past the queue of annoyed people onto the pavement, where they promptly tipped the huge bag upside down. But the purse was nowhere to be seen.

‘My whole bonus was in there!’ Joan cried. ‘Someone must have nicked it.’

‘Well, it ain’t difficult to do with bags like these,’ reasoned Doris, ‘but let’s get back to the hairdressers and see if it’s turned up there.’

The two girls legged it back to Ideal Hairdressers, but the purse had not been seen.

‘How am I going to pay for the coat now?’ Joan asked, distraught. She felt tears prick her eyes. ‘I was going to wear it to the Palais.’

‘You mean the Lotus,’ Doris corrected her. ‘C’mon, I’ll pay our bus fares home.’

By the time Joan got back to Otley Road there were tears streaming down her face.

Her mother met her at the door. ‘What’s the matter, love?’ she asked, whisking her inside with a quick look up and down the street to check that none of the neighbours had witnessed her blubbing.

‘I lost me bonus at the hairdressers,’ sobbed Joan, ‘and now I can’t buy the green suede coat.’

The thought of her beloved daughter going without the latest must-have item speared Mrs Cook to the heart. ‘There, there,’ she said. ‘We’ll sort something out.’

Joan cried herself to sleep that night, and the next day when she got up for work the reflection in the mirror made her gasp. Her hair, which had been perfectly curled the day before, was a stringy mess, her eyes were so red and puffy she looked as if she was suffering from a nasty tropical disease, and her skin was pale and blotchy.

‘I can’t go to work like this, Mum!’ she pleaded. ‘Don’t make me.’

‘Now, now Joan,’ said her mother brightly, ‘keep your chin up. It’ll be right as rain, you’ll see.’

Reluctantly, Joan pulled on her blue dungarees and scraped her ruined hair back from her face. Don’t matter if it’s a mess now, she thought, I’ve got no money to go out anyway.

As she rode the bus to work, Joan retraced in her mind the events of the previous afternoon, trying to think where she might have lost the purse. Could the man behind her in the bus queue have slipped his hand into her bag when she wasn’t looking? Could someone have taken it while the bag was by her feet in the hairdresser’s?

As soon as Joan walked onto the Hesser Floor, it was obvious that news of her catastrophe had spread fast. Girls shot her sympathetic looks and even people she barely knew seemed to be talking about her and pointing. They all lived for their bonuses, and her misfortune was quickly passing into legend, sending a chill down the spine of every sugar girl.

‘God, you look like you’ve been socked in the eye,’ remarked Doris helpfully, when she saw Joan’s face.
Joan turned to Kathy instead. ‘Don’t suppose my purse has turned up here, has it?’ she asked.

‘No, ’fraid not,’ said her friend. ‘Sorry.’

That coat’ll probably be gone by the time I get enough cash together again, thought Joan, turning miserably to her machine.

The day’s work seemed to drag more than ever, and at the end of her shift Joan was desperate to run straight home and spend the evening under her bedcovers. But as she was about to leave, she heard Doris say, ‘Now!’, and saw her give Kathy a little push.

‘Um, Joan,’ said Kathy, with a shy smile, ‘we’ve got something for you.’

Joan noticed that Rosie and a crowd of the other girls were also gathering round. What on earth were they up to?

From behind her back, Kathy produced a Tate & Lyle sugar bag, which was bulging with something that didn’t look like sugar. She presented it to Joan. ‘From all us girls,’ she said, ‘to make up for your purse getting nicked.’

Joan took the bag from her with both hands, realising as she did so that it was full of coins. Between them, her colleagues had managed to raise the entire sum of her lost bonus.

‘You lot are brilliant!’ said Joan, her puffy eyes crinkled with joy. ‘Bleedin’ brilliant!’

She raced off to catch the bus to Canning Town and arrived at Blooms out of breath and sweaty.

In the shop, she pulled out the sugar bag and poured all the coins onto the counter. The sales assistant, a middle-aged woman, looked at Joan with a twinkle in her eye. ‘You’ve been saving up to get married, haven’t you,’ she said with a nostalgic smile.

