The Trebor Sugar Girls

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.

There are many other pictures and stories in The Trebor Story. Find out more at the book’s official website.

Tales from Plaistow’s Past

Last night we heard more about the fascinating history of Plaistow, an area where many of our Sugar Girls lived, courtesy of Neil Fraser, author of new book Over the Border: The Other East End.

Neil was sharing the bill with us at a book talk at The Bell in Spitalfields for History in the Pub, a fantastic event organised by London Historians and compered by Matt Brown, editor of Londonist.

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.

Memories of an East London war bride

On Monday, one of our Sugar Girls,  Eva, introduced us to a good friend of hers who we were keen to speak to for our next book, which is about women who married American soldiers during the Second World War.  Alice ‘Jimmy’ White is now 88 but can still vividly recall her experiences in the war, and in particular the American and Canadian soldiers who came to Britain and caused such a stir among the English girls.

Jimmy got her nickname because her mother, Edith, had always wanted a boy. Her father, a gas fitter, had died when she was just five years old, and she had grown up a headstrong, determined girl.

Jimmy was 15 when war broke out, living on Beaumont Road, Leyton, and witnessed her entire street ablaze with fire after an incendiary bomb attack. A couple of years later, when her mother sent her out to buy a sack of potatoes, instead of the potatoes Jimmy returned with a form and asked her mother to sign it: she had volunteered for the army even though she was underage. Her mother knew there was no dissuading her, and signed it.

Soon Jimmy was sent off to Scotland, along with other girls from East London, for 12 weeks of basic Army training. After a hard day’s work the girls headed to the local pub, only to be told: “Sorry, the pubs here are for men only”.

Jimmy was put in the heavy artillery, where her job was to calculate the height of enemy planes to be shot down. The girls were sent to stay near Beverley, Yorkshire, and on their nights off would gather in the market square and dance with foreign soldiers who were stationed nearby – Canadians, Americans, Free French and Poles. The heavy artillery wasn’t far from the barracks where the Canadian soldiers were housed, and every time they shot down a plane, the poor Canadians would get showered with shrapnel.

Betty, Jimmy’s friend, was in charge of driving a truck into the village on errands and frequently fetched fish and chips for the Canadian soldiers. The truck had gained the nickname the Passion Wagon, and Betty had already started seeing a Canadian called Bill. One day she convinced Jimmy to join her and Bill in the truck on a fish and chip run, along with a friend of Bill’s who she said wanted to meet her.

Jimmy agreed and was introduced to a tall, blue-eyed young man Henry, who had joined up to get away from life on his parents’ farm in Canada. The two of them soon started courting and were still together six months later, long after Betty and Bill had broken up.

Henry had two left feet on the dance floor but he was a crack shot as a sniper. Soon he was sent off to Belgium, and the couple stayed in touch by letter. While he was abroad, he bought an engagement ring in exchange for several hundred cigarettes from his rations. It was 24 carat gold and raised such suspicion back home that Jimmy was followed and questioned by the CID about how her boyfriend could have purchased such an expensive piece of jewellery.

Henry and Jimmy got a special license so that they could marry quickly when he came back on leave, and Jimmy excitedly ordered the ingredients for her wedding cake from the bakers. But each time the date drew near his leave would be cancelled and the ingredients would have to be given away for another girl’s wedding cake. Meanwhile Jimmy was injured in the shoulder while shooting down an enemy plane and was given heat treatment. She was taken off the guns and put into the pay department.

Eventually, the day came when Henry was allowed back on leave and the two were finally married. They spent the night in Leyton, in the house of her grandmother – who gave up her bed for the newlyweds. Unfortunately the feather mattress was so soft that when the two of them went to lie down it completely swallowed them up!

When the war came to an end, Jimmy got a letter telling her she would be setting sail for Canada on the Aquitania in a week’s time. It was a mad rush to get ready and say farewell to all her relatives before she left to join her husband and start her new life. Jimmy and a group of other war brides were taken to a hotel where they spent the night before boarding the boat the next day.

As she waved goodbye to Britain, little did Jimmy know that Henry was on the same ship, on his way to be demobbed. The couple were reunited and spent the voyage planning their new life in Canada.

