Big Read: Tour of Tate & Lyle in Royal Docks as ocean vessel arrives with 34,000 tonnes of sugar
- Credit: Archant
Many are familiar with the outside of the Tate & Lyle factory straddling the London Docks —with its iconic beige-coloured tower that can be seen from afar.
However, few non-employees will have been on a tour of the historic refinery, which has stood on the 45-acre site for more than 130 years, and stepped onto its jetty where large ships dock every week loaded with raw sugar from across the world.
So the Recorder decided to take a look inside the maze of older and newer factory buildings to gain an understanding of the sugar refinery manufacturing process and meet the people who run it.
Showing us around was vice- president Gerald Mason who has been with the company for 10 years. He says this makes him a newcomer as many staff come from families who have worked at the refinery in Factory Road or its sister plant in Plaistow for generations.
One of them is community affairs manager Ken Wilson, who is also joining us on the tour.
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Both his father and grandfather worked there before him, and Ken has worked across many parts of the factory while rising through the ranks.
Kitted out with safety jacket, glasses, earplugs, hairnet and hard hats, we walk across the yard to the Royal Sugar Shed.
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Even before stepping inside we are hit by the pungent smell of raw sugar, reminding me of freshly brewed malt beer or rum.
The raw material was extracted from sugar cane in tropical and semi-tropical regions of the globe before starting its journey across the oceans.
Once inside, we are dwarfed by the sight of pyramid-shaped mountains of light brown sugar, which has just arrived from Brazil. The shed can hold 72,000 tonnes though the most stored in there is 65,000 tonnes.
Gerald said: “The sugar can vary in colour and quality depending on where in the world it has come from. The sugar from Brazil tends to have a lighter colour whereas the sugar from Africa tends to be much darker.”
In order to see where the raw sugar has been transferred from we make our way down to the jetty where we meet deputy port operations manager Mike Russ, who tells us that today’s ship has come from Brazil.
He said: “They come in from all over the world, the Caribbean, Africa, South America or Asia.
“We get about one ship a week, maybe two. They vary in size, the smaller carry 7,000 tonnes of sugar and the biggest we’ve had is about 42,000 tonnes. The average is 25-28,000.
“The sugar comes in a hold in the ship, in bulk quantity, it is not bagged at all.
“We transfer the sugar using two very large cranes with grabbers and it then goes into the Royal Sugar Shed via a conveyer system before being then fed into the refining process.
“Today’s vessels carry 34,000 tonnes and it will take us about four days to unload working 24/7.”
Complex planning goes into preparing for the arrival of the ships.
Gerald explains: “The ships are so large that when the tide is low they can’t use the river so we only really get two chances a day at high tide to bring them up and turn them around.
“It can be a nightmare because you can have done all the planning but then you may get a bit of bad weather on the way, the ship breaks down or one of the crops goes wrong.
“The arrival of the raw material is critical because if something goes wrong at this stage it will affect the whole manufacturing process.
“If the vessels come from somewhere like Fiji the crew may have been on the ship for six weeks, so you’ve got to bring on food for their next journey. Often you need to find people to repair the ship, things like that.”
He jokes that London is a popular stop for crews who are keen on a night out after weeks at sea.
Mike and his colleagues tell us that sometimes the crew have other requests, such as to see a priest, and they have to get a local vicar in.
Apart from accommodating the ship and crew, and adhering to security and health and safety legislation, there are also customs regulations.
Gerald said: “A lot of the sugar we bring in attracts taxes and at any point the HM Revenues customs officer can turn up to check we are paying the right amount.
“The value of the sugar on today’s ship is about £15-16million and we are paying nearly £3million in tax on the sugar.”
The port managers also oversee the export of nearly 300,000 tonnes of refined sugar from the end of the production line in small ships to places like Norway, North Africa and the Middle East. It is sent by rail to other parts of Europe.
Back inside the factory I’m surprised how little manual work is involved despite the plant employing 800 staff, 550 of which are employed directly by Tate & Lyle while the rest are through contractors.
The machinery taking the raw sugar through the refinery process is operated by staff via computers.
Gerald explained the process: “We turn the raw material, which is not fit for human consumption, into white granulated sugar.
“We melt the raw sugar, put it in water, wash it, filter it and put it through various processes to remove the colour and impurities.
“When we get a pure sugar liquid the next part of the refinery is to turn it back into that crisp sugar that we use in coffee and baking.”
It is then packed into the famous Tate & Lyle bags lined up in the packaging section before being stored in the West Ham warehouse.
Lined up are one-tonne bags of sugar and some 25kg sacks, ready to be exported to small industrial customers. The smaller 1kg bags that you and I are familiar with will soon reach supermarket shelves.
See other web links at the top right hand side for more on the history of Tate & Lyle and its battle with Brussels over sugar tariffs.