Sugar Refining

The import trade
With the growing popularity of coffee and tea in the 18th century (Twinings opened their first coffee house in 1706) came a demand for refined or 'improved' sugar, which had previously been sold in loaf form ('brown lumps' weighing between 4½lb and 7lb). Between 1740 and 1769 imports doubled to over 70,000 tons a year; by 1800 the annual consumption was 20lb a head. Portuguese and French importers were replaced by Dutch, German and British traders as the West Indies plantations came to provide the raw material - increasingly as part of the 'triangular trade' that took slaves from West Africa to the plantations, and brought sugar (plus rum and timber) to England. This rapidly-expanding market was volatile, and produced many bankruptcies: prices slumped in the early part of the century but then recovered, and in the late 1780s the price of molasses doubled. The result was that trade in sugar - as in tobacco - was increasingly concentrated in fewer hands; although the heavy import duties imposed on sugar in 1685 ended in 1693 (they continued on tobacco), the risks remained high. This also meant that smaller refineries struggled to survive. See here for the Co-operative Wholesale Society's impressive headquarters, incorporating a sugar warehouse, opened in 1887 - by which time many local refineries had closed [the site is now converted into apartments].

(Another Sugar House site is in Stratford, within the Olympic site, and now owned by IKEA, planned to become part of the 'Covent Garden of the East' - a claim made a generation earlier for the redevelopment of Tobacco Dock, which came to nothing. We wish them luck!)

Sugar bakers
Before technical improvements of the mid-19th century, this was a dangerous trade, with risks of fire and explosion. Typically, raw sugar was passed through chutes from the top floor of the refinery to 'blow-ups' below - cast iron tanks with mechanical paddles and steam pipes to heat the water. The 'liquor' was then filtered though twilled cotton, passed through 'animal charcoal' [see below] to remove the colour, and then boiled and processed.

Germans dominated what became the major local trade: names such as Beckman, Dirs, Gotcke, Gramlitch, Lehman, Mackerbath, Neuman, Pretzler, Scheinx, Schuilerman and Wackerworth feature in the the records of the insurance companies - and see here for links with local German churches (though, as explained here, in the second half of the 19th century some married in local Anglican churches because the fees were less). The Statistical Society's report of 1848 describes them as a
cleanly, orderly, and well conducted body of men, chiefly worshippers at the German chapel in the neighbourhood.

An example of a non-German sugar refiner is Henry Nibbs Brown(e), who was based at 9 Betts Street. He was a liveryman of the Grocers Company. In 1824 he successfully appealed in the Court of Chancery against a tax on one of his staff:
Chancery Appeal Cases - No 110.—Tower Division Middlesex
At a meeting of the commissioners of Assessed Taxes acting for the Tower Division, Middlesex, held at the Court House in Osbom-street Whitechapel, on the 6th day of July 1825; Mr Henry Nibbs Brown, of Betts-street, Ratcliff-highway, sugar refiner, appealed against a charge made upon him by Mr. Henry Feme, surveyor of taxes, for a clerk, warehouseman, or porter, employed by him between the 5th day of April 1823, and the 5th day of April 1824.
From the evidence of the appellant it appears that he employed no male person whatever to write in any books in his counting house or warehouse, or keep any accounts in writing for him, except that the man called the boiler, who superintends the process of the manufacture of sugar, enters in a book an account of the quantities of raw material used, and the produce in marketable commodity, and that all books of account in the appellant's counting house are kept by himself only.
The mode of carrying on the appellant's trade as far as regards the sale of sugar manufactured, is by sugar-brokers calling at the appellant's counting house, where the samples of sugar ready for sale are set out on a board, and carried by them to show their principals.
The appellant attends the sugar market during the usual hours, for the purpose of completing the sale of sugar contracted for by the brokers; and if any person calls at the counting house of the appellant in his absence, relative to any purchases, he is referred to the appellant himself, there being no person in his absence authorized to transact any business.
It is not the custom of the appellant to exhibit sugar in bulk, either to brokers or principals before sale; but after the sale, upon application from the buyer, it is shown to him by tbe boiler to ascertain whether it agrees with the sample, but this is very seldom done.
The sugars when manufactured into lumps or loaves, are put into papers and packed for delivery as soon as sold, and this is done by the boiler or some other of the men employed in the manufacture.
The commissioners being of opinion tbe appellant was liable to be charged for a warehouseman, confirmed the assessment; but the appellant being dissatisfied with their decision, contending that the boiler cannot be considered us a warehouseman employed in a shop or warehouse, wherein goods are sold or exposed to sale, but is merely a labourer in a manufactory, demanded a case, which we have stated, and signed for the opinion of some or one of the honourable the judges of the courts of King's Bench or Common Pleas, or barons of the Exchequer.
Joseph Merceron, J. Parsey, James Usher, James Green,T. Mears