Do you know anyone who dated or married an American or Canadian soldier in the Second World War? If so, we would love to hear their memories for our new book. Please get in touch at

Sugar Girl poet Marie Hindmarsh

In The Sugar Girls we wrote about a young woman called Joan Cook, who penned cheeky little ditties between shifts on the Hesser Floor at Tate & Lyle.  But it turns out that Joan wasn’t the only poet at the sugar factory.  Marie Hindmarsh (nee Crabb) worked in the Syrup Filling Department at Plaistow Wharf from 1956 to 1960.  Now widowed, she spends much of her time recalling memories from her early years and setting them down in verse.

Here are a couple of Marie’s poems, which she kindly sent us earlier this week, along with some of her photographs from her time as a sugar girl.

At age fifteen I went to work in a local factory.
It was Tate & Lyles in Silvertown, and the syrup floor for me.
I was given a pair of Bib & Brace and a green check blouse to wear,
Although not very fashionable, I really didn’t care.
Betty Philips was the forelady, a gentle soul was she.
Unlike Becky the supervisor who was a different cup of tea.
She would chew you up and spit you out without a second glance.
So I knuckled down, did as I was told, and didn’t give her the chance.
Packing tins of syrup until my brain went numb,
Why am I working here? I thought. I really must be dumb!
But then I was upgraded, filling tins with syrup no less.
But if I overfilled one it made an awful mess.
Then along came Automation, which did away with this daily chore.
Not only sticky scales to clean, but syrup all over the floor.
We sang along with the records that over the Tannoy played.
Bill Haley and Lonnie Donagon, along with them we raved.
The best part of working there for me was the lovely friends I made,
And also the generous bonuses, after big profits the company made.
I worked there for almost four years so it couldn’t have been so bad.
I have many happy memories and for that I’m truly glad.

I wrote this in honour of my old workmates, some of whom I know are now deceased. Julie Farmer- Rita Palmer- June Rumsey -Rita Gundry -Coleen Coker- Maureen Turner-Frannie Jenkins-Pat Taylor- Maureen Mason-Dolly Brooks. These are the ones I remember well with fondness.

Working on the syrup floor for almost four years,
Sometimes the repetitiveness would bore us all to tears.
So we left for a seasonal job, my friend Julie Farmer and me.
Deciding on Warners Holiday Camp, and that waitresses we would be.
We really had a ball and would have liked to stay there longer.
But London was calling, and the urge was getting stronger.
So at the seasons end, our waitressing done,
Back to London we had to come.
Looking fit and tanned with a healthy glow,
But both without a job, where were we to go?
Let’s go and see Flo Smith, Julie laughingly said.
What’s wrong with you I uttered, are you sick in the head?
Walking in her office would be some task.
But we’ll never know, she told me, unless we really ask.
We got past the Commissionaire and halfway accross the yard,
When we were confronted by The Dragon, who stared at us real hard.
Where do you think you’re going? she shouted with an angry voice.
We’d come to get our jobs back but she didn’t give us a choice.
GET OFF THESE PREMESES, she bellowed for everyone to hear.
We turned and almost ran away, she had filled us both with fear.
When safely outside, we thought it was really funny.
She was never going to take us on, not for love nor money.
Whenever, I have time to reminisce, letting old memories in for a while.
Thoughts of this day come flooding back and it always makes me smile.

RIP Julie Farmer & Miss Florence Smith

Henry Tate’s legacy: The Sugar Girls at South Lambeth Library

On Monday, we will be speaking at South Lambeth Library, along with two of the sugar girls whose stories feature prominently in our book: Gladys Hudgell and Eva Rodwell.  It’s a particularly appropriate location since the library is one of four in South London founded on gifts of land or money from Henry Tate, whose company subsequently merged with that of Abram Lyle to form Tate & Lyle.

Mr Tate was a generous philanthropist, and believed strongly that everyone should have access to books, regardless of how rich or poor they were. To this day, the gallery proudly proclaims itself the ‘Tate Free Library’.

Our local library in Brixton is another of Tate’s legacies, and it was there that we first began our research for the book, in early 2011.  Here you can see the bust of Mr Tate which stands outside in Windrush Square.

