A ‘sugary memory’ from guest-blogger Barbara Nadel
My paternal grandparents were different. Unlike most East End granddads and grandmas in the 1960s they didn’t go down the pub, have a picture of a lady with green skin on their parlour wall or visit Southend on Sea for plates of cockles. Instead they lived in a gas-lit flat that hadn’t seen a new coat of varnish since the 1890s and with no TV, no radio and only my granddad’s disturbing First World War memories for company.
To me they were thrillingly exotic. I loved the fact that every corner of their parlour was crammed with photographs of long dead relatives and I, sometimes alone, would listen for hours on end to my grandfather’s ramblings about his childhood in India. I liked his stories about his mongoose, whose name I can’t now recall. I liked the ones about his bear too, except when he reached to the bit where it got torn to pieces by dogs. A few years ago I wrote a short historical crime series based around a World War 1 veteran, called Francis Hancock, who was loosely based on my grandfather.
But much as I loved my grandparents I hadn’t had to grow up with them. My father, their youngest child, had. And at times it wasn’t pretty. Born in the late 1920s, by the time the Second World War began my father was a young teenager with a keen interest in fire-watching, bomb fragments and homemade bicycles. Because all of my father’s siblings were adults the family didn’t evacuate out of London and so he continued to muck about in the streets of Plaistow, Silvertown, Canning Town and North Woolwich in a pretty unsupervised fashion. My grandfather and his craziness acted as night watchman at the Beckton Gasworks while my grandmother washed and cleaned and fretted about her own mother who could have a whole ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ style book devoted to her.
Dad, consequently, was largely free range. Whenever he saw a dead person in a bombed house he just had to get on with how he felt about that. Whole swathes of subjects were taboo in the lives of my Victorian grandparents and that included sex. Granddad was just too weird to talk about it while my grandmother was way too religious at that time. So Dad at thirteen only knew what he’d heard in the playground, from his older siblings and in church. This all boiled down to something about storks, women’s stomachs and strange lavatorial oozes. One night in 1940 however, all that changed very quickly.
Dad was hanging about in Silvertown, down by the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery. He had family and friends inside and was lurking around in the hope of a tin of black treacle or golden syrup when the sirens went off. The docks were going to be hit again and he was over a mile from his home and the safety of the Anderson Shelter in the family’s back yard. Not knowing what to do he began to run. But someone saw him and he was pulled up short by a gruff voice which yelled out, ‘Get in here, mate!’
A gate opened and, what turned out to be a very heavily made up woman, pulled him inside the refinery building. Like most of the Tate & Lyle girls she was both glamorous and very frightening to a young boy – and she knew it. ‘Don’t be scared,’ she said as she led him down to the air raid shelter, ‘I won’t eat ya.’ Then she laughed. My dad began to shake. He’d heard his sisters talk about this Tate girl and that Tate girl being able to ‘eat blokes alive’ and he wondered whether he’d actually be better off out in the street taking his chances with the Luftwaffe. But he followed her.
The shelter when they got to it, was packed. Men and women of all shapes and sizes, pretty, ugly, old, fat and thin, all smoking fags and talking at the tops of their voices. Overhead, Dad could just hear the sound of the bombers engines and the whine that always accompanied the dropping of their payloads. Rammed in to what was not a large space, it was hot and when the first bombs hit their targets everybody sweated that little bit more and raised their voices to drown the deadly sound out. The ground shook and my Dad instinctively moved towards to back of the shelter on the basis that if he was near to a wall it would help to protect him from the blast.
Depending on your point of view about sex, this was an error. Because not only did Dad move closer to the back wall, he also moved several light years closer to real sexual knowledge. To use his own words he was suddenly confronted by ‘almost every sexual practice that can happen between a man and a woman and some that shouldn’t be possible’. He gawped. Partly because of what the gorgeous sugar girls were doing with the sugar men but also because he was watching and they didn’t care. Trapped behind a wall of sweating bodies and smoking fag butts he couldn’t escape and so he had to stay where he was, watching these various performances, until they reached their conclusions.
It was quite a night and when the raid was finally over the women he’d seen doing things with their ‘rude bits’ that clearly made them happy, ruffled his hair and smiled at him. He never told his parents about his adventure ever and in fact he didn’t tell his siblings until he was middle aged. But it stayed with him. That vision of the fabulous sugar girls taking life by the balls, as it were, and defying death with joyful sex. Maybe that was why, in spite of his weird background, he was never uptight about sex himself. What consenting adults did to and with each other was OK by him.
