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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A bitter sweet Public History project

Written by Ron Noon at 16:13 on Monday, December 01st 2008

Conference Proposal for Race, Labor, and the City: Crises Old and New
Liverpool Love Lane Refinery Lives: A bitter sweet Public History project

In 1947 a Cuban anthropologist suggested that “sugar was capitalism’s favoured child”, and twenty years later in a book aptly titled Sweet Malefactor, a medical doctor advanced the argument that “there is no single food which has rivalled sugar in its influence on human affairs”. I had little cognisance of all this when I was asked by two former “sweet fighters”, Albert E Sloane and John McLean, to research an act of matricide and community blight. Liverpool Love Lane refinery was the mother plant in a global sugar dynasty bequeathed by Henry Tate, Britain’s “white gold” version of Henry Rockefeller. It closed down in April 1981 and as a Labor historian tasked to examine the voluminous documents generated by an eight year struggle to keep the Lane open, “sweet” is an inappropriate adjective when describing the history of this blemished product and the harsh conditions under which it was, and is still produced in many parts of the world today.

Unravelling skeins of interconnectedness between past and present, local and global, politics and power, first and third worlds, and capitalism’s recurring themes of want not need, wealth not health, has saturated this far from “provincial”  labor project and corporate watch over the company that in Decatur became known as “Take and Liar”! Seven years after the act of matricide in the tragically misnamed Love Lane, Tates moved along the sweetener chain, and across the Atlantic to set up shop in Illinois, in a controversial leveraged buy out of AE Staley, a lucrative producer of High Fructose Corn Syrup. (HFCS) The subsequent story of downsizing and re-engineering and aggressive anti unionism that culminated in lockout and defeat for the Staley workers at the end of 1994, continued at the end of the decade with the “taming” and softening up of Brooklyn’s refinery workers, before Tates sale of Domino to the Cuban American Fanjul brothers and Flo-Crystals.

At the beginning of 2006 and eighteen months after delivering a paper on the Fanjuls and Florida Sugar at Colorado Springs University, my global sugar project reverberated to the domestic sounds of a “90 day Redundancy Party Letter” and a much less “academic” but equally important historical goal! My RPL letter noted that “next Sunday, January 22nd will be the 25th anniversary” of the issuing of redundancy notices, and “requested” a reunion of the former Love Lane employees “on or close to the 22nd of April”. Some big local and national names were on that letter and whether it was sentiment or sensitivity to bad PR, the Director of Corporate Communications at Tate and Lyle wrote back to say that they would commit financially!

So 250 boys and girls from the whitestuff had a brilliant reunion party at the Eldonian Village Hall on the site of the former refinery. The event was like “Uncle Sugar” coming home to what is now a community housing phoenix, risen from the ashes of the now not so comically misnamed Love Lane. Much more, because the local media attention and publicity proved to be the catalyst behind a successful bid for Heritage Lottery money to produce a film and oral history of Love Lane Lives.  An archive of film and oral biographies of the former T&L workers is now supplemented by a website and a project with local school children that is harnessing their “pester power” to elicit even more stories from grandparents who worked in the refinery.

As a socialist and Labour historian what drew me to this project were the refinery workers not the product and certainly not Tate & Lyle. The remarkable thing about this research was not simply sugar but the extraordinary lives of ordinary refinery workers which come through vividly in our first film LOVE LANE LIVES: THE BOYS AND GIRLS FROM THE WHITESTUFF. It’s screening at conference is designed to agitate debate about labor and community in a comparative and international context, and along with the new website and North West Labour History Journal essays, we see it as the best means of ensuring that Love Lane lives really do live on.

From Ron Noon, Senior Lecturer in History, Liverpool John Moores University.
Part 2
It is easier to start with a negative so our brand of Public history is decidedly not about nostalgia for ancestry and the history of the British people with a sizeable chunk of Brits left out! “Top down history” has a well established lineage whereas the “bottom up” brand of history that inspires this web site, is relatively recent. To paraphrase that doyen of English social and labour history, Edward Thompson, public historians are concerned to “rescue from the enormous condescension of posterity” the millions more “extraordinary ordinary” people’s lives that have not been lived in the great house or great estate, or alongside the public (which in English means private) school elites, that have biased the history books towards “so called people of consequence”! For too long we’ve suffered from a version of the Thatcherite/Reaganite mantra of “public is bad private is good” and “if it moves privatise”!
So even if it appears anachronistic and as past its sell by date as Old is to New Labour, the best expression to inform the mission and method of public historians is “public is good and private”, to use an army metaphor, “is decidedly subaltern”. If the records and artefacts move, (especially if the workers and Joe and Josephine Public want their lived work and community experiences to be recorded), then rhetorically at least we need to “nationalise” them! That’s the best way of ensuring that public historians reach out beyond the “professional historian” and the academy to a much broader constituency where for too long “a people without a past has been” almost literally “a people dispossessed”. Yea there is always a likely lag between intent and actual achievement but no matter how intrinsically more difficult it may be to secure records and archive them and then to do full justice to that “lived experience” public historians deserve more patience, understanding and when push comes to shove, much more adequate funding.   
Anyway after my ramble around what I feel public history is, Jill Liddington a well known and very successful public historian at Leeds University, poses and then answers the PH question far more succinctly:

“What is Public History? Very broadly, Public History is about how we acquire our sense of the past – through memory and archives, images and landscape; and of the presentation of those pasts to a range of audiences - through museums, film, television and historical fiction.” She also emphasises:
• Placing audience centre-stage – to increase public access to the past.
• Working collaboratively - historians in partnership with other professionals (archivists, web-page designers, journalists, museum curators).
• Rigour - practitioners need historians and their scholarly conventions of critical argument, evidence and citation, to help offer expert mediation between the past and its publics.
• Active participation - ‘the public’ need not be reduced to merely passive mass-culture consumers, privatized viewers of ‘history spectacles’.
• Awareness of the state - as a statutory provider (eg public libraries), a source of funding and provider of policy framework.
To date as far as Public Historians are concerned TV history has meant high budgets and vast audiences for Simon Schama and the History Channel! When I first saw Simon I had what they call in the professional history trade an epistemological flash! That means a Yosser Hughes moment in the vernacular and Leon and I decided “we” can do that. Go on Gis a go. We can do that with a lower budget and a smaller audience but gis the job. National Heritage, despite our difficulties with some monies that went astray, turned up trumps which is hopefully the main reason why LOVE LANE LIVES is only the first of more films to follow. 

So hopefully then our SUGAR brand of Public history, both in its idiom and substance, is about helping people develop their own histories of the refinery and the Sugarland community just north of the city centre where the “white stuff” dominated for so long. Ours is a collaborative and genuinely participatory project involving not only former refinery workers (the boys and girls from the whitestuff) but THE ELDONIANS and the children and teachers at the TRINITY SCHOOL just behind the GREEN MAN in Tichfield Street.