Tate also founded libraries in nearby Balham, and Streatham, where he himself lived. When he died in 1899 he was buried in West Norwood Cemetary.  His mausoleum is soon to attract a lot of attention when the Curious Trail exhibition opens on Friday 22nd June.  Belfast sculptor Brendan Jamison has recreated the tomb, carved out of Tate & Lyle sugar cubes.

Jamison’s mausoleum sculpture follows a previous commission to sculpt the Tate Modern building in sugar, a task which required 71,908 cubes. But many visitors to the various Tate art galleries around the country don’t realise the connection with the sugar magnate who first donated both his money and his personal art collection to help found the National Gallery of British Art, which subsequently became the Tate Gallery.

Aside from grand gestures of philanthropy, both Henry Tate and Abram Lyle were generous to their employees in the East End factories, and Gladys and Eva have fond memories of Abram’s eccentric grandson Oliver, who ran the old Lyle factory throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  The company provided extensive sports facilities, an on-site bar that was open throughout the day, and regular days out on beanos to Margate and Southend.

Come along on Monday to hear Gladys and Eva share their stories of working for Tate & Lyle.


Full details:

6.45pm on Monday 18th June

South Lambeth Library

180 South Lambeth Road

London SW8 1QP


Sugar Girls at Goldsmith’s Row book market

The Sugar Girls took part in a brand new East End book market on the weekend. Goldsmith’s Row Book Market, just off Hackney Road and near Columbia Road Flower Market, is a great new addition to the area and features stalls selling everything from second hand novels to limited edition art books, every Sunday from 10am to 4pm.

There were 22 stallholders taking part, including Newham Bookshop, Pages of Hackney, Barrow Books, The Feminist Library, Brick Lane Books, The Art Books Cooperative, Books By Photographers, ArtWords, Foyles (who had a stall dedicated to graphic novels), Donlon, X Marks the Bökship, NB Pictures and 14.19. Next week’s market promises to be even bigger and will include Skoob – one of the biggest secondhand book dealers in London – and photography bookshop Claire de Lune, which will be selling books on fashion.

Former Tate & Lyle workers Gladys Hudgell and Eva Rodwell came along to sign copies of *The Sugar Girls *at the Newham Bookshop’s stall, with* *co-author Nuala Calvi. There were pictures on display of Gladys and her friends from their days at the company’s East End factories in the 1940s and 1950s, when they were “Sugar Girls”. Gladys was particularly pleased when one young man looked at her picture, looked at her, and asked if the photograph “had been taken yesterday”!

After selling a big pile of books, Gladys and Eva headed off to the flower market, which Gladys used to visit every weekend with her late husband, John. She showed she hadn’t lost her touch when she shouted down a market seller who was selling orchids, telling him to “shut up and be quiet for a minute”, before managing to get an orchid off him for just a fiver.

If you’d like to meet Gladys and Eva – two of the women whose stories feature in *The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End* – come to our next book signings at Waterstones in Bluewater on June 16 and Waterstones in Ilford on June 23, from 12pm.

Sheila Oakley – a sugar girl in Canada

One of our most pleasurable experiences since The Sugar Girls hit the shelves over a month ago has been reading the many letters and emails we have received from readers who also worked at Tate & Lyle, and who have their own memories to share. Sometimes we feel like kicking ourselves that we didn’t encounter them sooner, so that we could have included their stories in the book.

Sheila Oakley (right) and fellow syrup fillers Jean Tampkin and Sylvie Bullock at the Lyceum Ballroom, October 31st 1955

Sheila Pavelin (nee Oakley) made even more effort than most to get in touch with us, sending us an eight-page handwritten letter all the way from Ontario, Canada, where she now lives. Sheila joined the Plaistow Wharf refinery as a syrup filler in 1952 at the age of 15, and was later transferred to the Blue Room.

Sheila recalled the wonderful beanos the department would take to Southend, the paper hats that read ‘Kiss Me Quick’ on them – and one day out in particular when a boatload of sailors had just docked and were looking forward to some shore leave. Sheila and her friends were rather surprised when the ‘old gels’ of the department (who at thirty-plus were regarded by the younger girls as spinsters) managed to nab all the sailors for themselves, before the younger women got a look in. None the less, the whole group had a ‘good old knees-up’ together, and the sugar girls organised a whip round to pay for a feast of fish, chips, jellied eels, cockles, shrimps and whelks for the sailors.

