Monday, 11 June 2012

The Sugar Girls - by Duncan Barratt & Nuala Calvi - review

Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle's East End Factories 'On an autumn day in 1944, Ethel Alleyne walked the short distance from her house to Tate & Lyle's refinery on the shining curve of the Thames. Looking up at the giant gates, Ethel felt like she had been preparing for this moment all her life. She smoothed down her frizzy hair, scraped a bit of dirt off the corner of her shoe and strode through. She was quite unprepared for the sight that met her eyes !' In the years leading up to and after the Second World War thousands of women left school at fourteen to work in the bustling factories of London's East End. Despite long hours, hard and often hazardous work, factory life afforded exciting opportunities for independence, friendship and romance. Of all the factories that lined the docks, it was at Tate and Lyle's where you could earn the most generous wages and enjoy the best social life, and it was here where The Sugar Girls worked. Through the Blitz and on through the years of rationing The Sugar Girls kept Britain sweet.The work was back-breakingly hard, but Tate & Lyle was more than just a factory, it was a community, a calling, a place of love and support and an uproarious, tribal part of the East End. From young Ethel to love-worn Lillian, irrepressible Gladys to Miss Smith who tries to keep a workforce of flirtatious young men and women on the straight and narrow, this is an evocative, moving story of hunger, hardship and happiness. Tales of adversity, resilience and youthful high spirits are woven together to provide a moving insight into a lost way of life, as well as a timeless testament to the experience of being young and female.


I was thrilled to be able to review this book, after being sent it by publishers, Harper Collins. It is right up my street and I could not wait to get started. 

The following review is my own, despite being sent it.

I love reading about well known brands and how they came about. Be it Cadburys, Kellogs or, in this case, Tate & Lyle. But, what I love more is learning about the actual workers, the real life human experiences. And this book has it in spades.

The narrative of the book is somewhat softer than the sort of social history books I am used to, which I relished. That is not to say that it is dumbed down in any way. It is a nice and easy read.

Think of as listening to a bunch of elderly ladies telling you about their lives over tea and dead-fly biscuits, with someone else at the table dropping in bits of company history as you dunk & slurp away. Kinda like that.

The book follows several women through their time at Tate & Lyle, as well as how the company itself has shaped over time, from an employer for an entire area to an automated production line. 

I really enjoyed the flow of the stories, jumping from one lovely lady to another, taking us along for the ride through her time with the company and the fond memories of working within a team full of cheeky chaps and headscarf glamour.

I found myself gripped by certain parts of the book, exclaiming, on more than one occasion "oh, how very sad". But this was soon replaced by smiling at someone else's recollection.

A grand book that gives you an insight into a now forgotten and replaced society of  hard working gals.

A 7/10


  1. Sounds a great read. I was lucky enough to grow up on a factory estate (a brewery) and there is a tangible sense of history and community when people live and work together. Sadly the brewery closed, but the area still has a greater sense of community than many.

  2. Sounds like a possibility for my summer reading list, although as my brother works for Silver Spoon, I'm not sure how happy he would be with me. I get a telling off for buying Tate and Lyle sugar for my tea! x

  3. This sounds like a good book, my boyfriend grew up near the Tate and Lyle factory and a lot of the people where he lived worked there.

  4. Sounds like a nice Summer relaxer. I do love a bit of social history! If you come across any centred around Sheffield steel works do let me know! (Have read 'Granny was a buffer girl' but that's more of a children's book!) xXx

  5. I love reading about older people's experiences of life in the past.
    If you like that style I can recommend "Tea At Miss Cranston's" and "More Tea at Miss Cranston's" a century of Glasgow memories. Out of print but available very cheaply on amazon. Very interesting and very easy to read, she took down just what the elderly people interviewed said, it's like listening to them talk. Fascinating glimpse into the past and quite poignant in parts.

    1. Thanks for these - I shall add them to the Wishlist ;)

  6. This sounds rather fab, going on my to-read list :)

    Penny Dreadful Vintage

  7. Sounds interesting. I do wish I'd asked my grandparents more about their working life when I had the chance.

  8. I love your reviews - you turn up a lot of books and shows that I've never heard of before, but I enjoy! It looks like Audible has this book, and I'll probably download it tonight to listen on tomorrow's commute!

  9. Sounds very good, I'll be adding it to my reading list :) x


I'd love to hear what you think so feel free to comment away!


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