Love Lane Lives

The history of sugar in Liverpool and the effects of the closure of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Love Lane

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20yrs today SGT. SUGAR & MR CUBE decided not to pay. The Pensioners Biennial Xmas party was junked!

Written by Ron Noon at 15:02 on Sunday, October 27th 2019

Those of you who read the last blog will half remember the opening question as to “how many people would read it and be genuinely interested in my fact of the day”? A few months ago on July 28th, a very wet and rainy day, Mr Cube reached 70 years of age. He was no ordinary sugar lump and arguably the most famous of all the trillions and trillions of sucrose cubes ever produced!  Animated by squiggles for arms and legs and the sword and shield of Free Enterprise capitalism, he took on and defeated the “Socialist hydra” a couple of years after I was born!

He was a product of the fertile imagination of cartoonist Bobby St John Cooper and an “avatar” for the “verbally pugilistic” President of Tate & Lyle, Leonard Lyle, friend and close ally of Winston Churchill the leader of the Opposition who had a good deal to gain from successful campaigning against nationalisation. Journalists of the time referred to Lyle as LORD CUBE but it was Mr Cube who defeated Clem Atlee’s Labour Government’s plans for sugar refining. Indeed he helped to reduce a landslide majority of 186 to 6 on February 23rd 1950 another wet and rainy day.

Twenty years ago I had little knowledge of these FACTS and the fact that fifty years after his birth Mr Cube would appear on the letter from JH Walker to the Liverpool Pensioners pronouncing the scrapping of the biennial Christmas party. All the Liverpool Tates Pensioners were bitterly disappointed that December 2nd 1999 was to be their last ever Christmas reunion. My sugar research was immediately galvanised into a project involving much more than systematically working through the voluminous documents relating to the ten year struggle to prevent the closure of Henry Tate’s mother plant. Could I help my wonderful sugar mentors Albert E Sloane and John Maclean in a more practical way to revert that mean spirited, scrooge like decision?  From October 27th 1999 I would be working very hard to do as much as I could to help in any campaigning. That required much more research outside of the Liverpool archives and outside of the Punch and Judy pub where I’d regularly meet up with Albert and John and their sweet fighting’ drinking friends.

It had been an ageing labour force in 1981 and many like Albert who had dedicated their working lives to Tates, would never secure employment again. That did not prevent them partying every Christmas reliving their memories and stories of working in the refinery and increasingly the friends that they were losing. That was when Tates financed an annual bash but then as John Maclean wryly commented “they decided that Christmas would only come round every two years. Each time even more absent friends meant that it got cheaper. We never thought that they’d scrap it altogether though”.  Deja Vu! They’d never thought that the giant sugar refinery on the site of a former maidens and ladies walkway, which at one time employed over three thousand workers would be scrapped.

Unhappily on the threshold of a new Millennium the removal of company backing seemed to have irrevocably scuppered the vicarious but vitally important “associational” needs that the biennial Christmas bash made formal provision for. Was this the last supper on Lime Street? Not if I had my way. So as vainglorious, politically active thoughts about the intensely political product I’d been researching for the previous few years dominated my thinking, I embarked on detailed fact finding on Mr Cube. The present so often throws up fresh questions about the past and in 1999 I became an animated historian of history’s most infamous sugar lump. There was not very much that was easily available and accessible in the traditional literature for a sugar centric historian but that too was an issue which emphasised how the present throws up neglected questions about the past. 

It was not the first time I’d looked into the chicaneries of Tate & Lyle because it was evident early on in my analysis of why Love Lane was junked that Tate & Lyle had metamorphosed from paternalistic family firm into a much more aggressive collective of multinationals where there was little room for sentiment and “reciprocity” in industrial relations matters. In the era of downsizing and so called “re-engineering” that gathered momentum in the late 80s and early 90s Tate & Lyle locked out workers in Decatur Illinois in a struggle that lasted for 33 months and which prompted me to fundraise for the workers in late 1995. Closer to home September 1995 was the start of the Lockout of Liverpool dockers. The dockers and Women on the Waterfront struggled valiantly and creatively into 1998 in the fight to preserve jobs and a proud heritage.

How can you be neutral about an intensely political product like sugar and a Politically Motivated Multinational like Tates? 1949 was the year of Mr Cube’s political birth and baptism despite the denials of Lord Lyle/Lord Cube that he was “non-political”. (It’s amazing how political non-political people can be and Tates PR advisors were Aims of Industry a right wing propagandist organisation that registered itself as an EDUCATIONAL body!) As a left wing public historian I was never going to be neutral in respect of where my sympathies and priorities for research lay. I was embarking on research which was going to take up a good deal of time and effort but which was vital to any efforts at corporate campaigning against a Sugar Giant that had proved that the representation of family firm was way past its sell by date. It was another Albert and John inspired struggle to plug the past into the present and achieve some results. All the pensioners were bitterly disappointed that the Biennial on December 2nd 1999 was to be the last reunion of the Liverpool Tates pensioners but Albert and John were going to support me in my plans to target 2001 which would/should have been the next Xmas Biennial. I delivered the petition below to Sugar Quay in London two years later but it was totally ignored by Larry Pillard the Chief Executive, and Harley Davidson loving American in charge of this soulless global transnational. The methods deployed in Decatur Illinois were deployed in the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn in 2000 and 2001 and New Yorkers were outraged. Little if any press publicity over here.

