The Jam Factory Girls by Mary Wood
This is an enthralling book set in 1910, looking at the lives of young women brought together by a jam factory in London. Elsie works in the dangerous, oppressive Swifts Jam Factory, subject to the unfair rule of overseers, grateful to have a job when older women wait outside the gates unemployed. She has a family to care for despite being only eighteen: a mother who works on the streets and brings in variable amounts of money, a slightly younger brother who picks up casual work, and two younger brothers. Her best friend Dot has a similarly difficult background despite having both parents. This is a novel of poverty and injustice, but also love, friendship and hope. As always with Mary Wood’s books, the relationship between women is the most powerful element of a novel when the odds seem to be stacked against them; there are challenges, but also small victories as friendship overcomes many problems. The two girls are inseparable, but each warm to a stranger, Millie, when they meet by chance, and it is their loyalty to each other in a small group that transforms many lives. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book of women taking power for themselves in the most difficult of circumstances.
The book opens with a description of morning in Elsie’s home. This is a place of a “knocker up” who wakes workers, and Elsie and Cecil have to rise and sort out the rest of the family. Jimmy is only eight, and obviously ill, but still has to help a local grocer to earn a few pennies. Bert is four years old, and Elsie has to make sure her mother, who drinks heavily, is awake to keep an eye on him before she sets off for work. This is poverty, only redeemed by kind doctors who offer free treatment for children. Life is tough, but they have a little income, which varies alarmingly with seasonal work. Dot also struggles with the work at the jam factory, lifting glass jars and sorting fruit. The stirring of protest concerning the conditions and wages among women workers gives some hope, but even membership of a union can be an expensive option. Into this world enters the relatively wealthy daughter of the factory’s owner, Millie Hawksfield, who is struggling against her parent’s hopes of her making an impressive marriage. When she is confronted by the poverty of the two young women, she begins to discover the realities of the lives of her father’s employees, but it takes a tragedy for her to be confronted with some of her father’s actions. As she is drawn to new friendships which challenge her upbringing, the women begin to suspect more is to be discovered about those around them.
This book represents the first in a series concerning the women who worked in small factories in London in the early twentieth century. The dialogue represents the gaps between rich and poor, the ambitions of those with little, compared with the financially secure. The descriptions of the working conditions in the factory show research into the conditions that women worked at the time, but never slows down the story. Wood uses insights into the clothes, the food and so much more to bring these women alive so that it is easy to be drawn into the story. I found this a compelling story which kept me reading once begun, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys well paced stories of women facing challenges together.