Lavender Girls landed a job at Yardley’s 'for perfume perks and getting a man'

Kate Thompson's latest book of Home Front stories

Kate Thompson's latest book in her series of Home Front stories from the war and post-war East End - Credit: Hodder & Stoughton

The secrets of east London’s “lavender girls” at Yardley’s cosmetics have been uncovered by author Kate Thompson. 

She has tracked down former employees, now in their 80s and 90s and long since retired, for her new book The Lavender Girls

They were the elite of east London’s industrial workforce in its heyday. They came from Bow, West Ham, Poplar, Hackney Wick and as far as Bethnal Green to land a job on the coveted cosmetics assembly line at Stratford.

Wartime promotion for cosmetics that Churchill said was essential

Wartime promotion for cosmetics that Churchill said was essential for national morale - Credit: Hodder & Stoughton

One attraction was the perk of getting cosmetics at cost price during the rationing years of the Second World War. Another was finding a man.

“I’m passionate about documenting the lives of working class women born into brutal poverty,” Kate says. “We can learn so much from those whose social history leaves no paper trail.” 

She traces Yardley workers like Ann Roper, now 86, and Eileen McKay, 90, who worked in Stratford’s “stinky alley” Carpenter’s Road with 1,000 other women.

Eileen, originally from Bethnal Green, joins Ann for a reunion after seven decades to meet the author. They had lost touch when Ann left to get married in 1950. 

Eileen McKay and Ann Roper as young Lavender Girls

Eileen McKay (top left) and Ann Roper (bottom left) as young Lavender Girls outside Yardley's Carpenters Road factory. - Credit: Kate Thompson

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Both by coincidence bring the same photo to show Kate for her research, a snap of the two aged 15 and 18 enjoying a moment of fun on a tea break. 

Ann got married quickly, she wryly admits. “It happened a lot, when you get a factory full of good-looking young men and women.” 

Eileen and Ann at their reunion in 2019 

Eileen and Ann at their reunion in 2019 recreating the old photo from the factory - Credit: Kate Thompson

The Lavender Girls is set in the 1940s, when - according to a Ministry of Supply memo - make-up was as important to women as cigarettes were to men to boost morale in the population. Winston Churchill declared “beauty is a duty” and Britain’s oldest cosmetics firm, established in 1770, rose to the wartime challenge.  

But the factory was less glamorous. It was in a backwater known as “Stink Bomb Alley” on the Lea riverbank sandwiched between a paint firm, fishmeal factory crawling with maggots, and an abattoir. 

Perfume floor at Yardley's during the Second World War  

The perfume floor at Yardley's during the Second World War - Credit: Hodder & Stoughton

“Remember the smell?” Ann asks Eileen. Yes, Eileen does: “Cor, not many — there were seven types of air down Carpenter’s Road, depending on whether the factory was distilling lavender or boiling animal bones for soap. We always smelt lovely though.” 

Yardley's held an annual dinner-dance for its workers at Stratford Town Hall, a beano to Margate, ran a sports club and the Yardley Follies dance troupe performing at Stratford’s Theatre Royal. It had a welfare officer and anyone too sick to work would be sent to a convalescent home on the south coast for a fortnight’s paid leave — a forerunner of the NHS in its day. 

Lavender Girl Daisy and author Kate Thompson

Daisy, one of the Yardley 'Lavender Girls,' shows researcher Kate Thompson her photo album from the war - Credit: Kate Thompson

“People didn’t leave until they married,” Kate’s research has found. “It would be hard to remain single with the factory known locally as ‘the marriage bureau’!” 

A glance through Yardley News in 1954 reveals in one month alone Alfie Pedgrift from dispatch marrying Rose Callow from soap, Walter Scales in wages getting spliced to Betty Cardew from powders and Arthur Rogers in dispatch making an honest woman of the fragrant Millicent from perfumery. 

Eileen recalls: “We were a tight-knit community, sharing everything because we were all poor. But at least we were never in debt.” 

Eileen married Ernest, her supervisor, in 1958. “They did me proud when I left, gifting me a dressing-table stool and a set of silver cutlery.” 

Yardley's old Stratford factory in Carpenter's Road pre-war

Yardley's old Stratford factory in Carpenter's Road pre-war, before being modernised after the war - Credit: Hodder & Stoughton

The company expanded in 1950 adding warehouses and a research lab at Carpenters Road and a warehouse in Ilford, then a shipping department at Green Street in Forest Gate in 1951. But Yardley’s finally left east London in 1966, moving out to a modern plant in Basildon. 

Kate, in her research, observes: “Stink Bomb Alley and the old Angel Lane market are now buried beneath gentrification and the Olympic Park. I hope my fictional characters do justice to the real Yardley girls I met.”  

Kate Thompson's Secrets of the Lavender Girls is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £6.99.