But perhaps most fascinating for us, Sheila’s letter provided an insight into the labour manageress at the factory, Miss Florence Smith. Nearly every woman we interviewed mentioned Miss Smith, generally as a terrifying boulder of a woman, who struck fear into the heart of the girls – she was known around the factory as ‘The Dragon’. But as we interviewed more and more women, we heard about another side of Miss Smith too, beneath the formidable exterior: she would look out for any orphans who worked at the factory, and worked hard to protect her girls’ best interests – as she did with Sheila.

Sheila told us that her father was a terribly mean man, who began docking his wife’s housekeeping money as soon as their daughters started work, demanding that they make up the shortfall. Sheila actually transferred to Tate & Lyle from another job as a way around this policy – she didn’t tell her dad that she was being paid more, so she and her mum were both better off.

Sheila’s parents would often row, and one day her mother took off to stay with her sister in Finchley, declaring that she wasn’t coming back. Sheila’s dad demanded that she quit her job at the factory and take over raising her two younger siblings: a boy of 12 and a little girl of 3. When Sheila phoned to pass on the news to Tate & Lyle, Miss Smith asked her to come into her office, and soon learned the full situation. The next day she was round at the Oakley household herself, berating Sheila’s dad for the way he was treating her, and demanding that he pay her a decent wage for her work.

Predictably, Mr Oakley was furious and demanded that Miss Smith leave immediately, but ‘The Dragon’ was not easily intimidated. She informed him that he was breaking the law using his daughter as a domestic servant, and that as one of her charges Sheila’s welfare was her business – and she told him in no uncertain terms that bringing up the children was his and his wife’s job, not Sheila’s.

In the end, Sheila was able to persuade her mother to come home, but her father never forgave her for – as he put it – ‘going to the authorities’.

If you worked at Tate & Lyle and have stories and pictures to share, we would love to hear from you. You can get in touch by email on

The Sugar Girls at the Redbridge Book Festival

Last Friday, we were delighted to be speaking at Wanstead Library, as part of the fabulous Redbridge Book Festival.  Joining us on the stage were Gladys and Eva, two of the sugar girls featured in the book, who shared their stories with an audience of more than 120 people.

Gladys recalled how she had originally hoped to become a nurse, only taking a job at Tate & Lyle after her dad informed her that nursing involved ‘holding old men’s willies while they pee’.  Eva, meanwhile, spoke of the perils of sharing a workplace with your father – on one occasion he caught her in the onsite bar with a co-worker who was so drunk that when they returned to work in the bag-printing she ended up covered in blue ink.

It was wonderful to see such a huge turnout for the event, and amongst the audience were a married couple who had met at Tate & Lyle’s Thames Refinery in the 1970s: Stanley and Janet Copp.  We had spoken to the Copps on the phone when researching The Sugar Girls, but it was great to finally meet them face to face.

Stanley started work at Tate & Lyle as an apprentice in 1945 at the age of 16, and remained there for many decades.  Janet joined in 1970, and after a brief stint as a sugar-packer (which she found exhausting) was lucky to score a transfer to the staff restaurant.  She herself spent 18 years at Tate & Lyle, before taking redundancy in the late 1980s.

If you missed the event last Friday and would like to have your book signed by Gladys and Eva, they will be with us at the inaugural Goldsmith’s Row Market, a new book market, on 13th May.  We’ll be on the stall of the wonderful Newham Bookshop, who organised the event at Wanstead as well.  For more details on Goldsmith’s Row, click here.

Lilian’s suitcase of memories

At the weekend we paid a visit to Lilian, one of the four main women featured in The Sugar Girls, to take a look at her photo collection. Previously, Lilian had told us that she didn’t have many pictures of her childhood or her time at Tate & Lyle, as she didn’t consider herself a ‘hoarder’.

When we got to her house, however, she retrieved a battered old suitcase from an upstairs room. It was locked and she no longer had the key to it, so she suggested that we try to prise the lock open. We wrestled with it using our house keys (snapping one of them in the process) and finally got the case unlocked – and discovered a treasure trove of pictures inside that Lilian hadn’t looked at for years.

