Oral History & Creative Non-Fiction: Telling the Lives of the Sugar Girls

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by Duncan Barrett

The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End, by Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi, is published by Collins on 29 March.

For many years, the twenty factories that lined the Thames in Silvertown – a thin strip of land sandwiched between the river and the Royal Docks in East London – were a major employer for young working-class girls leaving school at fourteen or fifteen. When Nuala Calvi and I wrote our book ‘The Sugar Girls’, about the women who worked at Tate & Lyle’s two factories in the area in the years following the Second World War, we interviewed over fifty former workers, tracking them down via local lunch and social clubs, adverts in the Newham Recorder, and Tate & Lyle’s pensions visitors.

Imposing frontage of the Tate & Lyle factory at Plaistow Wharf. The frontage has since been demolished

The women we spoke to told us of the hard work at the factory, where they made their own paper thimbles to prevent their fingers from bleeding. One woman described being sent down to the on-site surgery to have her wrists bound up, so painful were they after a day stacking huge piles of sugar bags. A doctor and nurse were on hand at all times to deal with all manor of complaints – from period pains (peppermint tea and an hour off work was the usual prescription), to the inevitable cuts and grazes from the machinery. In the event of more serious accidents, a Tate & Lyle ambulance would rush workers to hospital – and we heard many stories of hands being caught in the machines, of fingers being lopped off, and even the odd workplace fatality: one man was said to have drowned in a sugar silo, and another to have burnt to death in the charhouse, stories that recurred again and again in our interviews. Some women told us about the ghosts who were believed to stalk the old factories, which dated from the late nineteenth century – one former worker recalled seeing a man dressed in an old-fashioned foreman’s uniform walking right through a raised section of the floor.

Hesser Girls in Tate & Lyles Canteen

The women we interviewed told us some remarkable stories. One of them, Gladys, was a real troublemaker during her time at the factory, and delighted – sixty years later – in recalling all the pranks and wind-ups that had landed her in the office of the formidable Labour Manageress Miss Smith: terrorising a supervisor with a nest of mice she found amongst the waste-paper, riding between departments in the telpher, a packing crate which travelled along wires far up in the air, and gate-crashing the company’s beauty pageant at the annual Sports Day, mud-spattered and dripping with sweat from running the relay race. We heard about discipline from the other side, too, from Ethel, a former supervisor who had worked her way up to being in charge of two-hundred women. Ethel related the stresses that each promotion brought, the sleepless nights she endured as a result, and how hard it was keeping order among a workforce of teenaged girls (at twenty-one she was the youngest supervisor in the factory, and looked younger still). She told us stories of her attempts to win over the women under her with a special complaints surgery in her office, and of the time she was forced to sack a worker who kept falling asleep on the job.

In researching The Sugar Girls, our methodology was indebted to oral history, although ultimately the book was written not in our subjects’ own words but in a single authorial voice, in order to make the women’s experiences gel together as one story. Our publisher was keen to tap into a similar market to that of Call The Midwife, Jennifer Worth’s very popular account of her days working as a midwife in the East End . We aimed for a similar novelistic style to Worth’s, while at the same time remaining true to the accounts told to us by those who experienced events at first hand.

Writing this kind of narrative (or ‘creative’) non-fiction means constantly walking a tightrope – trying to remain true to what you have been told happened, and to the records and sources you have used for research, while making the story work for the reader. Inevitably, at such a distance of time (more than half a century in most cases), there were elements missing from the accounts we had been told – what exact words did a particularly person use in a given conversation, how were they dressed, what was the weather like? We used our own research – in the Tate & Lyle Times, the company magazine, as well as various local papers – to fill in the gaps as best we could, and where necessary we used our imaginations as well.

