My chat with… author Sue Wilsher

Sue Wilsher, When My Ship Come In, Essex, by Katy Pearson
In print: How this feature first appeared

LONG before Thurrock became known for Lakeside, East Tilbury was already somewhat famous for Bata shoe factory.

Founded in 1932 (it closed in 2005) its company town set-up was unique in Britain, offering its thousands of workers housing, schools, entertainment – and even its own newspaper.

And it was this Bata way of life that provided the inspiration for Linford born and bred Sue Wilsher’s debut novel, When My Ship Comes In, now out in paperback.

Mum-of-two Sue’s grandparents and mother were Bata folk – and Sue, who grew up in Linford and attended East Tilbury school – extensively researched the factory for her saga, set in 1950s Essex.

Sue, 46, explained: “Growing up, Bata shoe factory was just a part of the local landscape for me, a back drop to the walk to school. You don’t really think too much about your surroundings when you’re a kid. The modernist architecture of the Bata estate didn’t seem unusual to me.

“Crafting a novel is a huge learning process. My dreams and writing mind always go back to the area I grew up in. I kept thinking about Bata and remembered seeing an outdoor swimming pool when I was a kid.

“Something made me look up Bata online and I’m so glad I did.

“The history of the place is fascinating. The concept of the factory town is so interesting.”

Does Sue believe Bata factory – which was built partly to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression and partly to overcome customs tariffs on foreign products – holds a special place in a lot of Essex people’s past?

“Definitely. There is a brilliant voluntary group called the Bata Heritage Centre which works hard to preserve the memories of people who lived and worked on the Bata Estate.

“They are based at East Tilbury library, which sadly has recently been the victim of an arson attack. They have a fantastic website too, with anecdotes and memories of working on the estate.

“It is very clear that Bata holds a special place in the hearts of local people, as does the Tilbury area and the docks, where some of the novel is set. There is a fantastic online resource called Tilbury and Chadwell Memories, a collection of the area’s history, which has been wonderful for researching this book.

“I love the photo of the ‘Tilbury scrubbers’, the women who cleaned the cruise ships that docked there. Of course, this isn’t a work of non-fiction, so I have put my own take on it, as an author you have your own vision and I have worked this into the area, using general historical facts from the time.”

So how close is Sue’s Essex factory town Mondays to Bata?

“The characters and stories in the book are entirely fictional and not based on real life people or events. With the exception of the football match!

“Back in the day, West Ham United football club would practise on Bata’s first class football pitch pre-season – I know, it seems unbelievable, but there are photos of Bobby Moore training there.

“As a return favour, West Ham would play Bata’s first team in an annual charity match on the Bata pitch. Such a great story I had to use it! Of course the match in the book was completely made up – and I do apologise in the book’s acknowledgements for the fictional injuries suffered by the team!”

So, how did Sue – whose second saga, Empire Girls (set in Tilbury in 1952 and 1955) is
out in August – get into writing?

“I’ve always written, it’s part of who I am. When I was a teenager I used to say that one day I would write a novel. Thirty years later and I’ve managed it.”

And does Sue, who now lives in Kent, miss Essex, being as she spends so much time writing about life in the county?

“I miss Essex for the nostalgia, the childhood memories and feel that Essex is a huge part of my identity.

“I have to say I am tired of the negative reputation Essex still has.

“When we were younger we’d go clubbing in London and would pretend we weren’t from Essex to avoid the ridicule! Having written this book I have a new-found appreciation of Essex and its history.”

Find Sue online at or follow her on Twitter @SueWilsher

This feature was first published in the Thurrock Gazette and the Echo on Monday, April 10:

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