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


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