‘Nah, I’m here for me coat,’ Joan replied.

‘Oh, are you Joan?’ the woman said, disappointed. ‘Your mother’s been in for it already.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Joan, scarcely believing what she had heard.

‘Mrs Cook, she picked it up this morning.’

Joan couldn’t believe how quickly fortune had swung back in her favour. Not only did she now have her bonus back, but as a result of losing it she had got the coat for free!

She collected up the coins again and rushed back to Ideal Hairdressers. ‘Same as yesterday, please,’ she said, making herself comfortable in the seat.

‘Bloody Nora,’ said the hairdresser, looking at Joan’s crumpled hair, which only yesterday she had sculpted to perfection. ‘You must have had a heavy night.’

From Chapter One

On a crisp September day in 1944, Ethel Alleyne stood outside Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf refinery, looking up at the giant gate with its elaborate wrought iron and shining white clock.

A wiry, frizzy-haired girl with light-brown skin and keen dark eyes, she was wearing her best dress for the occasion – black with red trimmings. In one hand she clutched her headmaster’s testimonial, already proudly committed to memory:

Ethel’s attendance has been regular and punctual. She is a very willing, cheerful girl, always ready to give her best. Her neatness and tidiness and general attention to detail are very pleasing. I can recommend her to any employer as a conscientious worker.

At 14, Ethel had never been inside a factory, but she felt as if she’d been preparing for this moment all her life. She had grown up in the heart of Silvertown and was used to living in the shadow of the Sugar Mile – the stretch of colossal factories that ran between Tate & Lyle’s sugar and syrup refi neries. The factory life was in her blood – her mother’s family had lived in the area for generations, working in Keiller’s jam and marmalade factory, and her grandfather would tell anyone who would listen that he remembered when Silvertown was little more than a marsh.

From a hut on the left of the entrance emerged a fierce-looking man in the smart, military-style uniform of a commissionaire, his navy-blue tunic buttoned up to the collar and the silver buttons gleaming in the sunlight.

‘Yes, darlin’?’

Ethel drew herself up to her full height and did her best to hide her nerves. ‘I’m here about a job,’ she told him.

‘In here.’ He gestured for her to follow him into the little hut.

Inside, Ethel stood anxiously while a man in a white boilersuit glanced over her testimonial and noted down a few details on a form. ‘Hesser Floor, I reckon,’ he told her briskly, ‘but the surgery will need to check you out first. I’ll get a girl to take you.’

Before long a smartly dressed young woman who looked to be in her late teens arrived at the door. ‘Hesser girl?’ she asked Ethel, as they stepped out of the hut.

‘Um, I think so,’ Ethel replied, ‘but I’m not sure what that means.’

‘Oh, Hesser of Stuttgart make the sugar-packing machines, but we try to keep that quiet these days! Come on.’

The two girls headed into the refinery.

Ethel was quite unprepared for the sight that met her eyes. She knew that the factory was big, but seeing it up close, from the inside, was another matter. Ahead of her, slightly to the right, the enormous grey-brick hulk of the Hesser building towered over her. At its base a team of boys and burly-looking girls were standing on a raised level open to the yard, loading up great haulage lorries with tonne-weight boards of sugar bags. To her left, another large building housed the factory’s bar and Recreation Room, and in front of her wagon tracks crisscrossed all over the ground, branching off straight ahead towards the syrup shed, where the Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins were filled. Underneath it was the Blue Room, where the sugar bags were printed, and beyond was the can-making department, where girls produced the famous tins. In the distance she could make out the looming white concrete of the pan house, where sugar liquor was boiled into crystals, and next to it an even taller set of chimneys from the boiler house.