Lilian showing us her pictures

All the people, places and experiences that she had told us about for the book came to life before our eyes. Here is Lilian (far left) as a child in the back yard at 19 Conway Street, with her siblings Harry, Sylvie (on the swing) and Edie. You can see how poor the family were from the holes in Lilian’s shoes.

Lilian as a child with siblings Harry, Sylvie (on swing) & Edie.

Lilian as a child with siblings Harry, Sylvie & Edie.

Lilian’s mother was thrilled when her family were rehoused in new flats near West Ham Station and finally had an indoor bathroom and separate bedrooms.

During the Second World War, the family were evacuated to the countryside, where Lilian’s sister Edie met a young soldier who got her pregnant. Edie eventually married him and moved to the countryside in Suffolk, where her East End family would come and visit her. Here are Mr & Mrs Tull paying a visit.

Lilian's parents, Harry and Edith Tull

Lilian's parents, Harry and Edith Tull

And here is Lilian (far right) and her two sisters, looking a bit more grown up.

Lilian and her sisters

Lilian and her sisters

Lilian started work at Tate & Lyle just after the war, at the age of 23, and the new job brought with it a whole new world of friendship and fun which is so perfectly captured in the many photos she has of beanos and days out with her friends. Here she is on the Royal Daffodil, heading off to Margate with her fellow can-making girls. Lilian is third from the left, her friend Little Lil is second from the left, and their mate Old Fat Nell can be seen on the far right.

Lilian and friends on the Royal Daffodil

Lilian and friends on the Royal Daffodil

Tate & Lyle were good to Lilian, sending her to a convalescent home in Weston-super-Mare when she came out in boils from the stress of caring for her sick mother. She had a great time and made new friends there.

Lilian in Weston Super-Mare

Lilian (front row, left) in Weston Super-Mare

It was on a Tate & Lyle beano that Lilian met her future husband, Alec – who became her rock throughout all the tragedies she faced over the course of her life. Here they are on their wedding day, looking blissfully happy together.

Lilian and Alec on their wedding day

Lilian and Alec on their wedding day

These days, Lilian is widowed, but her constant companion is her friend Flo – also a former sugar girl – and the two of them are now inseparable.

Lilian and Flo

Lilian and Flo

We are always keen to add new stories and pictures to our blog, so if you worked at Tate & Lyle and have pictures that you can send us, click here to get in touch.

The Sugar Girls book signing at Tate & Lyle

Earlier this week, we attended a very special book-signing in the canteen of Tate & Lyle’s Thames Refinery in Silvertown. Community Affairs Manager Ken Wilson had organised a display board of pictures of the sugar girls, and had invited Colin Lyle – son and nephew, respectively, of former factory directors Philip and Oliver Lyle – to come along. Sugar girls Gladys and Eva were there too – and they told us that the food in the modern Tate & Lyle canteen compared very favourably to what they remembered from the 1940s and 1950s!

It was fantastic to meet current Tate & Lyle employees who had already begun reading the book, and who told us how much they enjoyed learning more about the company’s past. Ken was particularly pleased that several contractors, who had only been working for the firm for a few months, seemed as keen to learn about the history of Tate & Lyle and the sugar girls as those who had been working there for decades.

Many of the current Tate & Lyle workforce told us what a pleasure it was to meet Colin Lyle, a member of one of the original founding families. One man spoke to him about how four generations of his family had worked for the company, his great-grandfather having travelled down to London with Abram Lyle himself in the 1880s. Meanwhile, current ‘sugar girls’ at the factory were very keen to speak to Gladys and Eva about what it was like at Tate & Lyle half a century ago.

By the end of the lunch hour, we had signed so many copies that Gladys was complaining of cramp in her hand – and Vivian Archer from the Newham Bookshop, who was selling the books, nearly ran out of stock entirely.

If you would like to meet some of the sugar girls in person – and have your book signed by them – come along to Wanstead Library next Friday (20 April), where there will be a book talk featuring Duncan, Nuala, Gladys and Eva, as part of the Redbridge Book Festival. There’s more information here – tickets cost £5 and early booking is advised.