Sugar Daddies


With a tin bearing an image of the rotting carcass of a lion surrounded by a swarm of bees is not by today’s standards the most politically correct way to advertise your product. The brand registered in 1904 is recorded by the Guinness Book of Records as having the world’s oldest branding and packaging.

The man who chose that design was Abraham Lyle who set up his sugar refinery in Silvertown a mile downriver from his competitor Henry Tate who famously invented the sugar cube and founded his eponymous art gallery.

[B]oth men refused to acknowledge the other’s presence, even taking separate carriages on the train for their daily commute from Fenchurch Street to Silvertown.

Even though the two sugar barons refused to meet there was a tacit agreement not to tread on each others business toes.

At one point Lyle thought Tate was preparing to launch his own version of partially inverted sugar syrup and in retaliation built a sugar cube plant, whatever was the truth neither eventually copied the other’s product.

It was not until both men had died that in 1921 both companies merged. Surprisingly both factories are still run by a member of the respective families, and workers will never refer to themselves as working for Tate & Lyle, you either work at Tate’s or Lyle’s.

Located on an artificial peninsula – sandwiched between the Royal Docks to the North and the River Thames to the South just half a century ago it was a hive of activity, at the heart of industrial London.

golden-syrupAfter the war more than 20 factories lined the banks of the river. The location was perfect for the factories, being as close to London as was legally possible and providing access to both the docks and the river, where raw materials could be unloaded and finished product shipped away.

Positioned at either end of the so-called Sugar Mile which stretched between them, the factories also had a reputation for looking after their employees well, with an onsite surgery, dentist, chiropodist, eye doctor, hairdresser and even bar open during the working day. There was a purpose-built social club, The Tate Institute – still standing opposite the Thames Refinery, but now sadly derelict – which laid on parties every week with cheap rum shipped in from Jamaica.

A nearby sports ground at Manor Way, no longer in use, played host to football, cricket, netball and other sports, and was where the annual company sports day and beauty contest took place – the latter judged by movie stars.

These days, the number of factories remaining can be counted on one hand, and although Tate & Lyle’s refineries are still standing, they employ a fraction of the staff they once did.

An excellent account of life working for Tate & Lyle has been written by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi: The Sugar Girls: True Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness at Tate & Lyle’s East End Factories based on interviews with over fifty men and women who worked for Tate & Lyle in Silvertown in the 1940s and 1950s.

Rank outsiders

Try to imagine that you are an American tourist (trust me it isn’t hard). You have booked a trip to Britain and you plan to take in the capital.

What goes through your mind when you think of London? Bobbies on the beat; red telephone boxes; red buses and ah yes! Black cabs. I might be wrong, but I would suggest that a top of the range BMW was not on your list.

[N]ot so Olympic Games organisers LOCOG who last week unveiled their 4,000 strong fleet of German vehicles. These luxury limos will be driven by chauffeurs who are undergoing assessment to ensure their driving skills match the test that black cab drivers have to achieve before they are allowed to ply for hire on the streets of London. Depending on the grade given, these voluntary drivers could end up driving a top of the range BMW M5 or delivering parcels in another BMW vehicle.

So if ferrying the ‘Olympic Family’ around the capital was not deemed to represent London, then surely the humble black cab has a part to play in the year’s sports fest.

The cab ranks at the adjacent Westfield shopping centre will be closed due to security fears during the 2012 Olympics at the eleventh hour after much consideration 20 taxi rank spaces have been allocated at Stratford station.

So how do you get to the Olympic site? The organisers have thought this through and to make London 2012 the greenest Olympics in history, bus, train and bike are the preferred modes of transport.

Now forgive me for labouring the point – an appropriate term in the circumstances – but should you wish to leave the Olympics and you are disabled or a woman in labour sharing a train with 80,000 others leaving the venue at the same time might prove daunting.

No problem say LOCOG – who incidentally have paid well over the odds for the building and services contracts to meet self-imposed diversity commitments giving work to firms which agreed to employ disabled staff and not those companies submitting the most competitive tenders – use public transport.

