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Recorder tours historic Tate & Lyle factory as owners invest jobs back into community

PUBLISHED: 13:00 08 July 2017 | UPDATED: 11:33 11 July 2017

Senior news features writer Beth Wyatt is taken on a tour of the Tate & Lyle golden syrup factory in Silvertown. She is with (from left) site manager Craig Bennet, Chris Abell, corporate affairs, and senior vice-president Gerald Mason. Picture: Ken Mears

Senior news features writer Beth Wyatt is taken on a tour of the Tate & Lyle golden syrup factory in Silvertown. She is with (from left) site manager Craig Bennet, Chris Abell, corporate affairs, and senior vice-president Gerald Mason. Picture: Ken Mears

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“People walk past this factory every day and think it’s some old warehouse, but there’s a lot going on inside these four walls.”

Touring the Tate & Lyle golden syrup factory in Silvertown. Picture: Ken MearsTouring the Tate & Lyle golden syrup factory in Silvertown. Picture: Ken Mears

Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf has long been a fixture of Silvertown, working with its sister factory, a sugar refinery near City Airport, to create that most iconic of sweeteners – golden syrup.

Still manufacturing with the famous tins – which have only changed design once, during the Second World War – the 139-year-old factory is now a marriage of old and new, historic equipment combining with new innovations to keep the company at the top of its game.

And with the site investing jobs back into the community, and looking to the future, the Recorder was invited down to find out more.

After meeting our tour guides – senior vice-president Gerald Mason, site manager Craig Bennet and Chris Abell, corporate affairs – we were kitted out in hard hats and high-vis and headed into the historic part of the factory.

Senior news features writer Beth Wyatt with site manager Craig Bennet. Picture: Ken MearsSenior news features writer Beth Wyatt with site manager Craig Bennet. Picture: Ken Mears

This is where you can watch the journey of the iconic tins, from creation to their being boxed up ready for transport to shops.

As Craig noted, the process can be quite hypnotic as you watch them whizz around.

The metal is rounded, sealed and then filled with the syrup (made in the process of refining sugar cane juice into sugar). The mixture is poured in directly after heating, so you can feel a lovely warmth coming through fresh batches.

A highlight was the control room, where we met employees Paul McGilligan, Chris Clark and Miles Thomas.

Employees Paul McGilligan and Chris Clark in the control room. Picture: Ken MearsEmployees Paul McGilligan and Chris Clark in the control room. Picture: Ken Mears

Upon entering, you immediately notice the 1970s control panel, with Gerald and our photographer joking it had come out of a James Bond film.

Paul talked us through the processing of the syrup – including decolourisation, which brings out the golden hue – but kept us guessing on the secrets which ensure its unique taste.

As we walked the floors, Gerald and Craig filled us in on the factory’s proud history.

Tate & Lyle was formed in the 20th century as a merger of the sugar refineries of Scotsman Abram Lyle and Liverpudlian Henry Tate – Lyle’s factory being Plaistow Wharf, and Tate’s what is now the Thames Refinery.

Old photographs displayed at the factory. Picture: Ken MearsOld photographs displayed at the factory. Picture: Ken Mears

Plaistow Wharf opened in 1883, and it was here Lyle created the golden syrup (and its tins, which he was very particular about).

“They produced the first syrup here,” said Gerald. “It was lower cost than sugar, and people used it as a spread, a replacement for butter.

“Abram Lyle really loved the tins, he spent a lot of time trying to perfect the tin.”

Tate & Lyle, bought by American Sugar Refining in 2010, is proud the original design is still in use. The only occasion the tin changed was during the Second World War, when metal was in short supply and cardboard was used.

Senior vice-president Gerald Mason with a historic golden syrup container. Picture: Ken MearsSenior vice-president Gerald Mason with a historic golden syrup container. Picture: Ken Mears

As proud of this history as they are, the team are also excited about the future.

At a time when many companies outsource abroad, Tate & Lyle is bringing new jobs into Newham. Plaistow Wharf employs 86 full-time staff, and this is set to rise to more than 100 by the end of the year, with further expansion to come.

Production has doubled since 2012 and about £20million has been invested in new equipment. Current works include the building of a new blending plant, where the company’s range of flavoured dessert syrups – such as chocolate, strawberry and blueberry – will be concocted.

Golden syrup is as popular as ever, with more than one million tins made per month.

A board naming the site's present and past managers. Picture: Ken MearsA board naming the site's present and past managers. Picture: Ken Mears

And as the tour concluded in front of the huge mounted tin on the factory’s exterior, Gerald and Craig wondered what Abram Lyle would have made of it all.

Craig pointed to Lyle’s “vision and foresight”, while Gerald said: “I’m not quite sure what Lyle would make of it now. I think he’d like that we still do the tins and the logo, he would have felt good to see his tins being used.”

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