Authors: Kate Thompson
To Ben, for his loyalty and patience,
and to my own Singer Girls, for teaching me
the true value of female friendships.
From the outside it looked like any normal East End factory, but as Poppy Percival allowed her pale blue eyes to travel up the imposing brick exterior to the jumble of
soot-stained chimney stacks, she wanted to turn on her well-polished heels and flee. Instead, she stayed rooted to the spot and nervously twisted a lock of her soft brown hair tightly round her
fingers. Gracious, it was a sight to turn her pounding heart to stone. The buildings brickwork was scorched black from a thousand Blitz incendiary fires, and the high windows of the former
workhouse looked as forbidding as the gates of hell.
As twilight bled across the jagged rooftops, a steady rain began to fall. It wasn’t crisp spring rain like the type you got in the countryside, Poppy thought uncomfortably. This rain was
thick and black, as warm as sour milk, and it coated everything in its path with a dark sheen. The cobbles under Poppy’s aching feet were a soupy, sulphurous mess, and the factory shimmered
like an oil slick.
Sixteen-year-old Poppy had travelled a long way from the country estate in Norfolk where she had spent the last two years working as a scullery maid. She had left that morning at the crack of
dawn, bundled onto a steam train at King’s Lynn by her harassed mother, who worked as a lady’s maid at the same grand home.
‘Don’t be shaming me, you hear, my girl,’ her mother had muttered as she had swung the heavy train door shut behind Poppy with a resounding thwack. It had slammed so hard it
had almost drowned out her words, but not quite . . . ‘And remember, no more scandal.’ With that her pinched face had disappeared behind a swirl of smoke.
A bit like a dragon who has blown off too much steam, Poppy had thought at the time. She kept that thought to herself, of course. She would sooner carve off her left leg than cheek her mother,
especially under the circumstances. The rest of the doors had slammed shut and they had departed, chugging their way through the lush green Norfolk countryside and away from everything Poppy had
The gentle rhythm of the train had soon lulled Poppy into a deep sleep, but when she had awoken, it had been to sights the like of which she had never before seen. St Pancras Station was charged
with energy. Soot-blackened locomotives slid majestically into their platforms, where billowing clouds of silvery-grey smoke swirled above. Every so often the smoke had parted to reveal a
tantalizing glimpse of the human lives playing out on the platforms: a sweetheart clinging to a soldier; a mother fussing over a bewildered child.
A tight knot of fear had unfurled in Poppy’s heart and she had gripped her canvas bag close to her bosom. Her freshly shone leather shoes, so sparkling she could almost make out the
reflection of her freckled nose in them, had seemed rooted to the station concourse.
‘Excuse me,’ she had said nervously to an elderly-looking porter who was hauling great leather trunks onto barrows. ‘Can you tell me the way to get to Bethnal Green, please,
He had stared at her curiously before a wry grin creased his craggy face. ‘Course I can, sweetheart. What’s left of it, that is,’ he had said with a wink.
Travelling during wartime was an uncertain business, as Poppy had found out. The porter had told her she could take something called the Tube, but the idea of navigating London on an underground
train system had seemed too bewildering by half. So bus it was. Except the bus the porter had told her to get had suddenly lurched off the road to avoid a bomb crater and been detoured on a whole
new route, past houses that looked to Poppy like grand white wedding cakes and imposing red-brick buildings that soared to the heavens.
Not that Poppy had the faintest idea where she was in any case. She had never been to the city of London before and her heart had thumped in her chest at the overwhelming sights. There was
noise, chaos and traffic of all kinds belching out acrid fumes. An eerie greenish fog hung ominously over the city, meaning taxis, trams and utility buses with blacked-out windows loomed out of the
smog without warning. The roads were pockmarked with bomb damage, sandbags were bundled up at the end of each street, and every now and then a smart terrace of houses would fall away to nothing but
This was a whole new world to Poppy. The Blitz had been over for a year now, but the damage was still visible everywhere. As the bus passed a bombsite, a cold, hard fist tightened around
Poppy’s heart. The uncomfortable thought hit her that every sealed-off site had been someone’s private hell. London was awash with brick tombs. In fact, from what she was able to tell,
vast swathes of the city had been reduced to rubble. Roped-off roads contained nothing but rain-sodden masonry, the odd twisted skeleton of what might have been a bus embedded within it. Street
urchins picked their way through the bombsites, pulling out anything they could salvage to sell. It was a hopeless sight. Nothing like the smart images of London Poppy had seen in magazines. It was
all too much and the high emotion of the past few weeks engulfed her.
Tears pricked her eyes and then spilt helplessly down her creamy cheeks as she clutched her bag so tightly her knuckles turned white. Packed in her case, she had only some cotton stays, a vest,
two pairs of knickers and three pairs of lisle stockings. Not much to show for sixteen years.
