At one point the world’s largest sugar refiners, Tate & Lyle was formed in 1921 by the merger of two family businesses. One was founded by Henry Tate, who began as a grocer in 1839, and the other by Abram Lyle, who created Golden Syrup, an iconic British product still sold today in British grocery stores, in a tin with the original 1885 design. These businesses both ended as major sugar refiners, with rival factories just 1.5 miles apart on the River Thames in East London. After the government price restrictions introduced during WWI were lifted, they merged, seizing 50% of the national sugar market. Building on that strength, they became ‘too big to nationalize’ when the post-WWII Labour government turned numerous other businesses into state enterprises. The invention, with Tate & Lyle funding, of sucralose in 1976 began a movement into food supplements and highly processed sugar and starch-based products for manufactured foods. This trend culminated in 2010, when they divested themselves of all their sugar processing activities, to American Sugar Refining Inc.
- Formed in 1921 by the merger of two sugar refiners
- Henry Tate and Abram Lyle both began as small sugar operations.
- Invented sucralose artificial sweetener
- Diversified into starch-based products
- Sold all sugar-related businesses in 2010
The Reverend William Tate was a non-conformist Protestant minister married to Agnes Booth. Their son, Henry Tate, born in 1819, started life modestly enough, spending his childhood in the small market town of Chorley, Lancashire. He was apprenticed to a grocer in Liverpool at the age of 13, and at 20, his apprenticeship over, he set out with his own shop. By 1854, only 35 years old, he already had a chain of six successful stores.
In his business, Tate was well aware of the value of sugar. Although humans have always had a sweet-tooth, it was the large-scale cultivation of sugar in South America and the Caribbean islands using slave labor that had fuelled an increase in annual consumption from just four pounds a year in 1700 to 36 pounds by 1850. For comparison, today, it is over 100 pounds per head. From being used primarily to sweeten tea, coffee and cocoa, new products were developed to use sugar, such as jams and candies, as well as sweet pickles, chutneys, and of course biscuits and cakes. The Caribbean colonies of the West Indies grew most of the sugar cane – about 90% of European consumption was produced there.
After slavery was abolished, the growing was mostly done by indentured workers brought over from India, to work for up to ten years in conditions of near-slavery. The sugar was shipped to the UK as muscovados, a soft, brown raw sugar, which was made in simple factories where the cane was grown. A system of tariffs prevented the production of refined sugar in the colonies; instead, it was done in England, and the resulting white sugar sold as a sugarloaf. This tall conical form came in weights between 3 and 30lbs – 14lbs was a common weight – and in fact, a sugarloaf was often the sign used to indicate a grocer’s shop, so important was sugar to that trade. Special pliers, called sugar nips, were used to break off pieces of sugar.
In 1859 Tate joined in a partnership with a certain John Wright, who already had a sugar-refining plant in Manesty Lane, Liverpool. They parted ways in 1869, and Tate was joined by his two sons, Alfred and Edwin, to form Henry Tate & Sons. They opened a new refinery in Love Lane, Liverpool in 1872. In 1875 Tate acquired the exclusive rights to manufacture an innovation in sugar – the sugar cube. This had been invented in Germany by Carl Eugen Langen, while working in his family’s sugar factory, J. J. Langen & Söhne. Langen went on to be an important innovator in the development of the petrol engine.
Tate opened a factory to make his sugar cubes in Silvertown, an area of Plaistow, East London, in 1877, which remains open today. Soon his business was a powerful force in sugar, and Tate was a millionaire. He had a reputation for concern for his workers and opened a building with a bar and dance hall across the Thames from his refinery, called Tate Hall. He also had an interest in art, not just the great masters, but the modern art of his time. In 1889, giving his own collection of 65 contemporary paintings as a core, and a donation of £80,000 towards construction, he persuaded the government of the day to establish the National Gallery of British Art. This later expanded to become Tate Britain, incorporating the Tate Gallery on its original site, which opened in 1897, where Millbank Prison had once stood. Numerous other donations were made to educational and health-orientated institutions, often of a non-conformist inclination. In 1898 he was offered a baronetcy for the second time, and reluctant to offend the Royal Family he accepted it.
One-and-a-half miles away from Tate’s Silvertown refinery was the factory of a rival manufacturer, the Scotsman Abram Lyle III. Lyle had been born in Greenock, in Scotland, an important shipping port, and his father made barrels, which were used, among other things, for shipping muscovados sugar from the West Indies. Lyle went into the shipping business, chiefly sugar, and then into sugar refining, with a friend called John Kerr. In 1872 Kerr died, and Lyle went in search of a site to establish his own factory, to produce a light sugar syrup which he sold as ‘Golden Syrup’. This kind of sugar syrup is used as a sweetener in baking, as topping on puddings, and as a spread, rather as maple syrup or corn syrup is used in North America. Although he struggled at first, sometimes having to ask his workers to wait for their wages, his business succeed. His syrup was sold in a lidded tin, with a green and gold design showing a lion surrounded by bees. This is a reference to the Bible story of Samson finding a honeycomb in the carcass of a lion he had killed. The original tin design, unchanged since 1885, is still used today.
