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Pamela Cilia, Truman’s Bottling Girl

June 10, 2021
by the gentle author

The Battle for Brick Lane exhibition curated by The Gentle Author at Annetta Pedretti’s House, 25 Princelet St, E1 6QH, is open from noon until 6pm this Saturday 12th & Sunday 13th June, and every weekend through July. If you would like to volunteer to invigilate, please email

There will be a protest march to Stop The Truman Brewery Shopping Mall this Sunday, meeting in Altab Ali Park at 11:45am for speeches followed by a procession up Brick Lane with banners and music. Please come to show your support.

Pamela Cilia

The reputation of the Truman’s bottling girls has passed into legend in Spitalfields. In the course of my interviews so many people have regaled me with tales of this heroic tribe of independent spirited females. who wore dungarees and clogs which thundered upon the cobbles as made their way through the narrow streets en masse, that I have been seeking one of these glamorous and elusive creatures for years.

Consequently, I was more than happy to make a trip to Rainham to pay a call upon Pamela Cilia, who proved to be a fine specimen of a bottling girl, full of vitality, sharp intelligence and strong opinions to this day. Illuminated by sparkling charisma and filling with joyous emotion as she recounted her story, Pamela was no disappointment.

“I loved it, I loved it, really loved it. But when my husband discovered I was going to work at Truman’s, he said, ‘I don’t want you working in that *******.’ He called it a certain place. Yet he already worked there, so I said to him, ‘If you give the place such a bad name, why are you working there?’ My first job was at Charrington’s in Mile End Rd until that closed down, then I worked for Watney Mann’s for seven years in Sidney St before they sold it to Truman’s, and that’s how we all ended up in Truman’s.

In the bottling plant, you had the filler, then you had the discharger and the labelling. The boxes came down and we filled them up. If a vacancy appeared on a machine, they did it by seniority – I think there were about seven machines. They had one ‘Galloping Major’ that done pints and quarts, and all the others were little bottles. They also had the canning machine. I was mainly on the canning machine.

We never had all this ‘safety,’ like now.  We never wore glasses, we never had earpieces, so it was really dangerous, especially when the bottles went ‘bang’– especially when you had one in your hand and it exploded. You’d be getting them out of the pasteuriser, then all of a sudden ‘bang, bang bang, bang!’ because they hit against one another and they were hot from the pasteuriser.

I was forty-four and my children were all at school. In those days we lived in two rooms. Two pound a week, that’s what we paid.  And my friend Doris used to take the kids to school and she used to bring them home. I clocked in at half past seven and finished at five.

When we got paid on Thursday’s, we used to go over to the Clifton – Thursday was curry day. My friend Adele said ‘I’ll take you to an Indian restaurant.’ At first, she took me to a restaurant near Middlesex Street, near the old toilets. ‘I’ll take you there for a curry,’ she offered, so I said ‘All right’ but when we ate there, I told her, ‘Oh, I don’t like that, Adele.’ The food was too hot.

The following Thursday we went to the Clifton, and on the tables were peppers. Terry, the engineer – big bloke – he said ‘Pam …’ He was going out with Adele and had a row with her, they weren’t talking. He said, ‘Pam, it’s no good asking her for a roll …’ So I offered, ‘All right, I’ll get one for you.’ He said, ‘I want cheese and tomato.’ I got him two cheese and tomato rolls, but I took a pepper and took the pips out and put them in with the tomato pips.  Then I gave them to him and went home afterwards, because I knew what he would do. I was a bit of a joker. I didn’t worry about anything. Nobody got me down.

My sister was different. She was a worrier. I mean, I went there one day and she was crying her eyeballs out. And they all said to me. ‘Pam, Betty’s crying,’ and I said, ‘What are you crying for?’ So she told me that Yvonne, or whatever her name was, said, ‘We can’t go home in her car if we smoke.’ I said ‘Listen, you don’t need her car. You got a pair of legs. Walk on them. Or get a cab home. Don’t let them get you down.’ Well, all the girls in there, they said ‘Pam, how brave you are, you don’t care.’

