Heading east out of the City of London, just past Poplar and the Isle of Dogs, you’ll find the artificial peninsula of Silvertown: a narrow strip of land two-and-a-half miles long, sandwiched between the Royal Docks on one side and the broad sweep of the Thames on the other.
By the mid-twentieth century, this area was home to a score of factories, from British Oil & Cake Mills at one end to Henley’s Cable Works at the other. The factories were a major employer, both for people living in the rows of slum houses in Silvertown and those in the surrounding areas north of the docks: Canning Town, Custom House and Plaistow.
Among the most sought-after factories to work at in Silvertown were the two operated by Tate & Lyle, the Plaistow Wharf and Thames refineries, at either end of the Sugar Mile (so called because, in addition to the sugar and syrup they produced, Keiller’s jam factory was also located there).
Originally the two refineries had been run by rival companies. Henry Tate, a Liverpool grocer turned sugar magnate, put up his London factory in 1877, when much of Silvertown was still marshland. His great business adversary was Abram Lyle, who built his own sugar and syrup factory a mile upstream four years later. Lyle was a pious Scot whose ruddy cheeks belied his commitment to teetotalism: he once declared he would rather see a son of his carried home dead than drunk.
By the end of the First World War it was clear that the competition was actually hurting both companies, but neither had a clear upper hand: the Lyles had the edge in profitability, but the Tates’ output was not to be rivalled. A merger was the obvious way forward, and a deal was finally agreed in 1921.
The new Tate & Lyle company retained both London factories – Tate’s Thames Refinery in the heart of Silvertown and Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf Refinery a mile upriver.
The Second World War brought great changes to both refineries, as theirworkforces became female-dominated for the first time. As men were called up, the management were forced to blur the strict distinctions between ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ jobs, with female workers tackling even the most physically demanding and high-status roles.
Today, after the closure of the docks and almost all of the local factories, much of Silvertown has the feeling of a ghost town, overshadowed by the planes taking off and landing at City Airport – whose runway cuts between the Royal Albert and King George V docks – and the looming concrete viaducts of the Docklands Light Railway.
Tate & Lyle is unusual in having retained its Silvertown factories, although from the late 1960s much of the Plaistow Wharf Refinery was demolished as its sugar refining activities were wound down. Many loyal workers took redundancy rather than accept a transfer downriver to the Thames Refinery. Even there, the company now employs only a small fraction of its former workforce, and the jobs once done by the sugar girls are all performed by machines.
The following links may be of interest to anyone wanting to know more about Tate & Lyle, and the East End more generally:
Tate and Lyle Through the Ages offers a fascinating photographic timeline of the company.
The Abandoned Communities website has a brilliant section on the history of Silvertown.
The Docklands Memories website includes pictures, stories and even poetry about the area.
The Newham Story is a treasure trove of pictures, facts and memories, compiled by Kathy Taylor at Newham Heritage. Their forums are the best place to find local experts online for any question relating to Newham history.
The BBC produced this fascinating look at Tate & Lyle’s sugar girls in Liverpool.
The East London History Blog is packed with interesting articles.
The London Historians Blog is another great source of London history, including the East End.
Ron Noon’s Love Lane Lives project offers a fascinating look at Tate & Lyle’s factory in Liverpool, and features an engrossing 45-minute documentary.