Lyle was a sober man, his father having died an alcoholic, and unlike the philanthropic Henry Tate, he concentrated on business. Besides his shipping, he also had interests in railways, giving him control over all stages of his sugar supply from the islands to the refinery. He did not confine his business to syrup but also diversified into sugar-related products. In 1890 he began to produce sugar for brewing beer, and in 1897 he was manufacturing candies and chocolates. By 1905 he was selling molasses for animal feed. With his seven sons now running the business, Abram Lyle & Sons was a successful family business by the time World War I broke out, although Abram III had died in 1891.
By this time German sugar beet had taken over from the West Indies as the major supplier of sugar to Britain, but the war changed all that, with the beet fields becoming battlefields. To prevent price rises from the resulting shortages, the government established a Royal Commission on Sugar Prices and took control of pricing. Despite the price controls, and the technical challenges of converting beet-sugar refining methods to cane-sugar refining, both Tate and Lyle enjoyed large profits during the war years. By 1921 they were the two largest refiners in the country, and the day after the Sugar Commission ended its controls, the two firms signed a merger. Between them, they now controlled 50% of the total refining capacity of the country.
Henry Tate had died in 1899, and his three sons, along with outside shareholders, numbering around 100, now controlled Henry Tate & Sons. One son, William Henry, died the year of the merger, and a second, Edwin, retired. This left Ernest William Tate as the only family member in the business. Similarly, although sons and cousins were still in control, by 1920, Lyle & Sons was trading as a public company, and it also had outsiders on the board. After negotiations which had begun late in 1918, the two firms became Tate and Lyle Company Ltd. Lyle Golden Syrup continued for some time as a separate entity. The merger ended the not-always-friendly rivalry that had existed between the ‘Tateses’ and the ‘Lyleses’, which had grown up due to the close physical proximities of their refineries.
The years between the wars saw the resurgence of cane-sugar as the primary global source and the expansion of Tate & Lyle as the top-dog in the sugar industry. By 1939 the Plaistow refinery was the largest in the world, producing 14,000 tons of sugar a week. A new component was added to cope with the production – a 180-foot tall tower. Once WWII broke out, it quickly fell in the Blitz.
After WWII was over, a new Labour government under Clement Attlee set out on an ambitious program of nationalization of key industries. Sensing they were on the list, Tate & Lyle launched an aggressive campaign against the government. In an early use of cartoon characters for political purposes, the company developed ‘Mr Cube’ – a sugar cube armed with a sword and shield, to lead the charge in their advertising and on speaking tours, where employees defended the company’s independence. They were never nationalized.
Since 1937 Tate & Lyle had owned the refining arm of a large rival company called Marquis. This firm had been founded in 1910 by a Danish businessman called Michael Kroyer Kielberg, who operated a molasses importing fleet out of Liverpool docks. In 1963 Tate & Lyle finally acquired the whole business, and re-named it United Molasses.
1976 saw the discovery of sucralose, a no-calorie sweetener, developed by researchers at Queen Elizabeth College, University of London, with the support of Tate & Lyle. They created SPLENDA®, which today holds 62% of the artificial sweetener market. Ten years later they moved into the starch business when they took a major stake in Callebaut Frères et Lejeune, a Belgian extractor of sugar from starch, founded in 1873. By 2000 they had absorbed the company completely, as their starch division, Amylum. Like so many other companies, they carried out numerous acquisitions during the 1990s, converting the business into a diverse multi-national.
2010 was a turning point for the business when it sold all its sugar and syrup refining to American Sugar Refining, Inc. In the same year, it also sold its molasses business to W&R Barnett Ltd. Today Tate & Lyle describe themselves as a leading global provider of speciality food ingredients and solutions’. Their business is primarily the refining of specialized products such as sucralose, starches and gums, and refined fibre products. All of these find their way into manufactured foods and beverages, as well as industrial products, animal feeds, pharmaceuticals and personal care items.
Sites to Visit
- There is a blue plaque at the site of Henry Tate’s first shop, 42 Hamilton Street, Birkenhead.
- Henry Tate’s grave is in West Norwood Cemetery, Streatham Common, South London. A public library he endowed faces the gates, and his home, Park Hill, now converted into housing units, is nearby.
- The Tate Gallery, famous for its collection of works by J. M. W. Turner, among many other treasures of British art, is located at Millbank, London, SW1. It is open every day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Entry is free.