The Sugar Girls

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Sugar Girls
Sugar Girls cover.TIF
Author Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Tate & Lyle, The East End
Published 2012 (Collins)
Pages 352pp (paperback)
ISBN 978-0-00-744847-0
Followed by GI Brides

The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle's East End is a bestselling work of narrative non-fiction based on interviews with women who worked in Tate & Lyle's East End factories in Silvertown from the mid-1940s onwards. Written by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, the book was published by Collins in 2012.[1] The authors were inspired to write it by Jennifer Worth's Call the Midwife.[2]


In the East End of the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of girls left school every year at fourteen and went to work in the factories that stood alongside the docks in Silvertown, in the East End of London.[3] The stretch of factories running between Tate & Lyle’s refineries for sugar and syrup was known as the 'Sugar Mile', and also included Keiller's jam and marmalade factory.[3] Tate & Lyle's two factories had been built in the late nineteenth century by two rival sugar refiners, Henry Tate and Abram Lyle, whose companies had merged in the 1920s.[4]

Of all the factories in Silvertown, Tate & Lyle's offered the best wages and social life for girls leaving school.[3] There were various jobs available to women workers at Tate & Lyle's factories, including printing and packing the bags of sugar, and making the tins of Lyle's Golden Syrup.[4] Women who worked there showed great 'loyalty' and 'pride'.[3] They were, however, very tribal, and depending on which factory they worked at, workers would speak of themselves as coming from 'Tates's' or 'Lyles's', competing against each other at netball, athletics, football and cricket in the company sports day, which was held once a year.[4]


Although the book is based on interviews with over fifty former workers,[5] the four main characters featured are:

  • Ethel Colquhoun (née Alleyne),[6] a conscientious sugar-packer who worked her way up through the ranks at Tate & Lyle until she became a forelady in charge of 200 women.[7]
  • Lilian Clark (née Tull),[6] a lovelorn can-maker who joined the factory at the age of 23, 'already scarred by terrible poverty'.[3]
  • Gladys Hudgell (née Taylor),[6] a half-gypsy print-room girl who was always getting in trouble for 'practical jokes and general cheekiness' and who was almost sacked on a number of occasions, only keeping her job through her value to the factory athletics team.[3]
  • Joan Cook,[6] a fun-loving sugar-packer who was forced to leave the factory under a cloud when she unexpectedly became pregnant.[3]

As well as these four main women, the book features various other individual stories, such as:

  • Barbara, a cheeky young woman who seduced her future husband over a Tate & Lyle tennis match by exaggerating her own playing abilities to become his doubles partner.[4]
  • Joan, a tea girl who punished a male manager who had groped her by running over his feet with her tea trolley.[4]
  • Edna, who staged an unofficial strike when the factory was insufficiently heated and the women were instructed to work in their hats and coats.[4]

Characterisation of the 'Sugar Girls' and the East End[edit]

Nuala Calvi, one of the co-authors of the book, characterised the female workers at Tate & Lyle – known colloquially as the 'Sugar Girls' – as 'glamorous', at least by the standards of teenagers leaving school in the East End in the 1940s and 1950s. They would take in their dungarees, making them figure-hugging, and stuff their turbans with underwear to make them sit high up on their heads, which was considered fashionable. But she also claimed that the women shared a common confident ‘attitude’ and were 'no pushovers', likening them to the striking workers at Ford’s Dagenham plant featured in the popular movie Made in Dagenham.[4]

In the same article, Calvi also commented on the discrepancy between the way the East End of London is often represented - 'linked in the popular imagination with gangsters, criminals and prostitutes (or the grim squalor of Call the Midwife)' - and the reality of life for the families of the women she interviewed - 'honest, hard-working families' who 'brought up their children to contribute to the family income'.[4] In a separate article, her co-author Duncan Barrett made a similar point: '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.'[8]


The book was featured as the Daily Mail's 'Book of the Week' on 23 March 2012. Reviewer Bel Mooney wrote, 'This vivid and richly readable account of women's lives in and around the Tate & Lyle East London works in the Forties and Fifties is written as popular social history, played for entertainment. If it doesn’t become a TV series to rival Call the Midwife, I'll take my tea with ten sugars.'[3]

In a quotation featured on the cover of the paperback, Melanie McGrath, author of the books Silvertown and Hopping, described the book as 'An authoritative and highly readable work of social history which brings vividly to life a fascinating part of East End life before it is lost forever.'

On 8 April 2012, The Sugar Girls debuted at No. 10 in the Sunday Times Bestseller List,[9] spending five weeks in the top ten.[10] In the paper's end-of-year round-up it ranked second for bestsellers in History, having sold 37,760 copies.[11]

Website and blog[edit]

An accompanying website, including pictures and audio clips of the women featured in the book, was the focus of an article in the Daily Mail, which described it as an "internet hit" where former Tate & Lyle workers share pictures and reminiscences.[12] The website also includes a blog, where authors Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi post images and text relating to Tate & Lyle and the East End of London.[13]


  1. ^ Nicholls, Matt (2011-02-23). "Sweet! Tate & Lyle lives celebrated". Newham Recorder. 
  2. ^ Call the Midwife, The Sugar Girls blog, 20 February 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Mooney, Bel (23 March 2012). "The Sugar Babes". Daily Mail. Retrieved 23 March 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Nuala Calvi (25 March 2012). "Sugar & Spice". Sunday Express. Retrieved 25 March 2012. 
  5. ^ Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi. The Sugar Girls. Collins. p. 337. ISBN 978-0-00-744847-0. 
  6. ^ a b c d Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi. The Sugar Girls. Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-744847-0. 
  7. ^ Anon. (16–30 March 2012). "Sweet Memories" (PDF). The Newham Mag issue 241. Retrieved 25 March 2012. 
  8. ^ "Oral History & Creative Non-Fiction: Telling the Lives of the Sugar Girls". History Workshop Online. 11 March 2012. Retrieved 2012-03-25. 
  9. ^ "The Sunday Times Bestsellers". The Sunday Times (Culture). 8 April 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 
  10. ^ "The Sunday Times Bestsellers". The Sunday Times (Culture). 27 May 2012. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  11. ^ "The Sunday Times Bestsellers". The Sunday Times (Culture). 25 November 2012. Retrieved 4 December 2012. 
  12. ^ Mouland, Bill (8 August 2012). "Bittersweet life of the Sugar Girls... in their own pictures: How a book about Tate & Lyle's East End factory prompted workers to dig out their albums". Daily Mail. Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
  13. ^ The Sugar Girls blog.

External links[edit]