Some places announce themselves by a distinctive smell in the air, long before the town or city itself is reached: the hoppy aroma of brewing from Burton, the lingering smell of the old fish docks in Grimsby, the sulphurous fire and brimstone of the forges that used to announce Sheffield long before the glow of the furnaces came into view, or the acrid stink of the Billingham chemical works. York greets its visitors with an altogether sweeter and more enticing smell: the rich, mouth-watering aroma of chocolate drifting on the breeze from the Rowntrees’ factory just to the north of the city centre. The company, by some distance the city’s largest employer, was taken over by Nestlé twenty-five years ago, but to the citizens of York it will always be known as ‘Rowntrees’.
This is the story of some of the Rowntrees’ Sweethearts - the women workers from the company’s Golden Age, an era spanning the half-century from the 1930s to the 1980s. That era began at a time when a woman’s right to vote had at last been established, but her right to choose her career path, manage her own money, live her own life and follow her own destiny, were all far from certain. In the 1930s and in the decades that followed, many of the women employed at Rowntrees found a degree of financial independence, self-confidence and self-reliance through the money they earned at the factory, the skills they acquired and, of no lesser importance, the bonds they formed with other women workers. For some unhappy women, whose lives were blighted by poverty, illness, bad housing and even bad husbands, their working days at the factory also offered a much-needed refuge and respite from their domestic turmoil - a place where they could be happy, respected and much valued by their workmates.
The women to whom we spoke in the course of our researches were all unstintingly generous with their time and their memories, but it’s a sobering thought that, had this book not been published, their extraordinary, moving and inspirational stories, might well have gone untold and unrecorded. They loved their time at Rowntrees and regarded - and still regard - the factory and the company with great affection. It was, they said, ‘a great place to work and a real community’. They had the Yorkshire virtues: warmth, compassion, honesty, truthfulness, thrift and the capacity for hard graft. They did a fair day’s work in return for a fair day’s pay, and along the way, they shared laughter and tears, hardship and good times, and in the process they helped to make Rowntrees - and York - what it is today.
Lynn Russell & Neil Hanson
Opened a whole new world for me! I realised what a protective life I had. I love the characters of the girls and the fact that they still had spunk when they were old. I am 70 and had sort of given up of doing anything new, but now I know the world’s my limit. Thanks
Carole Sims, Amazon review
A cut above the usual run of "misery memoirs". Beautifully written, it paints a vivid, occasionally heart-breaking, but overall an uplifting picture of life and work for women in the pre- and post-war years. They were hard times and people were often desperately poor, but there was real sense of community where people never needed to lock their doors, neighbours looked out for each other and even strangers were greeted with kindness, not suspicion. It's a vanished world and we're poorer for it.
Sweetpea, Amazon review
The entire series was a joy to read. Brief but containing all that was needed for a glimpse into a past that should never be forgotten, particularly by those who have had no experience of the restrictions that applied then.
R.W. Fretwell, Amazon review
I loved this book. The stories of five women are set against the era and the Rowntree's chocolate factory where they all worked, but the characters are always centre stage - and what characters they are. Madge is my favourite. She suffered hardships that today's generation would scarcely believe. The slum housing in which she spent her early married life did not even have lighting, let alone heating or plumbing - the only light sources were a gas mantle in one room and candles in the rest of the house - and her husband was a drunken, violent brute, but like the others, Madge showed the resilience and spirit to rise above all her troubles and the story of her happy later years brought a different sort of tears to my eyes.
S Millward, Amazon review