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Silvertown’s Tate & Lyle refinery marks its’ 140th birthday with banner - and hope for a Brexit future

PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 March 2018

The raw sugar shed, which can hold up to a week's worth of the UK's sugar, 50,000 tonnes. Picture: Ken Mears

The raw sugar shed, which can hold up to a week's worth of the UK's sugar, 50,000 tonnes. Picture: Ken Mears

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The Tate factory has sat on the banks of the Thames in Silvertown for 140 years.

The refinery has been serving Silvertown on the banks of the Thames since 1878. Picture: Ken MearsThe refinery has been serving Silvertown on the banks of the Thames since 1878. Picture: Ken Mears

The Tate factory has sat on the banks of the Thames in Silvertown for 140 years.

“The river is what’s allowed us to be here so long,” said Claire Crill, who’s giving the Recorder an inside peek of the refinery for its 140th birthday.

“It’s allowed sugar to be delivered directly to the factory doors since we opened, and it’s what keeps us connected to the community.”

The Thames sees around 20 vessels carrying up to 45,000 tonnes of sugar every year. Journeys can last six weeks, with boats arriving from Fiji, Mozambique, Guyana and Belize.

The factory is operating at half of its capacity, producing 500,000 tonnes a year. Picture: Ken MearsThe factory is operating at half of its capacity, producing 500,000 tonnes a year. Picture: Ken Mears

“What’s amazing is we’ve been here for 140 years, and we still get those same ships we would back then,” said Chris Abell, Tate and Lyle’s Local Affairs Manager.

“If you look at the pictures you can compare the boats from then and now, and honestly, it doesn’t look like much has changed.”

Henry Tate opened his Silvertown refinery in 1878, specialising in sugar cubes. Five years later he faced some unwanted competition from Abram Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf factory, which began refining sugar and making golden syrup.

“Henry and Abram frequently went up to Scotland on the same train, but their rivalry was so fierce they refused to even sit in the same carriage,” Claire said.

Claire Crill (left) and Chris Abell (right) from Tate & Lyle showing reporter Rhiannon Long around the refinery. Picture: Ken MearsClaire Crill (left) and Chris Abell (right) from Tate & Lyle showing reporter Rhiannon Long around the refinery. Picture: Ken Mears

“When they merged in 1921, there was still this hangover, and the workers would refer to each other as Tates or Lyles.”

The merger was entirely tactical - after joining forces, they were producing around 50 per cent of the UK’s sugar.

The factory has never closed its doors, even during the wars. In WW2, the famous ‘Sugar Girls’ were brought in to work while the men were away.

“The factory has always been a good employer for women,” Claire said.

Tate & Lyle produce 650 products and hope that after Brexit, productivity will increase. Picture: Ken MearsTate & Lyle produce 650 products and hope that after Brexit, productivity will increase. Picture: Ken Mears

“When the sugar came in hessian sacks, it was women who would clean each one by hand.”

More recently, the factory’s been looking into the gender pay gap and the opportunities available for women.

Claire said: “Interestingly, most of our apprentices in engineering have been female, which is rare, and something we’re really proud of.”

But despite the apprenticeships, employment levels aren’t what they once were. With EU restrictions on which countries the factory can buy sugar cane from, it’s forced to work at fifty per cent capacity, producing 500,000 instead of 1.1 million tonnes a year. This has impacted jobs - at its peak, the refinery had 5,000 jobs with many employees coming from Newham. Now there are just 850, with 20 per cent of employees from the area.

Claire Crill (left) and Chris Abell (right) from Tate & Lyle showing reporter Rhiannon Long around the refinery. Picture: Ken MearsClaire Crill (left) and Chris Abell (right) from Tate & Lyle showing reporter Rhiannon Long around the refinery. Picture: Ken Mears

“The number of jobs has changed, but so has their nature,” Chris said.

“Before they were manual labourers, now they’re engineers and chemists.

“There are fewer roles, and the ones that we have are highly paid and highly skilled, so that’s not always attractive to people close by. If we were able to expand, that might change.”

Thanks to Brexit, employment could be on the up. Tate and Lyle buy cane sugar, but there are 19 EU member states producing beet sugar, meaning EU policies favour the beet trade, and restrict the countries from which member states can buy cane.

The refinery has been serving Silvertown on the banks of the Thames since 1878. Picture: Ken MearsThe refinery has been serving Silvertown on the banks of the Thames since 1878. Picture: Ken Mears

With restrictions lifted, and without inflated import tariffs, the refinery will be able to grow, returning to pre-EU productivity levels.

Nothing reflects this positivity more than the factory’s new 18m banner, proudly displaying three of the company’s 650 products. It’s so big, it can be seen on flights from London City Airport.

“We have a magnificent history but we feel we’ve got a really bright future as well,” Chris said.

Even so, Claire admitted the company remains cautious about the drastic changes happening in Silvertown.

Claire Crill and Chris Abell from Tate & Lyle showing reporter Rhiannon Long around the refineryClaire Crill and Chris Abell from Tate & Lyle showing reporter Rhiannon Long around the refinery

“The borough as a whole is such an exciting place to be, there’s so much development at the moment,” she said.

“But it’s important that this development is conscious of existing residents like us. We don’t want to go anywhere - we want to keep all the jobs we can in Newham.”

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