The sugar refining industry in England began in the 1540s when Cornelius Bussine, a citizen of Antwerp with knowledge of the ‘secret’ art of sugar refining, established the first sugarhouse within the City of London. Several more followed, but it was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the business of sugar refining truly gathered pace in London. By 1750 there were said to be eighty sugarhouses in the capital and a further forty dispersed across the rest of England and Scotland. In spite of the noxious nature of the industry and the propensity of its buildings to catch fire, most of these London refineries were still then located within the City walls, close to the Thames or Fleet rivers. However, the opening of the West India Docks in 1802 lured the sugar trade east and a ruling by the Court of Common Council in 1807 finally forbade sugarhouses to remain within the City. At the close of the eighteenth century suburbs already claimed a number of well- established sugarhouses owing to comparative openness and access to the Port, but in the early nineteenth century these distinctive buildings, and the cramped lodgings of their workers, became defining features of the parishes of Whitechapel and St George in the East. This shift eastwards coincided with a renewed wave of German immigration following that of the eighteenth century. Skilled and unskilled sugar workers as well as ambitious businessmen arrived from Northern Germany helping to transform the industry from a collection of small-scale enterprises, reliant on a high degree of manual operations, to a relatively industrialised and technologically advanced industry, both dynamic and lucrative as a result of the nearly unrivalled British consumer market.1
George Martineau, a descendant of one East End family of sugar refiners, reflected that “in 1856….practically all the loaf sugar consumed in this country was produced in the East End of London.” The 1851 census demonstrated that over 90% of those engaged in the London sugar-refining trade were resident in the borough of Stepney. Whilst the London sugar industry experienced a period of particularly profitable expansion in the 1860s and 1870s such extravagant prosperity did not last. Whereas 1864 could claim twenty-eight London sugarhouses, by 1880 only twelve remained. Affected by duties, the rise of beet sugar and proximity to Continental competition, the East End industry slumped, giving way to Liverpool and Greenock, which were better placed for Caribbean imports once London’s monopolies were loosened, before nationally subsiding not long after. Building new refineries on the banks of the Thames in the 1870s, Tate and Lyle of Silvertown are the sole survivors of this East End industry, having cannily diversified into syrup and been early backers of the newly invented sugar cube. A single functioning sugarhouse lasted into the twentieth century in Whitechapel. Belonging to the Martineau family and located on Kingward Street, the Company secured a joint license with Tate and Lyle of the Langen cube-making process in the late nineteenth century and this delayed their demise but could not halt it altogether. Martineau’s closed in 1961.2
Approx. locations of Whitechapel sugarhouses, c.1840, plotted onto Grellier’s map, c.1840-5 (LMA, SC/PM/ST/01/002)
Of French Huguenot descent, the Martineau family had become one of the most important names in the London industry in the nineteenth century. Owning a number of Whitechapel refineries after their forced relocation outside the City walls in 1800, the business was divided between two Norwich-born brothers, David (1754-1840) and Peter (1755-1847). David developed a group of sugarhouses at the south end of Christian Street. Peter, on the other hand, established himself in the north-west of the parish in airy Goulston Square.
In 1775 John Fry, a merchant of Finsbury, was owner of a warehouse in the south-eastern corner of Goulston Square, formerly Cowley’s Snuff House. Significantly however, by 1806 he was also in possession of an apparently substantial sugarhouse located on the north side of present-day New Goulston Street. This was a commercial partnership with William Osborne, who had previously refined sugar on the site with James Diass in 1801. The business failed however and Fry was declared bankrupt in 1806; his assets, including the sugarhouse and its contents, were auctioned off. The seized sugarhouse was awaiting a new owner when a case against a theft of a loaf of sugar by a sugarbaker was heard at the Old Bailey. Involving three sugar bakers at the site as well as the clerk of the sugarhouse, John Bell, the incident confirmed that the refinery was gated and possessed a ‘men’s room’ – a lodging house for single male workers. The demise of Fry’s business dovetailed with the Martineau’s arrival into Whitechapel from the City. Two confiscated sites, a warehouse at nos 3-5 Goulston Street and the sugarhouse on New Goulston Street, were transferred to Peter Martineau who was quick to recognise the potential for further development at the northern site. Sometime between 1813 and 1818, Martineau constructed a brick dwelling house, counting house, new men’s room and scum house (used for producing lower grade sugar by-products) facing onto both New Goulston Street and Goulston Street. This new accommodation was located to the east of the main sugarhouse and divided from it by a gated yard. Given the flammable nature of the sugar and also the intense heat necessary for the production of it, separation of the most dangerous processes from on-site housing was typical. In 1817, Peter Martineau & Sons ‘of Goulston Street’ insured stock, utensils and the brick sugar house for £19 000 spread across five insurance companies (Sun, Eagle, Atlas, Glove, Union). The additional new buildings and their contents were insured with the Sun for £3000 one year later. This was comparable to the seven-storey premises of Severn, King and Co at Commercial Road, insured for £15 000 in 1819.3
Metropolitan Sewers Plan of Goulston Street and Neighbourhood, Whitechapel, 1849 (LMA, SC/PM/ST/01/002). Site of Martineau's sugarhouse marked 'Sugar Bakers' on Short Street (later renamed New Goulston Street).