I met my partner at Truman’s. He was a student of nineteen and I was forty-eight, they used to take students on at Truman’s at busy times. One day, I was out with Adele and she said,‘Pam, I’m not coming to dinner with you today’ and I went ‘You’re not? Why’s that?’ She said to me ‘A student has asked me to have a drink with him at dinner time.’ I replied, ‘Oh, I see, we’ll see about that’. I went straight over to Bernie and asked, ‘Excuse me, can I speak to you?’ And he said ‘Yes’ and I said ‘Are you taking my friend, Adele, for a drink at dinnertime?’ He said, ‘Yes’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ He said, ‘What?’ and I said again ‘I don’t think so.’ He said, ‘Why’s that?’ and I said, ‘If you take her then you’ve got to take me too.’ He went, ‘Oh, alright then, you can come too,’ and I said, ‘Never mind about alright, I’m coming…’

Later, Adele met a student too. Bernie was only nineteen when I met him and I’ve been with him for thirty-eight years. I’ve got four children from my first marriage. My youngest one is sixty-one now. I got one at sixty-one, one at sixty-two, one at sixty-three and the eldest one’s three years older, she’s sixty-six. So I’ve not done bad, bringing up four kids in two rooms. I may be eighty-three but I’m still as lively as if I was twenty-one.

I was brought up in Malta because my father was Maltese. We used to come back and forth, he was a seaman. In the end, he gave up the sea because he had malaria and he was in Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, where they told him that he could get better treatment in London – so we all moved back to where my mother came from.

There were a lot of Maltese people in the East End then, but they had a very bad name. My husband was Maltese. He was a good husband but he used to hate me talking to bad girls and I’d ask him, ‘Why?’ In Stepney, you’d see the prostitutes, you had them all living in them houses next the hospital where they had furnished rooms. If they saw you with your kids, you don’t say to your child, ‘Don’t talk to her, she’s no good, she’s a so-and-so.’ That’s not me. For me, she’s a human being. Her life is her life. What happened was he said ‘Look Pam, say there’s a crowd of Maltese in Whitechapel’ – which there used to be years ago, they all gathered near the station. He said, ‘You’re not gonna talk to them. I’m being straightforward with you.’ He didn’t want me to get categorised like that or be labelled.

He didn’t want me to work at the bottling plant either, but I done it anyway. See, I’m stubborn. You had every creed, every race. I mean I’m gonna be fair because I have to, I got to swear. When I went in in the morning, I’d say ‘Good Morning, Sweary Mary,’ and she’d say to me ‘F*** off, you Maltese bastard!’

‘You Irish, you Welsh, you Scotch, you Black, you White’ – she’d have a name for every one of one of them. We had Lil, we used to call her ‘Barley-Wine Lil’ because, as soon as she came in, she’d grab a plastic cup. We’d all be thinking she was drinking tea – but she wasn’t! This was seven o’clock in the morning and she was drinking barley wine!

It was very, very good experience for me. I mean, if anything happens to me, I’ve had a good life. I loved the atmosphere, the fighting, and the swearing. And to me, they were straightforward people. Because they’d row with you today and speak to you tomorrow. They didn’t hold it against you. See, I’m a type of person can’t hold rows with people, I just want to be friends, you know.

Once, Me & Adele went down Brick Lane to the market and Sweary Mary was in front of us. We were in our welly boots and our overalls. They had these big stalls down Wentworth Street on a Friday or a Thursday, and we saw Mary – well I tell you what, I’ve never run from nobody. I said to Adele, ‘Look, Sweary Mary’s in front.’ Adele shouts out ‘Sweary Mary!’ Oh, she just turned round and shouted at us ‘F*** off, you Truman’s whores.’ Oh, did we laugh. I mean, it’s not nice really, but that was us. We couldn’t do it today. When you got home you were a different person because you were in your family.

If someone phoned me up and said ‘Pam, there is a permanent vacancy at Truman’s, would you do it?’ The answer’d be, ‘Yes.’ I’d probably go with one leg. You had your ups and downs but there was no violence and – the beer! It was nobody’s business.