But when the raid was over and Dad was let out of the refinery something that was of even more interest to a thirteen year old boy who was very often hungry came to pass. Tate & Lyle’s had taken a hit and there were rivers of molten sugar all over the pavements and in the roads around the plant. As it cooled it became soft, sticky caramel which Dad ripped up in long strips and stuck in his mouth and in his pockets. On his way back to Plaistow he ate as much of the molten sugar as he could while wondering what the beautiful Tate & Lyle girls were doing now that the raid was over. He eventually decided that he probably couldn’t imagine anything odder than what he’d seen them do already. As he later said to me, it was his first exposure to the notion that ‘life will always find a way,’ whatever the circumstances and whatever the odds. And he was grateful for it.
Barbara Nadel is an award-winning crime writer and the author of twenty novels. Her most recent, An Act of Kindness, was published earlier this year. For more information on her books, visit www.barbara-nadel.com.
When we posted a notice on this blog about our next book, calling for stories of British women who had become GI Brides, we never expected to find a woman who was both – and yet that was the case of Frances Pelling. Her daughter Lynn contacted us to tell us her story.
Frances was born in 1923 and grew up on Eastwood Road in Silvertown, a stone’s throw from Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf Refinery. At the age of fourteen she left school and took a job as a sugar packer on the Hesser Floor. After her father had walked out on the family, she had been raised by her mother, who was deaf, and her elderly grandfather, and as an only child she was the main breadwinner of the family.
Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf Refinery
During the war, the family would gather at a shelter in Lyle Park, although Frances always worried that being deaf her mother would not be able to hear the sirens. The first she would know of the bombs falling was the vibrations that she could feel – one time she got up to answer the door convinced that someone was knocking, only to find it was a raid.
Frances met her GI husband, Richard Ross, at the roller-skating rink at Forest Gate. A corporal in the US Army, he was based at the docks, where he helped supervise the ships that were bringing in supplies for the Americans. At the skating rink, Frances felt sorry for him, since he seemed to be spending more time on the floor than he did skating around. They got talking, and arranged to see each other again. Soon they were dancing together at American Red Cross clubs and playing darts in the local pubs, as well as walking for miles around and ending up on a bench in Lyle Park.
Frances and Richard in Trafalgar Square
In less than a year Frances and Richard were married, in a Baptist church in Plaistow. Strangely, she had been warned that she would marry a foreigner – by a tea leaf reader she had visited a few months earlier. The woman had told her she would move to a different country, never see her mother again, and almost die in childbirth. Frances was so terrified she vowed never to see a fortune teller again.
Richard was from Brooklyn and when Frances told her mother that she would be leaving Silvertown to live with him in New York, the poor woman was devastated – as a deaf single mother she had always relied on her daughter’s help and support and she was worried about how she would cope on her own.
When the war ended, Richard was shipped home and Frances awaited passage as a war bride. But she was already pregnant, and gave birth to baby Lynn before she could be reunited with her husband. She developed pre-eclampsia and was seriously ill for several weeks, so Lynn went to live with her grandmother.
It was almost a year later that Frances finally made her way to the United States, on a liberty ship, the George Washington Goethals. Like many women, she was upset at the way she was treated by the American authorities, who were often suspicious that GI brides, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, were using marriage as a ticket to a richer country. ‘I was made to feel like a tramp’, she later told her family.
It was a stormy crossing, and Frances was badly seasick. At one point the ship rocked so violently that her daughter’s crib broke loose of its fixings and careened across the deck and into a bulkhead, leaving the baby with a nasty cut to her chin. Frances was filled with relief to finally arrive at the pier in New York, where Richard came running up the gangway with a beautiful cocker spaniel puppy in his arms. (His mother had given him some money to buy a new suit for the occasion, but he had decided that a new dog was much more suitable!)
Frances and Richard went to live with his mother in her small apartment in Brooklyn. It was a difficult time for Frances – Mrs Ross felt that her son had married beneath himself and largely ignored her new daughter-in-law, although fortunately she adored baby Lynn. It was a relief when they were able to move out and go to live with Richard’s grandmother in Milford, Connecticut, in a house just a block away from the beach.
