East End Heroines

To mark the inauguration of the new East Ham branch of the Women’s Institute, we remember a few of the notable women who contributed so much to our local history.

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was an English social reformer who became a major force in bringing about new legislation to improve the treatment of prisoners. Throughout her life she worked untiringly to improve the lives of poor people. Queen Victoria admired her, and contributed money to her humanitarian work.

She was married to Joseph Fry, a banker and like herself a Quaker (belonging to a Christian group also known as the Society of Friends). The couple lived in Plashet House in East Ham, and then in Forest Gate with their eleven children.

Fry reading NewgateWhen Elizabeth visited London’s Newgate Prison, as shown right, she was appalled by the dreadful conditions of overcrowding and poor hygiene, and immediately started making improvements, for example setting up reading and sewing classes for the women, and a prison school for their children. She founded what later became the first national women’s organisation in Britain, and in 1818 became the first woman to present evidence in Parliament when she reported on prison conditions.

In 1840 Elizabeth opened a training school for nurses, which inspired Florence Nightingale. She also established a night shelter for homeless people in London, and the idea spread to other British cities.

Fry's statue in the Old Bailey
Fry’s statue in the Old Bailey

There are a number of memorials to Elizabeth in prisons and courthouses, and many buildings and schools are named after her. There is a bust of her in our very own East Ham Library. Since 2001 her image has also appeared on £5 notes (although is soon be replaced by that of Winston Churchill).

 Tate & Lyle ‘Sugar Girls’

'Sugar girls' on the front of The Tate and Lyle Times

The ‘Sugar Girls’ were the female factory workers at Tate & Lyle’s enormous sugar factory near the docks in Silvertown, east London. Two factories were built in the late 1800s by rival sugar refiners Henry Tate and Abram Lyle, which then merged in the 1920s.

Tate & Lyle offered very good wages and conditions compared to most local employers, and there were plenty of job opportunities for women. The Sugar Girls were seen as relatively fashionable and glamorous by normal East End girls’ standards (wearing turbans and tight dungarees), but they also took immense pride in their work and were fiercely loyal to the company.

The Sugar GirlsThe story of these feisty East End girls is immortalised in a 2012 book entitled The Sugar Girls, written by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, which hit number 10 in the Sunday Times Bestseller List.

You can also find their story on a website which contains pictures and audio clips of women featured in the book. It also includes a blog with images and reminiscences from former Sugar Girls.

By Philippa


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