Terry, the bloke I gave the peppers to, he was a comedian. It was so hot in the bottling plant that all we had on was our cross-over aprons and our bras and pants. I had a high chair, and I had to grab these cans and pull them forward. One day, he came behind my chair and – this is all because of the pepper in the cheese and tomato roll – I knew he’d get me back, but he didn’t get me straight away. He took my chair and tipped it upside down over a container for old cardboard boxes. He shook me, picking me up and throwing me off my chair into the big container.  I couldn’t get out, my friends had to pass me wooden boxes so I could make steps to get out. Well you know, it was dangerous.

Yes, we had a bad name. Like I told you, my husband didn’t want me to go there because of the bad name. But it doesn’t mean to say you’re all the same. Yes, I had a laugh and joke, I’m not saying I didn’t. As I said, that bloke Terry got hold of me, he turned me upside down, my boobs went over my shoulders, and I didn’t think nothing of it. But my husband – to this day – he never knew. I didn’t see harm in it. But no, it was good, I loved it. Honest, I loved it.  If it hadn’t closed down, I would still be there. I would probably be the sweeper-up!

My husband died after I left Truman’s but I had already met Bernie, and the marriage was already on the rocks. I left him in the end. I always said, ‘Once my children grow up, I’m off.’ And when my children got married, the last one, I was off. And that is how I met Bernie.

At first, they all thought that he was a policeman and I knew that thieving was going on, pinching beer. So he came in one morning and he had navy trousers on, and Adele said to me, ‘Pam, there’s a policeman in here.’ So I said, ‘What do you mean, a policeman?’ I went to him ‘Oi, are you a policeman?’ and he said, ‘No.’ Of course, when we saw him in the morning, we used to shout, ‘Morning, Officer!’ But it’s true, his father was a police sergeant at Chequers and he grew up there. We always said he was a bit of a snob.

I’m eighty-three and Bernie’ll be fifty-eight this year. We just hit it off, age didn’t make any difference. We clicked from that day we met. And he is good as gold. It was fate. I say to myself, ‘It’s fate you meeting Bernie, he wanted a bottling girl.’ He’s been in a lot of places, Bernie. He met Harold Wilson and –  who’s that other prime minister? But that’s another story…”

Pamela Cilia at home in Rainham – ” I’m eighty-three and still as lively as if I was twenty-one.”


Labels courtesy Stephen Killick

Transcript by Jennifer Winkler

You may also like to read these other Truman’s stories

First Brew at the New Truman’s Brewery

The Return of Truman’s Yeast

The New Truman’s Brewery

Truman’s Returns to Spitalfields

At Truman’s Brewery, 1931

14 Responses leave one →
  1. David Gooding permalink
    June 10, 2021

    What a character that Pam is, ever lively and spritely at 83 years young.
    Those were the good old days.
    Nothing was PC then, just straight talking. No offence mind.

  2. Georgina Briody permalink
    June 10, 2021

    I love hearing the old London stories, takes me back.

  3. June 10, 2021

    what a wonderful story! i’d love to hear more of her reminiscences. pamela sounds like an amazing person. if i wasn’t on a different continent (usa) i’d love to meet her.

  4. Alex Knisely permalink
    June 10, 2021

    What a cliff-hanger ending ! * * * She has more than one story left in her, sir, I am certain. Please visit her again — draw her out further — and share with us more of her reminiscences.

  5. mary woodward permalink
    June 10, 2021

    wonderful woman..& love the photographs….so stylish & pretty. There’s a novel here…

  6. June 10, 2021

    What a fantastic lady! Spotting the headline of the post and the glamorous photo, I “assumed” that your Miss Pamela was the British equivalent of our “Miss Rheingold”. (Various beauties were “nominated” for the post of Miss Rheingold, their photos appeared on subway posters, and the public voted. Rheingold beer was a mediocre brew but the yearly beauty contest elevated the brand! )

    CLEARLY, this lovely lady is way more than a pretty face; and has gumption and stories to go along with her great looks. Mo bettah! We’re so fortunate to have these treasured stories
    (and beer labels!) this morning. Thank you, GA and thank you Ms. Cilia. (black cat lovers of the world unite………)

  7. Adele Lester permalink
    June 10, 2021

    What a character! Wonder what her kids made of all this?