6th December 1825.— We are of opinion, that the determination of the commissioners is Wrong. J.A. Park, J. Burrough, W. Garrow, S. Gaselee.

here are a few local 'case histories' in Derek Morris & Ken Cozens Wapping 1600-1800 (East London History Society 2009). They explain that by the 1870s, when the trade was in decline, sugarhouses were coated with a thick preserve of sugar and grime. The floor was black and all corrugate and hard ... the roof was black and, pendant from the great supporting posts and bulks of timber were sooty, glistening icicles and exuding like those of the gum-trees. Here is an example of a family who emigrated to New Zealand when the trade declined.

The most comprehensive information about the trade can be found on Bryan Mawer's strongly-recommended site
Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers.

Alderman P.M. Martineau JP, Eastern Post 7 September 1901

also printed in H.C. Dimsdale Sixty Years' History of an East End Parish (Henry Bailey 1901)
Sugar refining was the leading industry in St George's in the East fifty years ago. Many of the refineries have been pulled down, others are now warehouses. The 'waning' began about 25 years ago. Year by year these refineries were closed; not one is now left; the last was closed about 1885. But old inhabitants will remember the old names: Hall and Boyd, J. and C. Bowman, John Davis, Dames, Wackerbarth, Goodhard, Kück, Schröder, Wainwright and Gadesden, David Martineau and Sons. A splendid Board School has just been built in Christian Street where the largest refinery stood, and which boasted the tallest chimney in London.

Sugar refining was for years the thriving business in S. George's. Very many hundreds of tons of sugar were manufactured weekly by the local refiners. These sugars were made from 'cane', and they were known to the trade as 'Titlers' (i.e. loaf), 'crushed', 'pieces', 'Bastard's Treacle'. Many allied trades flourished side by side with the refineries: coopers, carmen, charcoal burners, engineers, string and paper merchants, 'spice' men ['spice' was the euphemism for bullocks' blood, used in the clarifying process]. S. George's streets were full of life in those days from very early morning till dark and after. Waggons delivering hogsheads and bags of raw sugar; strings of carmen and carriers fetching away the refined; and from 9 to noon buyers from Mincing Lance walked briskly around the parish with samples in purple paper under their arms, calling at the many counting houses to bargain. It was a queer sight after dark to peer through the areas of the refineries and to see the half naked sugar bakers (as the 'hands' were called) scuttling about the basement and pouring the boiling sugar, from pans which they carried, into sugar moulds.

The sugar bakers lived in the refineries; it was thought right to have them on the spot in case of fire. A fire meant havoc indeed! Twice in thirty years Martineau's in Christian Street was burnt down, each time with a loss of more than £50,000. The sugar bakers in those days were all Germans, chiefly Hanoverians. It was said that Germans stood the heat better than English. The temperature in a refinery was high throughout, in the stoves which men had to work in daily it was 140 degrees Fahr. More probably the reason for German labour was that the industry was originally German, managed by a German ('Boiler' was his technical name), who liked to have his own little colony about him.

