Tate & Lyle are the last great industrial employers at Silvertown. The refinery dominates the view and the landscape from the DLR. It still appears to be a flourishing industry in a post – industrial landscape now ripe for redevelopment. It was in fact one of the first factories to locate to the new Silvertown site in 1878. Henry Tate acquired a derelict shipyard there in 1874-5. This was about 25 years after Samuel Winkworth Silver first opened his rubber factory nearby, giving his name to an emerging industrial hinterland, newly served by railways as well as the River. This large area of marshland was to prove an attractive site for many new industrial processes.
Henry Tate (1819-1899) had bought the British rights to Eugen Langen’s sugar cube manufacturing process in 1875 – a process which was to revolutionise the sugar market – and he was keen to acquire a suitable site to exploit this and a ready market in which to sell it. A new base on the edge of London proved to be ideal. Tate was an entrepreneur and a risk taker – an enlightened employer, by the standards of the time, and a philanthropist. He was to make a fortune with the new and revolutionary process. Gone were the old and cumbersome sugar loaves; here at last was hygienically packaged and accessible quantities of sugar for everyone’s convenience and use.
Tate was born in Chorley, Lancashire, the eleventh child of a Unitarian minister. He was apprenticed to his eldest brother Caleb, who owned a grocery business, at the age of 13 years but acquired his own grocery shop in Liverpool with Aaron Wedgewood in 1839. Henry focused on the sale of tea and by 1855 had six shops. His partnership with a Liverpool sugar refiner led him to sell the shops and the wholesale tea business he had built up. By 1869, he had bought out the partnership too and his two sons entered the business, which was subsequently renamed Henry Tate & Sons.
Henry Tate & Sons acquired the rights to a new French sugar purification process in 1872, giving the firm serious advantages of scale over competitors. A new refinery at Love Lane, Liverpool produced 1000 tons of sugar each week and employed 400 people. The old small scale, inefficient and unhygienic refineries that had operated in the East End of London and the City were seriously outmoded. Enter his competitor and, finally, the other half of the business…….
At the other end of what was to become known as “The Sugar Mile”, Abram Lyle from Greenock arrived to purchase Plaistow Wharf in 1883. Formerly a cooper and a shipwright, Lyle had interests in shipping sugar and finally added a sugar refining business to his interests. His own special product, known originally as “Goldie”, had been a waste product of the refining process sold at first only to his employees. Lyle’s Golden Syrup, however, reached a mass market and was a huge success. Over one million tons are still produced each month today. It’s iconic branding – personally developed and approved by Abram Lyle with its biblical reference – is Britain’s oldest brand. Like Tate, Lyle was an enlightened employer and philanthropist. The two firms were rivals; their amalgamation came in 1921 after World War 1 and with the threat of European competition from the newly exploited and large scale developing sugar beet industry. Cane sugar products from around the World had to compete.
Much of the innovative tradition begun by Henry Tate and Abram Lyle seems to survive in the Company today in what is a challenging global market. The Company is no longer family owned and was sold in 2010 for £211m to American Sugar Refining. Their website lists their range of products and expertise. There are many sugars including specialist sugar products and sweeteners but the Company has long since diversified. Its interests include other food products – food texturants, food stabilisers, industrial starches and food fibres. They work with food companies to develop new products and their food technology expertise extends from drinks, to dairy products, soups, sauces and dressings. They produce bulk industrial goods and pet foods. Their website professes that the Company focuses on fair trade and environmental issues, on being a responsible and fair employer, on research and new innovative techniques and community involvement with a concern to succeed in partnerships in a global and changing world. All things to which Henry Tate and Abram Lyle might readily have signed up……