Until recently, she had been safe and cosseted below stairs in a stately home. Back at Framshalton Hall, her days had been filled with hard work. From 6 a.m., when she awoke to black-lead the
grate, scrub the passage and light the range fire, her fifteen-hour day had been broken down into a multitude of back-breaking tasks, until she finally finished at 9 p.m. But she had done this with
never-ending good cheer. Even marching to the tune of a grumpy cook hadn’t dented her ferocious pride in her work. For Poppy’s whole sense of worth was rooted in her work ethic. At the
age of fourteen, Poppy had left school on a Friday and, as arranged by her mother, started work as a scullery maid on the Monday. From that day forth she had scarcely drawn breath. When she had
once made the mistake of sitting down in the servants’ hall to rub her feet at the end of service, Cook had swiftly rebuked her. ‘If it don’t ache, it don’t work,
madam,’ she’d admonished. After that Poppy had never dared to show so much as a flicker of fatigue under her superior’s exacting gaze. Fortunately, as the months had rolled out,
she had found the harder she worked, the more her confidence in her own ability had grown, until the sight of a sparkling scullery made her heart sing. But life below stairs had also shielded Poppy
from the harsh realities of what had been brewing in the dark skies above.
In the sleepy hamlet of Little Framshalton she had barely even been aware there was a war on. Outside events didn’t permeate the intense order of a country-house kitchen. She would no more
talk to Cook about Hitler than she would dare to sneak onto the family side of the house or take Tommy the frisky hall boy up on his offer to meet behind the woodshed. Of course, she had heard Cook
muttering about ‘bloody rations’, but when it came to world affairs, she was as naive as they came. There was order, security and protection in the hierarchy of the upstairs-downstairs
world. The biggest crisis to hit the kitchens of Framshalton Hall was when Lord Framshalton had found a piece of eggshell in his beef consommé.
But then, one evening, everything had changed. Poppy had told no one the truth of what had happened that dark night in the scullery, but the rumour mill had gone into overdrive all the same. Her
mother’s solution had been to remove Poppy altogether. Far better to pretend it hadn’t happened than deal with the ensuing scandal.
‘Happen it’ll do you good to see another way of life, my girl,’ her mother had muttered, as she had packed her case a few days later with almost indecent speed. ‘Besides,
now the new National Service Act has come in, you’ll have to leave to do essential war work sooner or later. Scrubbing pans won’t help to beat the Jerries,’ she’d added,
conveniently ignoring the fact that her days were spent tending to Her Ladyship’s extravagant wardrobe.
And now, after a series of frantic correspondences between Poppy’s mother and a second cousin by the name of Archie Gladstone, Poppy had been wrenched, bewildered, from her home to here,
this sprawling metropolis. Mr Gladstone was the factory foreman at Trout’s garment factory and had agreed, much to her mother’s relief, to take Poppy off her hands.
As the bus had lurched its way towards the East End, Poppy had noticed the elegant stuccoed houses and genteel, leafy squares giving way to an altogether different side of London. The housing
had grown smaller and more dense and the bombsites more frequent. In fact, as far as Poppy had been able to tell, the whole area was one giant bombsite. The streets were as dark as the skies
overhead. In the country, the sky seemed to stretch on forever, and spring had been blossoming when she had left, every field blanketed in bluebells, and wild flowers bursting out in the hedgerows.
Here, nothing but the strongest weeds grew, sprouting defiantly through the wreckage of a bomb crater. Finally, the bus had grumbled to a halt.
‘Bethnal Green, folks,’ the conductor shouted.
Gingerly, Poppy had disembarked. Off the main street, she had just been able to make out rows of identical terraced houses stretching down narrow unlit streets. Poppy’s heart had dropped
to the soles of her shoes. The smell of sulphur tingled her nostrils as a woman loomed up behind her and, grasping her firmly round the waist, deftly moved her to the side of the pavement as if she
were as light as a piece of lace.
‘Outta the way, lovey, else you’ll get mown down,’ the woman had said, grinning broadly to reveal a row of rotten black stumps. Her greasy hair was wrapped round some metal
curlers, and she was clutching a string bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
‘You youngsters,’ she cackled. ‘You ain’t got an ounce of sense in yer whole body.’
‘Sorry, ma’am,’ Poppy blustered.
“S’right, girlie.’ She grinned again.
‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ Poppy had ventured nervously. ‘You couldn’t point me in the direction of Trout’s factory? All these factories look the same to
‘You ain’t working with the Singer Girls, are you, love?’ the woman had exclaimed, one eyebrow shooting up her wrinkled face. ‘Blow me, they’ll eat a nice young
girl like you alive!’ With that, she pointed to a large building at the end of a long road. ‘Up towards Commercial Street. Good luck,’ she laughed.