You can of course pre-book a cab assuming you know when you might go into labour or become unwell. Or try to find the odd taxi rank. Early reports suggest that these ranks are located in such obscure places we are going to need all our powers of observation just to find them, let alone a member of the public with urgent needs.

It’s a good job we honed up our observational skills when undertaking the Knowledge, we might need them just to find the ranks.

Turf Wars

Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.

These were the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II for the musical Oklahoma!

And one would think by the rhetoric surrounding the pedicab/licensed taxi debate that a turf war was being engaged by the two proponents along the lines of the ranch disputes in America’s mid-west.

[N]othing could be further from the truth, the dent in a London cabbie’s income caused as a consequence of business lost to ‘rickshaws’ is miniscule.

Anyone with a desire to climb aboard a pedicab, wants to do just that, they don’t want to undertake a journey in the luxury of a London taxi.

No, the grievances we, the London cab trade, have with pedicabs is that ‘Plying for Hire’ is not practised on a level playing field. We have to undergo up to five years of arduous study while on The Knowledge; have a Criminal Records Bureau check and take an enhanced driving test before we can ply for hire.

Private hire now have vigorous checks upon cab offices and their drivers and they are not allowed to prowl London’s streets picking up passengers.

But pedicab riders can pitch up, undergo the minimum of training, have no formal checks upon their suitability and then pick up tourists including children from the Capital’s streets.

We have to take any assurances from pedicab operators at face value when they tell us of their vehicles’ roadworthiness.

There is also a question on whether just about anyone can buy one of these carriages and go out on London’s roads without even the cursory checks that a pedicab company would undertake.

Public transport in London has been regulated for centuries, in fact it was Oliver Cromwell who first brought some order to cabbies’ behaviour. But now we have a group whose only regulation is self-regulation – it’s just not enough.

But cabbies biggest gripe is the sheer numbers clogging up the streets of the West End, and instances of them riding in contravention of the road traffic regulations with seeming impunity from prosecution.

And this the last point might be just a personal observation, but how is it that large numbers are allowed to congregate around West End theatres at the end of a performance? Not only do they impede pedestrians, including the disabled, if a evacuation of the theatre should be necessary theatregoers would be confronted by a wall of steel preventing safe egress with possible tragic circumstances.

No, if we are to continue promoting pedicabs as yet another London ‘icon’ they need to be regulated. Turf wars it is not, but we do need a level playing field. If not they should be restricted to London’s parks where curiously they are never to be found. Now why should that be?

The City that never wakes

Keep calm and carry on

[R]ecently I was in a well known department store which has the proud boast of being ‘the official Olympic retail partner’. There a came across a whole display section given over to London 2012 paraphernalia: key rings, mugs, t-shirts, pencils, all designed to feed our enthusiasm for The Games – and all gathering dust. For sale across the aisle were Diamond Jubilee souvenir goods and amongst the items was a mug displaying the well worn motto ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Those five words could have been a metaphor for London’s attitude towards this summer’s games.

If New York was hosting the games Times Square would be ablaze proclaiming that NY would not sleep for its duration, every yellow cab would carry advertising on their roofs and New Yorkers would by now have worked themselves into a veritable lather of excitement.

But Londoners are not impressed by anything, at all, ever, and convey a weary stoicism towards anything connected with the Games. You see we have seem it all before – including the Olympics, twice, in 1908 and 1948, the last staged here because nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted the job.

How different it was for the 2012 Games when countries were queuing up for the opportunity to blow £10,000,000,000 in under three months and then spend their time while the Games were staged in a state of apoplexy.

Our usual annual tourist rush in July and August comprising of noisy interlopers who insist on having a good time and can’t pronounce “Leicester Square” properly will be replaced this year by earnest fellows asking me: “Did you watch last night the men’s 10 x 100m freestyle gallop or synchronised water bobbing?” – Err No.

