Researching my book The Sugar Girls, about female workers at Tate & Lyle’s East End sugar and syrup factories in the years during and after the Second World War, I met many remarkable women, and heard about many more. But one character stood out – a legendary figure to all the women I interviewed, remembered by them vividly even 60 years later: Miss Florence Smith, the Labour Manageress.
As the top woman at Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf refinery in Silvertown, Miss Smith was in charge of hiring and firing the 1,500-strong female workforce, among whom she had acquired a legendary reputation. Young girls looked up to her with a combination of terror and awe, and whenever she was spotted approaching on her daily rounds, a whisper of ‘The Dragon’s coming!’ would quickly spread across the factory floor.Of course, in a traditional sense, Miss Smith is not a ‘historical figure’ at all. Her name does not appear in any history books (apart from a very brief footnote in Oliver Lyle’s self-published memoir of his factory) and she is not widely known. But within the community of women who worked for Tate & Lyle between 1944, when she took over the top job, and her retirement three decades later, Miss Smith was a towering presence – and nearly every individual we interviewed about their time at the factory remembered her clearly and had something to say about her.
Miss Smith cut a striking figure, with her short-cropped blonde hair and tight blouse buttoned up to the throat. She was a large woman, broad-shouldered and imposing, a Miss Trunchball type who could strike fear into her young charges – many of them just 14 years of age – with as little as a raised eyebrow. The women we spoke to described her variously as ‘a sergeant major’, ‘a prison warden’ and ‘a policeman’. One woman told us, ‘She’d walk through the shop floor and frighten the life out of everybody.’
One girl, Gladys Taylor, a rebellious redheaded troublemaker, quickly became the bane of Miss Smith’s life when she started in the late 1940s. Gladys was forever finding herself sent to the Personnel Office for a dressing down – one time it was for getting her dungarees caught in the bag-printing machine while chatting away to the boys, another time it was for terrorizing her supervisor with a nest of mice she had discovered in the waste paper, and another time she was discovered by Miss Smith riding in the telpher, a packing crate that carried the Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins from one department to another along a cable high up in the air.
Miss Smith must have threatened Gladys with the sack a hundred times, but Gladys’s saving grace was the fact that she excelled at sports. More than anything, Miss Smith liked to see the girls at her Plaistow Wharf refinery triumph over those at the Thames refinery downriver, at the annual company Sports Day, and Gladys was the star of both the women’s netball and athletic teams. Sacking her would have been handing an easy victory to the Thames girls, so Gladys kept her job.
Perhaps after all Miss Smith enjoyed Gladys’s strong personality and sense of mischief, since there were hints she had quite a sense of humour herself. When the time finally came for Gladys to get married and leave the factory, Miss Smith told her: ‘I’d like you to give your husband-to-be a message from me. Tell him, I wish him all the luck in the world!’
Many other former sugar girls also saw another side to Miss Smith who, despite her foreboding persona, could be very caring and protective of those in her charge. She always took a special interest in girls who had been orphaned, looking out for them and visiting them at home if they were struggling in any way. When she noticed that girls were under stress or suffering from ill health, she would send them, at the company’s expense, to a convalescent home by the seaside. And when a young unmarried sugar girl fell pregnant, she tried her best to help her. The girl, who had attempted to hide her bump by wrapping lengths of cloth around her stomach, refused to admit that she was pregnant, and later died. Miss Smith was visibly distressed at the sight of her funeral procession going past the factory gates, and urged all the other sugar girls to come to her if they ever found themselves in trouble.
As they grew older, the sugar girls came to realise that Miss Smith’s strictness was perhaps a necessary tool for survival as a woman in the male-dominated factory management, and for dealing with the hoards of teenage girls that she had to control in order to make the factory run smoothly. ‘She was strict, but she had to be really,’ one woman told us. ‘She was for the women,’ another said. ‘She was our champion. There was no one like Miss Smith.’In 1985 Gladys Taylor organised a reunion of the girls from her department, and decided, on a whim, to invite Miss Smith along too. Her friends thought it unlikely that she would come, given their previous relationship. But, sure enough, Miss Smith replied that she would be glad to attend.
By then retired, and an old lady, Miss Smith nonetheless still cut an imposing figure, but her demeanour had changed entirely. ‘You can call me Flo,’ she told the other women who had once worked under her. ‘After all, we’re all equal now.’ She told them that, as a woman who had never married and started a family of her own, she had always looked on the sugar girls as her children.
After the reunion, Gladys and her friends would look out for news of Miss Smith. Sometimes she was spotted walking her dogs in Barking, with the same upright demeanour she had always displayed at the factory. After a while though, the sightings stopped altogether. The women heard that she had been moved into a nursing home, and when they phoned up to ask if they could visit they were told she didn’t want to see them. Treating them as equals was one thing, but perhaps Miss Smith couldn’t show that kind of vulnerability.
Miss Smith died in 2009 at the age of 92. A small group of sugar girls attended her funeral.
The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End, by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, is published by Collins on March 29. For more information, to see photos of the sugar girls and hear audio clips of their interviews, and to order copies of the book, visit www.thesugargirls.com.