When the old lady died, Richard and Frances remained in her house, and they stayed in Connecticut for the next fifty years. Richard got a job in the paint department of Sears Roebuck, where he worked his way up to become manager. When he retired, the couple moved to Florida.
At first Frances found it hard to adjust to life in America, and she felt that people she met were so fascinated by her English accent that they didn’t bother to listen to what she was saying. She was shocked when she saw her first teabag and avoided ‘foreign’ dishes such as pizza and spaghetti. But in time, she found a group of British women in Milford, the British-American Club, which became one of the focal points of her life.
Although Frances grew to enjoy life in America, her great regret was for her deaf mother, left behind in England. She wrote to her regularly, and sent pictures every few months, but she was unable to travel home to visit until the 1950s, when her mother was dying. For the rest of her life, Frances felt troubled by guilt at having left her mother behind when she became a GI bride. But she had come to love life in America, and was happily married to Richard for 64 years.
Frances died in 2009 at the age of 86. Her relatives brought some of her ashes back to England and scattered them in Lyle Park.
This morning, sugar girls Gladys Hudgell and Eva Rodwell were star guests on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek, hosted by Libby Purves.
Glad and Eva livened up the Wednesday morning discussion show with tales of their experiences at the Tate & Lyle sugar factories in the East End in the 1940s and 1950s – in particular, the pranks they used to get up to.
Gladys recounted the time she got her own back on a strict forelady by taking a nest of mice into her office and scaring her witless, while Eva talked about the fights that used to go on amongst the workforce of rowdy 15 and 16-year-olds.
If you missed it, you can listen to the interview here:
With the second series of Call the Midwife coming to an end tonight, we’ll be subject to an agonizing – and appropriate – nine-month wait before our favourite nuns and nurses get back on their bikes for the Christmas special. So if you, like us, are dreading the post-partum depression that will inevitably follow the series finale, here are our suggestions for how to pass the time while you wait for the next delivery.
Before Call the Midwife’s smash success, series writer Heidi Thomas was best known for her adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, but it was an earlier series that really laid the foundation for her writing about the working-class inhabitants of Poplar. Lilies was inspired by her own family history living around the docks of Liverpool in the 1920s. For anyone who loves the heart wrenching family drama of Call the Midwife, the eight-part series is a must.
If you can’t get enough of the 1950s East End, aside from the amazing trilogy of books on which Call the Midwife is based (Call The Midwife, Shadows of The Workhouse and Farewell to The East End, now available in one bumper edition), check out Gilda O’Neil’s fascinating book My East End, which captures the area in the words of those who lived there. And if you want an absorbing tale of a life lived in the shadow of the East End docks, Melanie McGrath’s wonderful book Silvertown – which tells her own grandmother’s story in gripping detail – is hard to beat.
Meanwhile, if you’re after more first-person memoirs of twentieth-century women’s lives, try Angela Patrick’s book The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers, which tells the heartbreaking story of a woman who – like Joan in The Sugar Girls – was forced to have her illegitimate child in a home run by nuns, and to give the baby up for adoption. West End Girls by Barbara Tate (no relation to the sugar manufacturers!) tells of the colourful scenes she witnessed as the maid to a Soho prostitute during the 1940s.
And of course, if you love true stories of life in the East End during the 1950s, do check out The Sugar Girls too. Focusing on Tate & Lyle’s female factory workers in Silvertown, not far from the midwives’ stomping ground of Poplar, it tells true stories of ordinary working-class lives in a thriving industrial area. There’s a fair share of heartache, but plenty of fun and romance too – and if the absence of Call the Midwife has left you with a craving for baby drama, The Sugar Girls features three pregnancies!
And if all that doesn’t keep you busy until we return to Nonnatus House at Christmas, you can always start bingeing on the 900-minute Call the Midwifeboxset.
Do your family have any connection to the Silvertown Explosion of 1917? The One Show are looking for people to interview for a forthcoming programme and would love to hear from anyone with a personal connection to the tragedy.
The explosion happened on 19 January 1917 at 6.52pm, claiming the lives of 73 people. The Brunner Mond factory had been turned over to war work, and was producing TNT.
