May 04, 2017

The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi - A Review

Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi have jointly authored this readable memoir, which is written to feel just like a novel. It brings to life the moving true stories of ‘sugar girls’, Ethel, Lilian, Gladys and Joan, who worked in Tate and Lyle’s East End factory during the Second World War and in the following years.

Many girls in the East End of London left school to work for Tate and Lyle, evidently a progressive employer for the time. With men being called up, the lines between ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ work were becoming blurred and young women were doing hard jobs that men would have done previously. The work could be back-breaking and dangerous, and the women’s stories of loss, illness and poverty are incredibly moving. Yet, everyone in the book, it seems, feels proud and privileged to be working at the factory; Tate and Lyle was more than a place to work - it was a true community and support network which provided social, leisure and sporting opportunities to all who worked there - together with the best rates of pay and employment terms around.

We follow each girl’s story through the years -  young, determined Ethel, a survivor of the Blitz, doggedly works her way up to become supervisor and campaigns for fairer working conditions; lovelorn Lilian is from a desperately poor, tragic background and works in the can-making department; feisty and irrepressible Gladys, working in the ‘Blue Room’, bag-printing, is always getting into trouble with the formidable Miss Smith and Joan, from a comparatively well-to-do family, lives a carefree life and enjoys her disposable income until she becomes pregnant by her soldier boyfriend.

Behind the main characters’ storylines we hear at times hilarious, moving and tear-jerking vignettes of factory life, whether it’s stories of near-misses on the factory floor, cat fights breaking out on the women-only ‘Hesser’ machine packing floor - nicknamed the ‘beauty shop’ -  or tricks played on long-suffering supervisor, Miss Smith. It’s also interesting to read about the compassion of the employer; employees were treated to recreational trips - ‘beanos’ to the seaside as rewards for their hard work and there was even a convalescent home in Weston-super-Mare available to those employees who needed it - for example when Lilian is caring for her ailing mother.

We learn about the devastation and gruesome misery of the Blitz, the heartache of separation from loved ones who have gone to war, the desperate poverty of the East End and the strict social mores of the period and their impact on the factory girls. The book provides a real glimpse into life in the working class East End during the years and, despite its gritty storylines, it leaves us with a heartwarming glow as it brings us up to the present day, with the epilogue filling us in on the surviving sugar girls’ stories.

Authors Barrett and Calvi have painstakingly gathered together hundreds of hours of memories from the sugar girls and skilfully pieced them together with historical fact and the odd bit of creative licence in order to fill in the gaps and create a narrative which is both very entertaining and informative about a fascinating and unforgettable time in British social history.

Katie Whitford