It’s officially the oldest brand in Britain, but few people know the full history of Lyle’s Golden Syrup, and of the young East End girls whose hard work went into every tin.
In the mid-20th century, thousands of girls left school each year aged 14 or 15 and headed straight to the company’s factory in Silvertown – a strip of land wedged between the bustling Royal Docks and the Thames that was once home to more than 20 factories.
As well as syrup, the Plaistow Wharf refinery, built by Abram Lyle in 1881, had always produced sugar, and since 1921, when his family firm had merged with that of Henry Tate to form Tate & Lyle, the factory had been printing the company’s famous blue sugar bags as well. There were several departments staffed almost exclusively by women – the can-making and syrup filling, where the iconic tins were crafted and filled, the Blue Room, where the sugar bags were printed, and the Hesser Floor, where the bags were filled with sugar and packed up onto pallets.
|Workers choose a record to listen to while they work, in the 1950s|
'An army of ‘sugar girls’ kept things running while
the men were away at war'
the men were away at war'
After the war, the men returned to their traditional roles, but the impact made by the army of ‘sugar girls’ who had kept things running while they were away was not forgotten – and women became increasingly integrated into the running of the factory. By 1948 they were able to eat side by side with male workers in a mixed-sex canteen for the first time.
The work at the factory was tiring and repetitive, but for the women who undertook it a job at Tate & Lyle was a great source of pride. A girl in a Tate & Lyle uniform was regarded as glamorous, and women were proud to be seen wearing their outfits on the way to work. Many took in the regulation dungarees to make them as figure-hugging as possible, and stuffed their checked turbans with stockings and underwear to make them sit fashionably high on their heads.
Tate & Lyle was seen as a desirable company to work for, since it paid some of the best wages in the area, with generous bonuses several times a year, thanks to its profit-share scheme. It was considered to look after its workers well, and had an onsite surgery, chiropodist and hairdresser, and paid for sick workers to convalesce by the seaside.
It was also unrivalled in its social and sports facilities: there were a myriad of sporting teams, including netball, athletics and swimming, as well as clubs for every activity and hobby imaginable, from rabbit breeding to amateur dramatics. The company bar and social club – the Tate Institute – was the top nightspot in the neighbourhood.
Tate & Lyle also paid for regular ‘beanos’ to the seaside, giving their workers some much-valued time off in Margate and Southend. The coaches would be loaded up with beer, and the girls would drink and sing all the way to the coast – often hooking up with lads from other factories who were also there on work beanos, who they knew would pay for their rides at the amusement parks.
"They were the best years of our lives,"
There were many factory romances too, with so many marriages between employees that the company magazine, the Tate & Lyle Times, began printing pictures of the latest newly-weds in every edition. Extra-marital affairs were also common, and at one point the factories acquired the nickname 'the knocking shop' because of its association with loose morals.
But it is the female friendships made in the factories that most women recalling Tate & Lyle’s East End heyday in the 1940s and 1950s remark on most. Many look back on their time there as a golden period of independence and fun, before the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. Most women had married by the time they were in their early 20s, and, according to the factory rules, had to leave their jobs at Tate & Lyle behind.
But those early friendships would often last long after they had left the factory gates. "When you worked there you had friends for life," one former sugar bag printer recalled. "They were the best years of our lives, when you look back on it."
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 the 29th March 2012, (priced £6.99).
You can find out more about the lives of the Sugar Girls, see pictures of them and listen to them speaking, at www.thesugargirls.com.