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.
Guest post by Matthew Crampton, author of The Trebor Story
While the Sugar Girls were busy in Silvertown, up the road in Forest Gate many other young women were working with sugar. Their story is told in The Trebor Story – a new book about the East End sweet firm which grew to become Britain’s biggest sugar confectioner. Here are some of the characters and stories from that book.
Soon after the firm started in 1907, under the name Robertson & Woodcock, six women workers posed proudly for a picture. They probably didn’t wear these smart clothes for the filthy job of boiling sugar.
Sisters Gertie and Nellie Gooch line up in 1919 with their friend Belinda Tyrie. Back then only twelve women worked in the factory, kneading blobs of hot sugar on the slabs and making lettered rock. They worked fifty-hour weeks at 6 ½ d per hour.
During the war Trebor won a contract to make sweets for American GIs, but the deal required these to be made in a place safe from bombing. Forest Gate was hardly suitable (indeed it received a direct hit in 1944) so the firm set up a new factory in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. To run this plant, it sent Hilda Clark, a remarkable Eastender who had joined Trebor in her teens and later become a director of the company.
Glamour was as important to the Trebor workers as it was to the Sugar Girls. Each year staff competed to enter Candy Queen competitions around the country. In 1957 the London contest in Park Lane was won by Mrs Joan Smith (centre) from the samples room at Forest Gate.
Here’s a great photo of the women’s football team at the Chesterfield factory in 1955. Named the Poulsbrook Tigers, they played to raise money for local retirement homes.
They knew how to party back in the 1970s. Here are some Forest Gate employees enjoying a social in May 1972 at the Little Bardfield Country Club in Essex. Yes, they are doing what you think they’re doing.
People worked hard for Trebor. This 1983 picture shows six of the longest serving staff from Forest Gate. Between them, they clocked up 196 years’ service. Vi Lee (front row left) joined the firm in 1934, was bombed out twice during the war and spent 21 years on the box-wrapping machine. Dolly Lamb next to her had 35 years’ service, starting on a salary of £4 a week with a daily bonus of between two and five shillings. Her neighbour Mavis Lewis worked 33 years, starting straight from school at fifteen.
Vi Lawrence (back row left) followed her mum Mabel into the factory in 1952 as a sugar feeder on the evening shift. Ivy Brewster next to her started work ‘on the belt’, producing toffee bars called Tramps, while Nell Antoine joined Trebor soon after arriving from Jamaica in 1956.
It all ended in 1983 when the firm decided it could no longer upgrade this loyal old factory to the level required by modern production. Here you can see an anguished look on the face of Helen Stephens as she fills the Forest Gate’s last ever jar of sweets.
At the talk, Neil showed some remarkable photographs that revealed Plaistow’s past as a rather grand village full of large houses and surrounded by market gardens.
As London expanded rapidly in the 19th century, it swept over the village of Plaistow, almost completely obliterating it.
One of the few older buildings to remain is The Black Lion pub, built in the early 1700s, which was once frequented by Dick Turpin.
The pub was mentioned in a court case in 1809 concerning the so-called Plaistow Riot. The well-to-do residents had been horrified to hear that there were plans to run races from the Black Lion to the Greyhound pub, and hold games such as gurning competitions, archery and donkey rides. The residents feared this was an attempt to bring back a banned annual fair, and so put up notices saying that the event was illegal.
On the day, local magistrates and constables arrived to try and stop the fun, resulting in mayhem. Several people were charged with rioting, but when their cases came to court the magistrate declared that there was no evidence of a riot and the revellers got off scot-free.
The working classes got the last laugh, as Plaistow was rapidly turned over to housing for workers from the docks and factories that sprung up, while most of the grand old houses have long since been ground to dust.
If you’re interested in seeing more archive pictures of the area, come to the Sugar Girls tent at the Mayor’s Newham’s Show this Saturday and Sunday, where you can see a photographic exhibition put together with Newham NDP.
We will be giving a book talk from 3pm along with former sugar girls Gladys Hudgell and Eva Rodwell, and signing copies of the book in the Sugar Girls tent from 3.30 to 5.30pm.