Posted By The Sugar Girls ~ 11th March 2012
Today marks what would have been the 193rd birthday of Henry Tate, the Liverpool grocer turned sugar magnate, whose company Henry Tate & Sons merged with that of Abram Lyle to form Tate & Lyle.
Henry and Abram’s East End factories were only a mile apart, yet they never met during their lifetimes. The two men were bitter business rivals, but in 1921, long after they had both died, their respective boards decided that joining forces was the obvious way forward. Today, their portraits hang at opposite ends of the Tate & Lyle archive in Silvertown – here is Henry, looking down benevolently on his company.
Henry Tate was the seventh son of a Unitarian clergyman. He first got into sugar in 1859, with a Liverpool refiner by the name of John Wright, before setting up his own refinery in Love Lane in 1870. With business booming on the Mersey, he was keen to expand into London, and sent a man by the name of James Blake to scope out the marshy land of Silvertown. Within a year of drawing up plans for a sugar refinery on the north bank of the Thames, it was open, and refining began in earnest in 1878.
Queues formed outside the factory, as workers from the local area flocked there in search of jobs. Migrant workers travelling from Europe to America would arrive in England bearing signs marked ‘TATE’, and with the help of no other English words would be directed from Harwich to the gates of the refinery, where they could earn enough money for the next leg of their journey.
Some of Henry’s workers travelled down with him from Liverpool to London, including a large group of Orangemen, who found themselves in trouble on the first ever company outing, to Rye House in Essex. Enjoying themselves at a fairground, they got into a fracas with a group of Irish Catholics, and before long many of them were under arrest. With his workforce locked up overnight, Henry was forced to close the factory the next day. Nonetheless, his commitment to helping his workers enjoy a good time remained, and he established the Tate Institute, a bar and dance hall opposite the Thames Refinery that soon became the top nightspot in the neighbourhood.
These days, the Tate name is remembered not just for the sugar empire that Henry helped found, but for the numerous libraries and art galleries built with his generous philanthropic donations. A great collector of art, in 1896 he offered £150,000 (a huge sum of money at the time) to help establish a National Gallery of British Art– it would not take his name until after his death – bequeathing paintings such as Millais’ Ophelia and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott to the collection.
Henry twice turned down the offer of a Baronetcy, only accepting it on the third request, in 1898, when he was told that the Royal Family would be personally offended if he refused. He died a year later, and was buried in West Norwood Cemetery, not far from his home in Park Hill, Streatham.