Keep glam and carry on: Life at the Yardley factory in the 1940s

They lived with air raid warnings and rationing, but still the women who worked at the Yardley factory in the 1940s remember a happy time. YOU’s beauty editor Edwina Ings-Chambers meets two friends who worked on the production line together over 70 years ago. 

Ann (left) and Eileen Today. Image: Chris O’Donovan

‘Ooh, you’ve done a good job of that blush, haven’t you,’ enthuses Eileen McKay, touching my cheek. ‘That’s lovely, that is.’ I’m sitting in a South London café with Eileen, now in her ‘92nd year’, impossibly chic with her hair and nails done, and her friend Ann Roper (‘87 – but feeling like 97’), who has perfectly translucent skin.

Over cups of tea, the pair are reminiscing about life at the old Yardley factory in East London (founded in 1770, it was then Britain’s biggest beauty factory), in the area that’s now the Olympic Park. The women were friends when they worked there, until Ann left to get married and they lost touch; 68 years later, they were reunited by author Kate Thompson while she was researching her latest novel, Secrets of the Homefront Girls, about the women who worked on the lipstick line at Yardley during the Blitz.

As an avid fan of classic Elstree films, featuring feisty working-class women with names such as Queenie, it’s an era that seems almost glamorous to me. A time when, despite the hardships of war, posters parlayed lipstick into positive propaganda: Beauty is a Duty. The British ‘stiff upper lip’ became a red pout of defiance, even though products were in short supply and many beauty factories had to turn to making munitions. Slogans such as Yardley’s ‘Good looks and morale go hand in hand’ reinforced the message that beauty would help in the war effort.

The friends first met when Eileen was 20 and Ann was just 16 – she’d already left school and had been working for two years. That was quite normal, they say. ‘I was working when I was 12, but we had a war coming,’ says Eileen.

1950 – back when they were factory girls

‘Yardley’s was on Carpenter’s Road, a long row of factories,’ says Ann. ‘If you [had to leave] a factory, you went next door and got a new job there the next day.’ The road was also known as Stink Bomb Alley, as the factories on it included a paint firm, a fishmeal manufacturer and an abattoir. A job at Yardley’s was the most coveted. ‘It didn’t matter which department you were in, you still came out smelling nice,’ says Ann.

‘Oh yes,’ remembers Eileen. ‘Everyone knew when you got on the bus. “Up the Yardley Girls!” they’d shout. Even years later, when I was in my 70s, a man recognised me and shouted it out.’

It was more than just a fragrant place to work. Then still a family-owned firm, Yardley was a good employer. Eileen recalls a man in the packing department who was deaf and one young girl ‘who had a stroke when she was young – they took her on so she had a job’. The company also encouraged its staff to save and Eileen would put ten shillings from her pay packet into her TSB account at the branch near the factory. Both recall real camaraderie.

The duo were on the face-cream production line, though they were at different stages of the process. Ann had to ‘make the top of the cream look smooth’ while Eileen was on labelling (both jobs that are done by machines nowadays). ‘We didn’t chat in work time,’  insists Ann. Certainly not when there was a Mrs McNerson who ‘sat at a desk watching everything’.

Despite this overseeing eye, health and safety concerns were a little different back then. ‘This one girl was eating peanuts [as she worked]. I saw the husks going everywhere,’ says Eileen. Peanuts near a cosmetics packing line probably wouldn’t slip by any workplace checks today.

Photo by The Advertising Archives

Although they were surrounded by beauty products, and had a staff discount, neither of them indulged; for East End girls like them it would have been an unnecessary extravagance. Ann says she simply ‘went to Woolies’. She still has incredible skin today, something she puts down to washing her face with water and putting on cream so that it doesn’t feel tight.

Lipstick, however, was a different matter. Eileen praises the staying power of Yardley lipstick: ‘I put it on in the morning and it was still on when I went home’. She also has a Max Factor lippie, a prized beauty possession given to her when she was 19. Seven decades on and ‘there’s still a bit left,’ she tells me. While output in the Yardley factory was cut during the war, sales of lipstick soared – perhaps because it brightened up daily life.

Yardley factory girls were often searched as they left work ‘as apparently people were taking things they shouldn’t’, says Eileen. ‘I was only ever called in once. I gave them my bag and I did have a jar of cream in there, but it was given to me as a gift when I was 16. It was lovely-smelling and very fine. I never used it; it was too precious. I used to look at it, smell it and put it in my bag. The only time I did use it was when I hit a man with my bag after the cinema. I could feel someone shuffling behind me but it was pitch black as it was during the blackout, so I turned around and went “bang” with my bag. He got a clunk, didn’t he,’ she chuckles.

A complicated beauty regime wasn’t something either had the money or time for. Hairdressing was all very DIY, too. ‘I’d use pipe cleaners,’ says Ann. ‘You wound your hair round [them], slept, then in the morning you’d have a little curl. There wasn’t the time to sit around preening.’ It was important, a matter of pride even, to be well turned out, but glamour was not their goal. ‘Oh no, no darling, not glamour,’ says Eileen. ‘Everyone was too busy. And it was [a time of] austerity. Things were still rationed.’

It’s all such a far cry from today’s preening, selfie-obsessed world. What do they think of beauty today? ‘I think they’re paying out left, right and centre for things they don’t need,’ says Eileen. YouTube beauty tutorials bemuse both of them. And as for people applying make-up on the bus or tube? ‘That was the sort of thing you did in private,’ says Eileen. ‘Girls do it with impunity now but I would never dream of it. And all these false eyelashes. Everything we had was natural. I really wanted wavy hair – but now I’m waving it goodbye!’

For all the hardships, the terrible events, such as the Bethnal Green tube station disaster (173 people were crushed to death during an air raid, a tragedy so seared on Eileen’s memory she can recount the date: 3 March 1943), the friends miss that time. ‘Oh, it was friendlier and much happier than these days,’ says Ann.

If it was anything like the fun I had chatting to this pair for a few hours, I can well believe that’s true.

Secrets of the Homefront Girls by Kate Thompson is out now (Hodder, £6.99)