Life and times of Tate & Lyle’s golden era in Silvertown and Plaistow celebrated

As jobs hang in the balance at Tate and Lyle sugar refineries, a new book explores the factories’ historic past, unique character, and timeless sense of community.

Drawing on interviews with over 50 workers, “The Sugar Girls” tells the real stories of the women now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who worked in the Silvertown and Plaistow refineries in the 40s and 50s.

Thousands of girls left school at 14 to work on the “Sugar Mile” because the wages were good, bonuses were handed out three times a year through a profit-sharing system but the sense of community was unrivalled.

The Tate Institute laid on regular dances, selling subsidised rum shipped in from Jamaican sugar plantations and took the girls on trips to Margate and Southend.

Former factory worker Jim Fittock remembered looking after the girls when they came back drunk from their traditional Christmas Eve knees-up: “When they came back a lot of them were so drunk they’d have a ‘paper cage’ where they put paper and bags... and we would put them in the cage until they sobered up a bit. There’d be at least half a dozen in there.”

The girls would sing loudly while they worked on the factory floor and pranks were common as girls would pour sugar or syrup down each other’s dungarees.

Eliza Attenborough, 93, recalls the time director Oliver Lyle visited the factory during one of their singalongs: “We were singing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’, and Oliver Lyle was walking through and the forelady told us to be quiet.

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“Oliver Lyle went straight back up to her office and he told her to mind her own business, and he bought us a radiogram.

“And every two months, we used to get a catalogue and pick out the records we wanted to listen to.”

One of the women interviewed for the book, Betty Brightmore, 82, said: “It was very hard work, but really when you think back we was treated really well and looked after.”

And looked after they were - each factory had its own doctor, dentist, optician, chiropodist, and hairdresser and staff were vaccinated against polio, X-rayed every year, and given annual check ups if they were under 18.

Sick workers were even sent to convalescent homes by the seaside to recover at the company’s expense.

During the 40s and 50s, Tate and Lyle were still a family firm and the eponymous owners would tour the factories to wish their workers a Merry Christmas while presents and parties were laid on for employees’ children.

The workers kept fit by joining sports teams loyal to their factories with the “Tateses” and “Lyleses” playing against each other at everything from football to judo to rifle-shooting.

The factories even worked their magic on the workers’ love lives with pictures of newly-weds featured in every edition of the company magazine, the Tate and Lyle Times.

During the war, women took on the men’s traditional jobs such as boiling up sugar liquor and filling bags of sugar while rushing backwards and forwards from factory bomb shelters during the Blitz.

Lifelong friends were made at the factory, as Eva Rodwell, 76, fondly recalls: “When you worked there, you had friends for life. They were the best years of our lives, when you look back on it.”

“The Sugar Girls”, published by Collins on March 29, is priced at �6.99 and is sold in bookstores, including the Newham Bookshop, and online.

There is a public launch at The Hub, Star Lane, Canning Town on March 28 from 11am to 1pm to find out more history, see old photographs and meet some of the ‘sugar girls.’