Ethel searched in vain for the shining curve of the Thames, where the boats of raw sugar were unloaded. She knew it must be at the far end of the site, but through the jungle of warehouses in between she couldn’t catch a glimpse of the water. As the two girls hurried across the yard, a musty, malty smell of damp sugar hit them in a cloying wave – shortly followed by another, ranker odour that almost made Ethel retch. She knew what it was, but tried her best not to think about it: the pile of rotting carcasses just the other side of the factory wall, at John Knight’s soap works. It was a smell that every Tate & Lyle worker had to learn to ignore.

In the surgery, a young nurse listened to Ethel’s heart, took her blood pressure and checked the movement and strength of her limbs. Then she carefully scoured her frizzy hair for nits, before passing her fit for service.

Ethel followed the other girl back towards the dark-grey Hesser building, on the outside of which a black metal staircase zigzagged up all eight floors. ‘It’s a long way up but you get used to it,’ said the girl, as they began to climb the steps.

As they neared the top, Ethel was beginning to lose her breath, so she was relieved to spot a sign that read: SMALL PACKETS. They went into a cloakroom, where Ethel deposited her coat and bag, and then through a pair of double doors onto the factory floor.

The noise as they stepped through the doors was overwhelming. The large room echoed with the rattle and grind of a dozen machines, huge lumps of iron around which stood teams of young women. Over the top of the noise there was music blaring out, and some of the girls were singing along.

They went up some stairs to an office on a mezzanine level, and as the door clicked shut behind them Ethel was aware of a blissful quiet settling around her. The girl left her in front of an impeccably tidy desk on which stood a little sign: IVY BATCHELOR, FORELADY. Behind the desk sat a tall, upright woman in a long white coat. Her brown hair had evidently been expertly styled, and her nails and make-up were immaculate.

‘Take a seat,’ she said calmly, gesturing to a chair on the other side of the desk.

Ethel did so, sitting up as straight as she could. She was determined to make a good impression.

The forelady looked at her kindly, reached for a form from a pile on her desk and took down Ethel’s name and address. ‘Is there any particular reason you want to work at Tate & Lyle?’ she asked.

Ethel hesitated. She had dreamed of working at one of the giant sugar factories ever since she was little and her dad had taken her to the Tate Institute, the social club opposite the Thames Refinery. They had gone to see a show laid on for local residents and employees, and Ethel had been transfixed – not merely by the dancers onstage, but by the glamorous young women who thronged the hall watching them. They were the factory’s female workforce and her dad had told her they were known as the sugar girls.

She felt self-conscious at the idea of telling that story, though. ‘I only live down the road,’ she offered instead.

Ivy Batchelor laughed gently. ‘Now, I’m afraid we can’t offer you a uniform at present, unless you have ration coupons to spare, but we should be able to lend you an apron for the day.’ She rummaged around under the desk and came up with a rather worn-looking pinny. ‘Your hours are eight to four Monday to Friday and eight to twelve on Saturday. You’re allowed half an hour for dinner and two toilet breaks a day. Any questions?’

Ethel shook her head.

‘Good. Then Mary will see you to one of the machines.’

As if on cue, a stern-looking woman with dark hair marched through the door of the office and gestured for Ethel to follow her. She was Mary Doherty, one of the department’s three supervisors, known as charge-hands.

‘This way,’ she commanded. Ethel jumped up and followed her onto the floor.

At each machine, paper bags were moving along a conveyor belt and being filled with sugar from a chute overhead. They were then sealed with a spurt of glue and a girl took them off the belt, piling them up ready to be packed. A packer then pulled down a sheet of brown paper and flipped the bags onto it in layers until they had made up a parcel, sealing it like an envelope with a bit of cold water and heaving it onto a board. When a tonne-weight of sugar had been assembled, it was taken away on a trolley down to the lorry bay. In charge of each machine was a driver, who paced around keeping an eye on everything. The girls’ various repetitive movements combined to give the impression of an elaborate ballet.

Mary led Ethel across to a machine at the far side of the room, where a woman with giant hands was parcelling up the sugar bags.

‘This is Annie Stout,’ Mary told Ethel. ‘She’ll show you how the packing is done.’ She strode off across the floor and back up to the office.