Beyond question the sugar bakers were good fellows, hard working, cheery, loyal and steady. They came to England as lads and saved their money. In due time they went into the 'Public' line in our Parish, or returned to Hanover to marry an old sweetheart and to farm. The work in a refinery was long and hard and hot. The wages were good, and there was unlimited beer. The beer was a local 'sixpenny', and the average consumption was two gallons a day per head. If one walked about our streets then one often saw at the open door or window half naked well-fed Germans joking and laughing in the pauses of the work. They mostly ate beefsteaks.

These were the 'good old days' of the trade. Presently beet sugar crept in, and the conditions of the manufacture were no longer the same. The East End refiners struggled manfully with the change, but when 'bounty-fed' loaf sugar from France and Belgium flooded the home market, one after another they succumbed. They could not make a living when Paris loaf sugar was being sold in Paris - apart from the question of duty - a good deal dearer than the same Paris sugar was being sold in London.

It is often asked how, in the teeth of this, did Henry Tate [of Tate & Lyle], the London refiner, become a millionaire? Among other reasons three are suggested. (1) His refinery was not in S. George's, but on the riverside; (2) He secured a valuable patent, that of making loaf sugar into cubes; (3) He was an exceptionally able business man, and had previously been very successful in Liverpool.

The German names still to be seen over some of the taverns and shops, and that excellent charity 'The Society of United Friends', still survive. [This refers to an Amicable Society established in Greenwich in 1834, rather than to the Owenite splinter group of the same name.]  There is little else left now of S. George's palmy sugar refining days.

See also this 1876 account of the trade.

Charles Dickens, in the series of papers begun in 1860 and edited by him in 1867-68 under the title The Uncommercial Traveller, refers a couple of times to sugar refineries: ... was in Commercial Rd. Pleasantly wallowing in the abundant mud of that thoroughfare, and greatly enjoying the huge piles of building belonging to the sugar refiners ... and (accompanying a policeman on his beat) ... my beat lying round by Whitechapel Church, and the adjacent sugar-refineries, - great buildings, tier upon tier, that have the appearance of being nearly related to the dock-warehouses at Liverpool ...

A close shave for St George-in-the-East

As mentioned above, fire was always a risk. One Sunday morning in 1846 Grant & Baldwin's refinery at 17½ St. George's Place, Back Road (close by the church on the south and west side) caught fire and was entirely consumed, with the loss of £20,000-worth of stock. Fortunately the wind was light, and blowing in a south-westerly direction; otherwise, the church and adjacent houses would have been caught in the conflagration.
Pictured is a 'fireproof' refinery in Leman Street, c1850 [original in Guildhall Library]

Innovations and patents

One of those who sought to improve the processes, and make them safer, was Gerd Jacob Bensen (or Benson). Born in Danzig in 1808, he had been a sugar plantation manager in Demerara, and later lived with his family at 7 Christian Street until his death in 1869. He may have been the refinery manager for Sir Francis Sands before going into partnership with one Wohgemuth. He was granted several patents:

The decline of the local sugar trade

Some of the reasons for the decline of the trade in East London are set out above by Martineau. The trade was changing, as refined rather than loaf sugar came to dominate the market, and large refineries replaced smaller units. In 1864 Gladstone altered the duties on sugar, stimulating exports of foreign refined sugar to Hull and other ports. Scotland became a rival. In the mid-1860s, local refiners brokers and wholesalers had a particular grievance over what they perceived to be inequitable tariffs on the carriage of sugar from London, compared with the rest of the country, and addressed a Memorial on the subject to the railway companies. The list of signatories makes interesting reading: there are still German firms, but most of the traders have English names. This memorial was considered by the Royal Commission on Railways, and can be read here together with associated correspondence. It forms one example of a wider concern debated by the Commission, as railways - though in competition with each other - were becoming powerful and developing monopolies within the transport sector.

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