Whilst the strategy of insuring the sugarhouse with a number of companies could not prevent the outbreak of fire, it certainly appears to have limited the damage caused by at least one such incident. In 1825 it was reported that a fire destroyed nearly half of the main sugarhouse building, but that the speedy arrival of three fire engines, arriving from the three different insurers, curtailed the blaze with a plentiful supply of water. In 1847 a new phase of building work was undertaken by George Webb of Gowers Walk and modern refining pans were set in place by him later in 1855. Webb was also implicated in the construction of other local sugarhouses around this period: Elers and Morgan’s at Goodman’s Stile (1849), and Davies’ at Osborne Street (1855) and Rupert Street (1854). Overseen by Charles Furnivall, Martineau and Sons added a furnace chimney in April 1862 and by 1867 it was noted to have possessed a steam works. By 1870 Peter was dead and his firm, Peter Martineau and Sons, appears to have vacated Goulston Street. Fairrie however regarded that the business stumbled on for a further three years under Peter’s grandson Hugh and ceased only on his retirement in 1873.4
Site of former sugarhouse today. Photo looking north-west along New Goulston Street
P. Chalmin, The Making of a Sugar Giant: Tate and Lyle, 1859-1989, edn. 1990, p.12, 14, 53-54; B. Mawer, Sugarbakers: From Sweat to Sweetness, rev. edn. 2011, p.11; G. Fairrie, The Sugar Refining Families of Great Britain, 1951, pp.24-25 ↩
G. Martineau, Sugar from several points of view, 1918, p.475; R. Munby, Industry and Planning in Stepney, 1951, p.66; P. Chalmin, The Making of a Sugar Giant: Tate and Lyle, 1859-1989, edn. 1990, p.54; B. Mawer, Sugarbakers: From Sweat to Sweetness, rev. edn. 2011, p.41 ↩
Land Tax; Bryan Mawer, Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers Database [Online: www.mawer.clara.net]; The Times, ‘John Fry of New Goulston Street’, 18 Nov 1806; Old Bailey Proceedings, ‘John Madell, Theft’, 2 Jul 1806 [Online: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/]; LMA, CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/475/933750, CLC/B/192/F/MS11936/473/929001, CLC/B/F/001/MS11936/472/933388; B. Mawer, Sugarbakers: From Sweat to Sweetness, rev. edn. 2011, p.63; G. Dodd, Days at the Factories, 1843, pp.89–110 ↩
Morning Post, 7 April 1825, p.3; Evening Mail, 8 April 1825, p.4; DSRs; MBW, 11 April 1862, p.298; G. Fairrie, The Sugar Refining Families of Great Britain, 1951, p.25 ↩
A small synagogue, possibly a successor to the Newcastle Street synagogue was located in Davis Mansions, New Goulston Street, from the 1890s to the 1930s. Converted from a shop in 1895-6 by the building’s landlord, Abraham Davis, it housed the Sons of Lodz, or Lodzer Synagogue, from then until it merged with the Lubner synagogue c. 1934, the merged synagogue merging in turn with the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue after 1947.1
Jewish Chronicle, 8 Oct 1897, p. 27; 8 Sept 1899, p. 23: London Metropolitan Archives, District Surveyor's Returns: https://www.jewishgen.org /jcr-uk/London/EE_lublin-lodz/index.htm ↩