Ethel noticed that on the ends of Annie’s fat fingers were ten little paper thimbles. ‘You’ll need some of these,’ she told her, ‘or your hands’ll be bleeding by lunchtime.’

Without once interrupting her flow, Annie instructed Ethel in how to make her own thimbles from some spare scraps of paper. Then she stood back and let her have a go at packing.

At first Ethel found it hard holding several bags at once in her hands, but if she applied enough pressure to the sides, and lifted them in a clear, fluid arc, twisting them rapidly before they had a chance to slip, she found that she could manage it without dropping any.

‘That’s it,’ Annie told her approvingly. After a while, she leaned in close and Ethel thought she was going to offer to take over the job again, but instead she whispered something in her ear.

‘Got any sweetie coupons you don’t want, darlin’?’

‘Any what?’ said Ethel, taken aback by the question.

Annie whispered more emphatically: ‘Ration coupons.’

‘No, sorry,’ Ethel replied briskly. She screwed up her face as if focusing intently on her work, and tried to avoid catching Annie’s eye.

Before long Ethel’s wrists were aching from flipping layer after layer of sugar bags, and she was beginning to wonder whether it was too soon to ask for one of her two toilet breaks.

Just then there was a sudden dimming of the lights, and a voice crackled out from the loudspeakers which were stationed around the room.

‘All personnel to shelters, please. All personnel to shelters.’

The driver of Ethel’s machine swiftly pulled a lever, and the whole mechanism ground to a halt. Carefully, Ethel laid down the bags in her hands to complete a layer, and then looked up, hoping that Annie would tell her what to do next. But Annie was gone, lost in the stream of bodies filing in an orderly but hurried fashion towards the exit.

Four years after the start of the Blitz, Tate & Lyle had got evacuations down to a fine art, and could gather nearly all 1,500 of their wartime workforce into shelters within the space of four minutes. A command centre under the can-making department received signals from the national telephone exchange, and four spotters permanently stationed on the panhouse roof provided visual confirmation. Those whose jobs meant that they couldn’t simply leave their posts – such as the men on the boilers and turbines, which were not easily shut down – were provided with blast-proof shielding to keep them safe, while the rest were immediately ordered to evacuate.

Ethel rushed to join the back of the queue of sugar girls streaming out of the door. It was only now that she heard sirens outside the factory as well. In front of her was one of the smart girls from the office.

‘You’re new, aren’t you?’ she asked.

‘Yes, it’s my first day,’ said Ethel wryly.

‘Poor you!’ the other girl replied. ‘Well, don’t worry, the shelter’s just downstairs – we can’t have them underground because of the river. I’m Joanie, by the way. Joanie Warren.’

Ethel followed Joanie back down the black iron staircase to the second fl oor of the building. It was the same size as the Hesser room up above, but whatever machinery it had once housed had been removed, and blast walls had been built, dividing it into compartments. The windows were all bricked up, and wooden boards lined the floor for the workers to sit on. Ethel tried hard to suppress the feeling that she was cooped up in a dungeon.

Before long, the room was packed with bodies, mostly women and girls but a fair number of men as well. By now only a third of the refinery’s employees were male, and women who had previously been forced to leave when they got married were hurriedly being recalled by an army of door-knockers. Many had taken over jobs formerly held by men – working on the lorry bank under the Hesser Floor, manning the centrifuges and working as fitters in the can-making department. Others had been assigned a variety of unusual new roles: dehydrating vegetables to be sent out in tins to the troops (often with a hopeful note containing the name and address of the girl who had sent them) and even producing aeroplane and gun parts.

A woman pushed a steaming mug of cocoa into Ethel’s hand and offered her a Matzo cracker. ‘Could be in here a while,’ Joanie advised her, ‘so you might as well have one.’

Ethel took the Matzo and they sat huddled together, straining their ears for any sound from the skies.

Eventually it came: the familiar phut … phut … phut … of a doodlebug passing overhead.