PETITION to BRING BACK CHRISTMAS FOR THE LIVERPOOL TATE’S PENSIONERS for December   2001

The Sugar Giant Tate & Lyle, because of their professed “need to continually review and reduce costs” ended the “biennial” Christmas Party for the Liverpool Tates pensioners at the end of 1999. This petition is part of a “corporate pensioners campaign” to bring it back, and to ensure that a Transnational that operates in five continents and fifty countries, and makes great play of TATE & LYLE IN THE COMMUNITY lives up to its claims, by catering for the “associational needs” of the original BOYS AND GIRLS FROM THE WHITESTUFF, many of whom devoted all their working lives to the company before it closed down in 1981. At “the last supper in the Adelphi”, December 3rd 1999, former Shop steward, Bob Bannister asked management a valid question,  ‘Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if these Christmas get-togethers were to continue every two years, after all in ten or fifteen years most of us will have left for greener pastures?’

PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME AND ADDRESS BELOW:

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Ah well. Keep on keepin’ on is the mantra my family know too well. At least my notes and files were starting to bulge with some promise. Some tangible and very practical things could come out of what was becoming a living research project about Love Lane Lives. 20 years ago looking back down the tracks from Hindsight Station there were glimmers of hope about what I might put together about Tate & Lyle and the Mr Cube campaign. I loved the project and wanted Love Lane Lives to live as a community based project. 66 days before the start of a new millennium on October 27th 1999 how could anyone have foreseen a big petition to bring back Christmas materialising and that in 2006, 2007 and 2008 significant gains would be secured for the boys and girls from the whitestuff?

The graft comes first and what follows below may be boring to some but “facts are sacred, opinion is free”. Closer scrutiny of the genesis of Tate & Lyle required going back to the era of the GREAT WAR!

“The cliché that “The Great War” was a watershed is not clichéd enough in relation to the neglected world of sugar and sweeteners. Raw sugar supplies from the two main commercial sources, tropical sugar cane, and temperate sugar beet, became important munitions of war and “five years of ‘calm’ without competition…allowed refiners to amass a considerable war chest” but “above all, to initiate fruitful relations with the Government apparatus” which continued into the post-war years. One result was that the merger of the separate sugar dynasties of Henry Tate and Abraham Lyle in February 1921, actually had “the blessing of the Government”.

Mergers on this scale were uncommon and the International Sugar Journal warned that “the creation of something resembling a refining trust in this country must be condemned both from the point of view of the raw sugar producer and from that of the end-consumer and therefore trends in this direction should be followed closely”.

The synergy that Tates had with government was evidenced in 1928, when Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer announced budgetary alterations in sugar duties. This gave the British refineries, and Tate & Lyle in particular, effective protection from imports of foreign refined sugar and a comparative security zone for the remaining inter-war years. Their attempts to dominate the infant British sugar beet industry were to prove far less successful than the economic consequences of Mr Churchill’s 1928 budget for the sugar refining side of the industry. That was one of their most important battle victories and given its leadership, “logically it was Tate & Lyle that profited most from the results”. 

Phillip Snowden was incensed and “practically accused Churchill of having been manipulated by the refiners” pointing out in the House of Commons budget debate, “that the value of the shares of the refining companies on the Stock Exchange had risen by 50% in six weeks”.  The International Sugar Journal in January 1930 asserted that “there is now very little sugar being produced or refined in this country which is not under the control of Tate & Lyle”.  A committee of enquiry on the sugar industry set up in 1934 under Ramsay McDonald’s National Government, came to the conclusion “that the arrangements made in 1928 were unduly favourable to the refining industry”. 

Ironically the new company’s founding fathers, Henry Tate and Abraham Lyle, responded to intense competition from heavily subsidised Continental producers of sugar beet in the late nineteenth century, by “product differentiating” into cubes and syrup. Unlike other British refineries sacrificed on the altar of free trade, their companies were rejuvenated by that contest. The convenience of cubes to grocers and customers, confirmed not only Henry Tate’s background as a Liverpool grocer, but his refined business acumen for deploying modern technology and charging premium prices. The success of cubes without Mr Cube’s protective shield was arguably the making of what sympathetic company historian Phillipe Chalmin describes as a modern Sugar Giant!”

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