Posted By The Sugar Girls ~ 7th April 2012
Today, we received this fascinating email about Tate & Lyle during the war years from a woman called Val Connelly, whose grandmother used to run a ship’s laundry in Constance Street, Silvertown:
“During the war, people were told to shelter in Tate & Lyle’s factory – sitting on the bags of sugar! They were lifted up into the loading bay by the men when the siren had gone but what would have happened if a bomb had dropped on all that sugar – with the girls sitting on it – doesn’t bear thinking about. One of my aunts had been in the bath one day when the siren went and she just put a coat on and ran. When she got the loading bay, she realised that everyone would see she had nothing on so she clamped her legs together and the men had to lift her stiff body up. They complained and told her to use her legs but she couldn’t – she was too embarrassed!”
Val then adds, “Incidentally, my grandmother apparently had a bottle of poison ready to give to her daughters if the Germans had invaded. As she said, ‘No German is getting my girls.’ A neighbour’s daughter who heard about this actually asked my grandmother to include her in the poisoning!”
When we were writing our book The Sugar Girls, we came across many wonderful stories about Tate & Lyle’s factories in the Second World War, and unfortunately we just didn’t have room to include all of them. A former sugar girl called Clare Sullivan told us about a group of Italian POWs from a camp in nearby Canning Town who were brought into the Thames Refinery to help with some heavy lifting in the sack department. The women there were unimpressed with the fascist foreigners, spitting in their faces and declaring they would rather do the work themselves.
Another story we came across was that of Doris Martineau, a sugar girl at Thames who was determined to raise enough money to pay for an RAF bomber. Through fun fairs and raffles, Doris managed to collect £20,000 from her fellow workers – enough to purchase the plane, which was christened ‘The Golden Lion’ after the old Lyle company mascot.
We also heard the story of Win Webster, a former sugar girl now living in Australia who worked on the Hesser Floor at Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf Refinery from 1935 to 1941. Win’s is now 95, and her story was told to us by her son Mike:
“During the winter of 1940/1941, she was living with her sister and brother-in-law in St Albans Avenue. As usual there had been bombing that night and Win was up early to go to work. She was out the door by 7 a.m. It was still very dark and very quiet, not a sound anywhere. She walked down the middle of the road (didn’t use the footpaths in case any tiles had been shaken loose and came down as you walked past) and turned into Charlemont Road and then heard a voice calling for help. Win walked toward the voice.
“Charlemont Road had Plane trees down each side of the road at the time – I think it still does – and as Win got closer to the source of the voice, she could see something white at the top of one of these trees. She realised it was a parachute and at the other end just a few feet above the ground was a bomb swinging backwards and forwards towards a lady standing in her front door way. Win told her be quiet in case her shouting set it off! Win then ran to a wardens hut and told the wardens about the bomb. The warden told Win to go along the back gardens in Charlemont Road and get everybody up and out. Win vaulted every fence and hedge, which she didn’t know she could do. The warden asked her to help with the other side of the road, but she said she was late for work and she might get the sack. She said to the warden that she wanted a piece of the parachute.
“When she got to work, late, all the workers were outside, because exactly the same thing had happened there – a bomb, suspended on a parachute was hanging from an upper balcony of the factory. Win got told off and was docked some money for being late. When she got home from work that night, there was a package waiting for her – it was some parachute silk. Apparently the incident was mentioned in the local paper about a heroine that had saved the street, but win wasn’t mentioned by name.”
If you want to read more about Tate & Lyle during the war years, check out this previous blog, which features a letter written by factory director Philip Lyle to a friend in America describing the effect of the Blitz on the factories.
Click here to order The Sugar Girls on Amazon for just £3.77 inc. delivery.