Posted By The Sugar Girls ~ 1st April 2012
At our book launch this week, Colin Lyle, a manager at Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf refinery until 1982 and son of former refinery director Philip Lyle, read a remarkable letter written by his father to a friend in America on May 20, 1941.
The letter describes the incredible Blitz spirit of the Sugar Girls – here is an extract from it:
“Before Sept 1940 there was little happening. A little bit of “Blitz” was starting but it all really kicked off with Saturday night, Sept. 7th 1940. I was down at Wylye [in Wiltshire, where the family lived] that night but heard the phone early the following morning that Silvertown (an island bound by the Thames on one side and the Victoria and Albert Docks on the other) was practically ablaze from end to end and as our two London factories are both in Silvertown I motored up to town as soon as I could get away and arrived at one of our factories (Plaistow Wharf) at 4pm to find it intact. There I had to leave my car and walk to the other factory (Thames Refinery) as the road was impassable.
“Nearly all the factories on the way along were burnt out or blazing fiercely and halfway along I found the roadway full of molten tar which made passage difficult, but I got through and ultimately found our second factory was also practically intact though both its neighbours were burnt out and still blazing. We had one shed containing about a million old jute raw sugar bags blazing hard but had no difficulty in preventing it extending. Many barges lying in the river were ablaze and it was an extraordinary sight. The factories on either side of ours were very inflammable and as their bosses would never take much ARP precaution our people had always feared getting damage through their catching alight. Their delight when both neighbours were completely gutted and no longer a potential menace to us was most amusing.
“The worst part of the great Silvertown raid and subsequent raids in the same district was the destruction of working class house property. Hundreds of rows of little houses were blown up and rendered untenable and we were soon faced with the problem of housing our people. Many got their families away to the north of London but could not travel daily from there with any ease. We organised regular daily services of private charabancs from these districts to bring our men in, but gradually this changed and we started large-scale dormitories in the factories where the men slept during the week and went home at the weekend. We have today in London, out of about 5,000 employees, over 500 men and about 50 girls living all week in our dormitories. This meant not only big increases in sanitary accommodation but new canteens, recreation rooms, laundries etc., etc., all of which had to be improvised at short notice. But it all works very well and we have lost few employees in spite of it all. They are just too marvellous. Don’t seem to mind anything now – though we had our little grumbles at first – but it is quite extraordinary how one can get used to things and so quickly.
“When the daytime Blitz was getting going, we all started “spotters” on the roof with the idea that – instead of ceasing work throughout the factory when the “alert” sounded, we could go on working till immediate danger overhead was signalled – as we were losing so much time. In our factory this worked fine with the men but the girls wouldn’t play and insisted on stopping work as soon as the alert sounded in spite of the spotters and we were much puzzled but ultimately discovered that the girls were quite prepared to work through, provided they were allowed to have their own female spotters on the roof with the men! We at once started our girl spotter along with the men on the roof and there was no more trouble!
“One night recently they were sowing magnetic mines in the Thames and the Docks – a very small target – so most of them fell in East and West Ham and thereabouts – large numbers of them – each weighing over a ton. They come down on parachutes about 25 feet in diameter made of silk – dyed green and coarse open work stuff like aertex cellular. A ring on the bomb is connected to the parachute by 24 cords of green silk very loosely woven like extra soft dressing gown cords. We have had three of these fall on our factories in Silvertown. Two of them luckily failed to go off owing to the parachute catching on a high building on the way down which prevented them hitting the ground hard enough. The bombs were about 2’3” diameter and 8 to 9 feet long! One went off in our factory and the effect is indescribable. Luckily it fell on the edge of the first floor of a very strong modern steel building and just bent the beams and made a mess without doing any vital damage but the blast was terrific and we had every window and every door blown in the whole factory – but we soon got going again. Within 30 yards of this big blast – in a strong steel building – we had 40 girls sleeping. Beyond minor shock there were no casualties at all and an hour later all the girls were back again in the same dormitory where they spent the rest of the night quite happily! That gives you some idea of the wonderful spirit of these people – they are just marvellous – and the girls who are sleeping in the factory are the ones whose homes have already been smashed up!”