Oliver Lyle described the impact at Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf factory:
“Brunner Mond, now I.C.I., half a mile down the road, were producing TNT. A fire broke out in their factory and after about 20 minutes reached a vessel containing 16 tons of TNT which exploded. The damage was enormous. The pressure wave went out in strange lines, one of which went right along the Edgware Road breaking windows as far as Maida Vale. At Plaistow all large windows were broken and every roof was lifted and dropped down out of position with or without its slates or tiles. It took only a few days to get straight enough to start melting again because the process buildings were so strong and their window panes so small that few were broken.
“The loss of life in the district was very great but not nearly so great as might have been expected because everyone knew what was going on inside Brunner Mond’s and everybody who could was going up the road as fast as possible.
“In 1906 we had built the big ferroconcrete chimney, 25′ high and 20′ in diameter. It very soon cracked all over so in 1909 steel bands 3″ wide and 1″ thick were fitted every three feet. After the explosion it was seen that all the bands had dropped 3” quite evenly. It was assumed that the passing compression wave had compressed the chimney by closing the cracks sufficiently to allow the bands to drop freely.
“The compression wave struck the big gas-holder at the South Metropolitan Gas Works at Blackwall. The top plating rolled up like the shaving from a plane and the heat from the tearing metal ignited the gas so that 12,000,000 cubic feet of gas burned in a few seconds. This caused the great glow that was seen for 20 miles round.”
If you have a personal connection to the Silvertown Explosion, and would be willing to speak to The One Show, please contact Will Steel.
After we wrote about the sixtieth anniversary of the Great Smog in December, we received a fascinating email from Janet Stammers, who grew up in Albert Road, Silvertown in the 1950s and remembers the smog well.
As Janet recalled:
“My mum and me were trying to make our way to Eid’s the bakers and literally could not see a hand in front of us for the thick green pea soup colour of the fog.
“The five minute walk to the bakers was a familiar route but within two minutes of leaving home the smog hit us and we were stuck half way not being able to get our bearings.
“We were terrified and lost,when out of the fog came two red lights which were the rear lights of a baker’s van. (There were no white reversing lights in the 1950s.)
“We had actually reached Eid’s the bakers and it was Mr Eid who was reversing into us and almost pinned us to the bakery wall. Fortunately for us, Mr Eid heard our terrified screams and, as always was kindness itself and took me and my mum into the bakery, gave us a cup of tea; and from miraculously out of the blue appeared a policeman with a lantern and duly escorted mum and me back to Albert Road.
“When Dad came in from his shift in the shore gang in the King George VI dock he listened with incredulity of our adventure and then retorted, ‘I gather you didn’t get any bread then.'”
Today marks 60 years since the Great Smog of London, which saw the city almost grind to a halt. Many sugar girls we interviewed remembered the freak weather event, and we incorporated some of the stories they told us into our book. We would love to hear from anyone with memories of the Smog – you can email us here to share your stories.
From The Sugar Girls, Chapter 13
The winter of 1952 was bitterly cold, and families everywhere were throwing as much coal on the fire as they could afford. The timing could not have been worse. On Friday 5 December, an anticyclone settled over London, and combined with the cold weather it created a lid of warm air, under which an unliftable yellow-black smog began to form. The East Enders were used to pea-soupers, but this was on a scale never experienced before, and on Silvertown’s Sugar Mile, where the factories belched out their own smoke hour after hour, visibility was reduced to a mere foot.
That morning the buses crawled the streets as slowly and carefully as they could, conductors carrying lanterns out in front in a desperate attempt to see through the smog. At the Plaistow Wharf Refinery, workers arrived in dribs and drabs, and even by midday less than half of the machines were fully staffed. In a rare act of generosity towards latecomers, the management announced that anyone who had made it in at all, however late, would be paid for the full day. Those who had stayed at home would be docked pay accordingly.
Dave Price, who worked on the raw sugar landing, spent most of his morning stuck on the Woolwich Ferry. Halfway across the Thames, the captain of the paddle steamer lost his way, and the passengers were ordered to line the sides of the boat as lookouts, to warn of any incoming vessels. They endured a near miss from a petrol tanker and collided with a barge, before the captain decided it was best to stay where they were. Four hours later they were rescued by a police boat.
When Dave finally made it in to work, his supervisor demanded to know where he had been. ‘I’ve been marooned,’ he told him, ‘in the middle of the river!’