But for the man on the Clapham omnibus – or should that be Boris Bus? – will take it all in his stride affronted by any suggestion that this summer is going to be profitable, transformative or, worst of all, pleasant.

And after its all over we will congratulate ourselves on organising the best run, most restrained and, well – by gad – gentlemanly Olympics ever.

Rage against the machine

[T]his year’s mayoral race is following the predictable campaign that you would expect from the front runners, all the time honoured issues are being aired and as per usual it looks like a two horse race. Fortunately for Londoners some with more eccentric views have made their voices heard over the years on the Capital’s streets which have both amused, entertained and informed us in equal measure.


Stanley Green

An entrepreneurial spirit has at times been commendable with some individuals, for example Stanley Green who upon retirement from the civil service decided against taking up golf, but chose to spend the next 30 years warning us of the dangers of protein. “Protein makes passion” his printed leaflets exclaimed, so reduce your consumption of fish, bird, meat, cheese, egg, peas, beans, nuts and well err . . . sitting, and the world will be a happier place. From 1968 until his death in 1993 Stanley sold his own pamphlet called “Eight Passion Proteins with Care”, which sold over 87,000 copies. With an eccentric approach to punctuation the document was 14 pages long and rendered in a smorgasbord of font faces and weights, it also existed in a 392 page book form, which the Oxford University Press rejected in 1971.


Bill Boakes

Riding a bicycle festooned with slogans and driven by a solidly-built, elderly gent Bill Boakes fought his first Parliamentary contest in 1951 when he stood for election at Walthamstow East polling 174 out of 40,041 votes cast; in 1956 he tried his luck again but this time in Walthamstow West, here he had an even worst result at 89. After a 30 year career in the Navy (he was a gunnery officer at the sinking of the Bismark) he stood under the banner: ‘Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident.’ Road safety was central to his manifesto, that and a little racism thrown in for good measure. He would push a pram loaded down with bricks on to pedestrian crossings to make the point that motorists should slow down. He is pictured here in his ‘campaign bus’. It was actually a 140lb armoured bicycle hung with road safety and other posters that cleverly concealed an iron bedstead. Sadly for one who dedicated his life to road safety he was injured whilst stepping off a bus and died from complications to a head injury.


George Ives

A poet, writer, penal reformer and early gay rights campaigner. Born in Germany the illegitimate son of an English army officer and a Spanish baroness, he was educated at Magdalene College where he started to amass 45 volumes of scrapbooks of press clippings of murders, punishments, freaks, theories of crime and punishment, transvestism, psychology of gender, homosexuality, cricket scores, and letters he wrote to newspapers. In 1897 Ives created and founded the Order of Chaeronea, a secret society for homosexuals which was named after the location of the battle where the Sacred Band of Thebes was finally annihilated in 338 BC. Working to end the oppression of homosexuals, what he called the ‘Cause’ he hoped that Oscar Wilde would join the ‘Cause’, but was disappointed. He met Wilde at the Authors’ Club in 1892, Wilde was taken by his boyish looks and persuaded him to shave off his moustache, whereupon he kissed him passionately the next time they met in the Travellers’ Club. In later life he developed a passion for melons, filling this house with them. When the Second World War ended he refused to believe it and carried a gas mask with him everywhere in a case until his death.


Lord Sutch

Screaming Lord Sutch founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in 1983 and fought the Bermondsey by-election. In his career he contested over 40 elections, rarely threatening the major candidates, but often getting a respectable number of votes and was easily recognisable at election counts by his flamboyant clothes. It was after he polled several hundred votes in Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley constituency in 1983 that the deposit paid by candidates was raised from £150 to £500. His most significant contribution to politics came at the Bootle by-election in 1990 securing more votes than the candidate of the Continuing Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by former Foreign Secretary David Owen, within days the SDP dissolved itself. In 1993, when the British National Party gained its first local councillor, Derek Beackon, Sutch pointed out that the Official Monster Raving Loony Party already had six. He committed suicide by hanging on 16th June 1999.