We were keen that our main interview subjects should be happy with what we had written, so we sent them an early draft of the sections of the book that were about them. The response to the writing varied. Some women told us they felt we had captured everything exactly as it happened, that we had simply brought their memories to life. Others quibbled over seemingly minor details. One woman complained that we had described her smoothing her frizzy hair down on her way into her job interview. ‘I don’t remember doing that,’ she told us, ‘so it isn’t true.’ In the end we managed to persuade her that the intention was to convey to the reader that she was nervous about the interview, and she accepted that the detail had the ring of truth about it, even if she couldn’t remember for sure whether she had smoothed her hair down on that particular day 60 years ago.

Oral history brings with it its own challenges. Although we had access to those who had experienced events at first hand, there is no guarantee that their version of events is accurate. On two occasions, it became clear that a subject was trying to mislead us about what happened – telling a self-deprecating story in one interview, and then presenting a different, and more flattering, version of events when we tried to follow it up. The stories we were told were not always ‘innocent’ historical facts – often our interviewees were keen to persuade us of a certain interpretation of the past, supporting broad, sweeping comments about historical change with specific stories from their lives.

Sugar Girls choose the latest record to sing along to at work (1950s)

Another difficulty with such interviews was suppressing our own opinions and beliefs. It was important that we could build up a rapport with our interviewees, even when – as often happened – they made remarks which we would normally challenge. Racist, xenophobic or homophobic comments, or negative references to single mothers and those on benefits were all quite common.

Such encounters are often very challenging, as discussed by Gilda O’Neill in her excellent oral history Lost Voices:

The most difficult moment for me was when I was faced with racist explanations of change. I am more able to respond in this text than I was in the women’s homes – an undeniable acknowledgment of authorial responsibility and the absence of equality in such writing…. I had the power to have the last word … in telling contrast to my comparative lack of power when sitting in someone’s armchair, drinking her tea, taking her time. (pp. 151-152)

We were keen to represent the past broadly speaking as the women we spoke to saw it. Many of them expressed frustration with accounts of East End life written by those not from that area, which they felt often had a rather patronising or pitying tone. One woman was furious at the recent TV adaption of Call The Midwife, claiming that things were never as squalid as depicted in the programme. The women we spoke to recalled the great pride their mothers would take in keeping their houses spotless and how, despite a lack of money, families would always make do, helping out the neighbours when they could, knowing that the favour would always be returned.

When we handed in the manuscript of the book, our publishers were a little surprised, perhaps expecting the predicable Dickensian East End of much misery-memoir writing. ‘This is a lot jollier than we expected,’ they told us. But crucially, for us, the women we interviewed felt we had captured the communities of their young lives as they remembered them.

To see pictures of the Sugar Girls, hear further audio clips of their interviews, and order copies of the book, visit the Sugar Girls website.The authors will be speaking about the book at the Bishopsgate Institute on 19 March.

  • John Bentley

    Regarding your account of the ‘annual’ beauty contest at the sports ground. I still have a copy of all the girls that took part in that contest. It’s a bit battered but still readable. I worked at Thames as electrician from 1953-1992

  • John Bentley

    Sorry: regarding my previous comment about the beauty contest of which I still have a copy of the young ladies pictures, I appear to have given you the wrong e-mail address: 
    My correct e-mail address is:   john.bentley8@gmail.com  Sorry about that little error.

    • Dgjg2003

      can you send copy of the beauty contest pictures as my aunt was in them kitty myers

      thank you

  • John Bentley

    When I first started work at Thames in 1953 and saw all the 15 & 16 year old girls of the 1st and 6th hesser floors, I remember thinking, ‘good heavens’ it’s like being in a sweet shop. All these lovely young girls to date. I had a wonderful time with all the girls I dated, I enjoyed the company of all of them. Funny it’s very odd, but the name of the very first 6th hesser girl I ever dated, still sits in the back of my head: Christine L. ( No doubt she moved on to marry and have a family of her own.)

    Don’t forget all the other very nice ‘sugar girls’ at Thames, as well as the hesser girls, there was the Icing floor girls, the cube packing floor girls, the pressed sugar girls and remember there were two shifts of them. Wonderful memories flooding back as I recall all this.    
    I would just like to say: THANK YOU to all girls I went out with, for the wonderful times I had as a young lad at Thames.