  8. June 10, 2021

    What an interesting lady – reading about her life and experiences she comes across as a strong and kind person. I think it would make a great memoir.

  9. Amanda permalink
    June 10, 2021

    Pam sure was and still is an amazing Malteser !
    Her hair + jewellery so chic in her day and for your interview decked out in a sweater to exactly match her cat’s eyes.

    l love the uplifting morning exchanges with Sweary Mary.
    l’d have been laughing so much l wouldn’t have been getting on with my “labelling.”

    l agree with Alex, you must share more of her hilarious histories, she is a gem.

    Her memories alone would pack a history of the workings of Truman’s Brewery because she can clearly remember names, personalities, their traits and the banter in such detail.

    More than anything l admire anyone with such bottle.

  10. Kelly Holman permalink
    June 10, 2021

    I can’t help wishing you could bottle some of Pamela’s spirit.

  11. June 10, 2021

    As a student I worked my summer holidays in Trumans 1964-66. I can still remember the fantastic people and places where I worked. The beer bar where huge (to scrawny me) draymen and other workers came for their allocation of free beer. Many stirred in live yeast from containers on the counter. I also worked on the bottle filling line and, as Pamela mentioned, the noise could be incredible with the full bottles clanking together and not infrequently exploding in a shower of glass and beer. Also filling the one third pint (nip) bottles of Barley Wine during the summer in preparation for Christmas. My last summer was spent in the ancient tunnels under the brewery (have they been preserved I wonder) adding dried hops from huge hop pockets directly into the wooden barrels via a metal funnel to justify the phrase “More hops in Ben Truman”. Metal kegs had recently been introduced but I never worked with them. In 1966 Trumans celebrated their tercentenary and I still have my copy of the book they gave to “staff and workers”, the distinction was clear in those days.

  12. Cherub permalink
    June 10, 2021

    I’ve had a really stressful few days this week, but let me tell you all reading Pam’s story has cheered me up and made me laugh. Where would we be without such characters because life would be very dull without them. Pam and her ilk are a tonic for these stressful covid times we are not yet free of.

  13. Amanda permalink
    June 11, 2021

    For those with the intention to persevere with written objections to save Pam’s brewery from becoming a redundant ‘Shopping Mall’ – the most important post pandemic new fact to highlight is that people are NOT SHOPPING sufficiently in malls anymore for them to be necessary or profitable.
    This consumer habit of mall shopping is now probably permanently broken along with much of our old lives.

    Online shopping + returning items has taken over and without the risk of retail outlets’ rogue private car park operators issuing a sneaky £80 parking charge in the post via cameras, wiping out the savings from our bargains.

    Recently browsing in a really huge fashion outlet first time since early 2020, l asked why so empty, save 3 or 4 others?

    Online browsing + ordering has taken over. Even though now free to shop in person, having everything delivered to the door has proved to be more convenient and the way to purchase fashion + electricals + food 24/7 instead of the odd impulse buy.

    Also post pandemic, the trying on of garments instore is prohibited, so how would that work for shopping tourists taking items abroad?

    l presume tourists may be the sole customers in this pricey location when locals seem to have already deserted our famous-for-fashion and partly boarded up Oxford Street?

    If a huge national treasure like Marks & Spencer are compelled to close down hundreds of outlets due to enforced changes in shopping, why is anyone thinking of developing
    more doomed outlets ?

    The fact they are spoiling the lives of those in the vicinity does not concern developers whose money is made by constructing not running it, but an outdated building project serving absolutely no purpose, SHOULD concern the Planning Departments’ decisions to either give permission, or not.

    Do we NEED a shopping mall when the numbers going out to the shops has dropped? and tourism has been halted?

    Inspired by Philip’s intriguing account of his student days there, including the working tunnels, if only an innovative body such as the Museum of London could take Truman’s Brewery under its wing much like the old Sugar Warehouse and thankfully old Smithfield’s Market to conserve their architectural splendour + historic intrigue for a few more lifetimes.

    l wonder if any data exists on the radically changing shopping patterns?

  14. Justine permalink
    June 12, 2021

    I wanted a photo of Bernie too…

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