A visit to the Tate & Lyle archive

This week, we were given a rare peek inside the Tate & Lyle company archive, thanks to Community Affairs Manager Ken Wilson.

The archive is located in a musty room at the Thames refinery in Silvertown. On the walls hang old oil paintings of grandees from the company’s two founding families, such as this portrait of Abram Lyle, the original Lyle who built the Plaistow Wharf refinery in 1881.

Here’s a picture from the archive of Plaistow Wharf as it was when Abram purchased it – the land that comprised the home of the original refinery consisted of two wharves, Odam’s and Plaistow, each with a strip of land that ran back to the Silvertown tramway and the North Woolwich Road.

Abram died in 1891, the same year his grandson Oliver was born. Oliver went on to join the factory when he was 21 and spent time doing various manual jobs such as working on the refinery pans, before he and his brother Philip became joint refinery directors. Philip died in 1955, by which time Oliver, pictured here, was the sole male survivor of the third generation of sugar Lyles.

Oliver Lyle was a meticulous record-keeper, as can be seen in his pocketbook, which he carried around with him for over 30 years.

The notebook is one of numerous fascinating objects arranged in cabinets that were put together for a visit by the Queen to the archive in 2008.

In this cabinet, on the right, is an example of plain wrapped slab sugar, made for prisoner of war parcels in the 1940s. On the left are cube sugars and post-rationing domestic sugars, and in the far left corner a photograph of a bear from the Russian State Circus enjoying special sugar cubes made for bears.

This cabinet, meanwhile, holds examples of the old-fashioned sugarloaf – the traditional form in which sugar was made, before the introduction of granulated and cube sugars – and of the iron sugar nips that were necessary to break pieces off from the loaf.

Behind the sugar loaves in this picture, you can see a collection of Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins, the design of which hasn’t changed since 1885 – making it Britain’s oldest brand, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Below them are some modern-style Tate & Lyle sugar bags, and in the top left are their counterparts from the 1940s and 1950s – as printed and packed by the Sugar Girls we interviewed for our book.

Here’s a beautiful old parcel of sugar, trussed up and ready for delivery – listing all the various types of sugar made by Henry Tate & Sons before the 1921 merger with Lyles.

The different delivery vans used down the years can be seen in a collection of models kept in glass cases, showing how the design for the vehicles changed with the times.

Here’s an alternative means of transport, an early locomotive train – made out of Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins by a Radley schoolboy! At the factory, syrup tins were often put to odd uses, whether as cups in the canteen or as figurines of long-serving workers to mark their retirement.

There’s also a model of the company’s former mascot, Mr Cube – introduced in 1949 for a major campaign against the Labour government’s plans to nationalise sugar. Mr Cube appeared on sugar packets along with slogans such as ‘Tate Not State’, and there were cartoons of him in the national press. He proved so popular with the public that he was kept on as company mascot, even once the threat of nationalisation had receded.

Upstairs, on the gallery level, sit box after box of company wage records and other documents, as well as several ancient train timetable booklets, some of them listing trains between London and Edinburgh, that must have belonged to Abram Lyle. In amongst them are many old reels of film, which can’t have been near a projector for decades – it would be fascinating to find out what is on them.

There’s also a collection of copies of the old company magazine, the Tate & Lyle Times, which was produced monthly from 1949 onwards and was packed with pictures, gossip, wedding news, sports results, beauty contest winners, profiles of members of staff and a women’s page, ‘Sugar & Spice’.

Apparently, a back room holds more than 15,000 photographs which are yet to be catalogued. A few of them are included in cabinets and on boards that were put together for the Queen’s visit – such as this wonderful picture of the first women working in the Thames fitting shop in 1917.

And this picture shows the women who washed and repaired the jute bags in the bag store in the 1880s.

Here’s a later picture showing women workers packing on the Hesser Floor in the 1940s.

The Tate & Lyle archive is a wonderful treasure trove of photographs and artefacts and it seems a shame that this great collection is only available to view by private appointment, rather than held in a public museum. We’re hoping to bring a small selection of these beautiful pictures and objects to an exhibition at The Hub, 123 Star Lane, Canning Town, from March 28th, to coincide with the launch of The Sugar Girls.

Come to our event from 11am-1pm on the 28th to see the exhibition, find out more about the history of Tate & Lyle from Ken Wilson and have tea and cake with former Sugar Girls.

4 Comments

  1. I read this blog with great interest given that I had a similar “archival” experience to Duncan and Nuala in 2001. My sugar research at that time was very much focused on HIstory’s most famous sugar lump, the animated cartoon character that is depicted above as Mr Cube. I stayed with my son who was a student in London at that time and visited Thames refinery to see what I could find on a swashbuckling, sword wielding threat to the “Socialist hydra”.

    Mr Cube was born in July 1949 in a post-war British climate of grey austerity, (we’ve heard that word a lot since 2008), rationing and contentious nationalization proposals.

    The end product for me in the year that Tate & Lyle announced that their corporate logo was being retired “from public engagements”, was a published essay in HISTORY TODAY, entitled “Goodbye Mr Cube”! (October 2001)

    Here’s a very brief cameo which I’m not even sure I included at the time but has been referred to in Duncan and Nuala’s “tweets”.

    ‘A popular feature at the Schoolboys Exhibition at the Horticultural Hall in January 1950 was “dialing Mr Cube and questioning him about sugar”. He also figured prominently at the Ideal Home Exhibition as “the first mechanical man who has been made to speak correctly”. The stand sponsored by Tate & Lyle to educate the nations schoolboys in sugar economics, resulted in “2500 questions a day” being answered by Cube. It also ensured that “10,000 visitors a day learnt the story of sugar from cane to the breakfast table through working models”. A giant six foot Mr Cube was constructed and his spiritual father, the company president, Lord Lyle, known to journalists as Lord Cube, could not resist a publicised visit. With a crowd of schoolboys around him “he picked up the receiver and asked Mr Cube what he thought about nationalisation”. The answer from a very animated sugar lump was, “the same as you do”!’

  2. The Sugar Girls

    Priceless! Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, Ron.

  3. im looking forward to reading this book . My nan Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters Mary and Maggie both worked in the sugar factory in the 20s and 30s and their sister Lydia worked in the offices of the factory . i believe one of the brothers was there for a short time as well . i would love to see more pics and see records of staff at that time ; i have been past the factory many years ago and would like to know more about the history of the bennett family .At one stage they lived in Clyde road and i remember my nan telling me of the silvertown explosion , i didnt realise that it was so bad until reading up on line since my nan died .

    • The Sugar Girls

      Dear Carol,

      Good to hear from you. We’d love to hear more about your relatives who worked at Tate & Lyle – and to see any pics you have. You can email us directly at sugargirlsbook@hotmail.co.uk.

      Hope you enjoy the book!