‘Oh well, you better go straight home again,’ his boss responded. ‘There’s no work on the landing today anyway.’
The sugar girls had no such luck, since the Hesser Floor was still running. When the day came to an end they struggled as best they could to find their way home, stumbling from street to street and relying largely on memory to guide them. By the time one poor girl found her way back to Argyle Street, she had walked around St Luke’s Square four times. She got home to find that not only her dungarees but her underclothes had been blackened by the smog.
Ethel had less distance to travel home from work than most, but she found it a challenge nonetheless. It was as if a velvety cloth had fallen upon Silvertown, smothering everyone and everything beneath it, and even the familiar sounds of the area seemed muffled.
In the market at Smithfields, livestock were dying of suffocation, and they weren’t the only ones to perish. In the following weeks, the human casualties of the Great Smog reached 12,000.
To see some haunting pictures of the Great Smog, check out this gallery at the Guardian website, and for more information take a look at this feature from BBC News.
Dave Wilcox just got in touch to say that he too recognised a family member in one of our photographs, in this case his mother, Margie Wilcox.
As Dave put it, in this picture Margie is ‘the one in the foreground with the big smile, mug of tea and a fag’.
Apparently, Margie worked on the Hesser floor at Thames Refinery around 1960, before moving – like Ethel, who we wrote about in The Sugar Girls – into the Hesser floor office.
Later, Margie worked in the Thames Refinery bar with a friend called Lottie.
Margie wasn’t the only member of her family to work at the factory. Her husband, Harry Wilcox, was a driver on the Hesser Floor for 35 years, and their son Dave spent a few years working at the factory himself.
It’s always nice to receive a message from someone who can identify one of the sugar girls in the pictures we have here in the Gallery section of the website, since many of these women are unknown to us. A little while ago we received the following message from a woman who recognised her mother on the cover of this edition of the company magazine, Tate & Lyle Times. Her name was Ivy Tree, and she is on the right of the picture.
Ivy’s daughter wrote to us:
My mother started work for “Lyles’s” when she was 15 years of age and was a “Sugar Girl” who worked at the Plaistow Wharf. She worked in the syrup filling dept and she was 19 years of age when the picture was taken on a “beano” at Southend. The girl in the middle I think was a friend of my Mother’s called Frannie Bates. I have an original edition of this magazine plus another one with my parents wedding photo in. My Father also worked there in the Liquor Room, I think.
My wonderful Granddad whose name was George Tree was a Chef in the staff canteen for about 30-35 years. His brother Harry Tree worked in the spun sugar refining dept as well as being a factory fireman, and President of the Social Club for a number of years.
My sister and I have lots of wonderful childhood memories of the Social Club, the dances and the Children’s Christmas Parties!
We spent this weekend with Gladys and Eva at the Mayor’s Newham Show in East Ham’s Central Park, where the Sugar Girls exhibition had been remounted in a special ‘Pride of Newham’ marquee. It was a great opportunity for us to meet some of our readers, and to sign copies of the book.
Vivian from the Newham Bookshop was there too, proudly displaying a poster which boasts that she has now sold over 500 copies of The Sugar Girls. For a local bookshop, that’s an incredible number, and we’re touched that the community has embraced the book so warmly.
As part of the event, we gave a talk on the history of Tate & Lyle and interviewed Gladys and Eva about their memories. You can see a clip of the interview here:
We were particularly pleased to meet new sugar girls at the marquee. One woman, Rose Lock, told us of her experiences on the Hesser Floor, where she worked from 1959 right up until 1996. Rose told us how her husband tried to forbid her from going on a beano, so concerned was he about what she might get up to on a drunken day to the seaside. In the end she went anyway, but arrived home to find he had locked her out. She had no regrets about going on the trip, however – she told us she had a whale of a time!
It was not long before another distinguished guest visited our marquee: the Mayor of Newham himself, Sir Robin Wales. Sir Robin was touring all the Pride of Newham tents and was keen to speak to Gladys and Eva about their experiences of life in the factory. They, meanwhile, were equally determined to bend his ear about local issues such as rubbish collection in their streets.
Thanks as ever to Vivian from the Newham Bookshop for selling the book, Jessica Wannamaker and Jess Thomas at Newham NDP for putting together the exhibition, and the wonderful Adam the Pastry Guy for providing his famous Sugar Girls cupcakes.