The Trebor story: Forest Gate's sweet success

Wednesday, 30 April 2014


In 1907 four young men set up an enterprise to boil sugar, and make sweets, in Forest Gate - from sugar bought from Henry Tate in Canning Town.  They established a company called Robertson and Woodcock on Katherine Road. The four were: Thomas King, a wholesale grocer from Limehouse, William Woodcock, also from Limehouse and a sugar boiler, Robert Robertson, a retail grocer from Canning Town and Sydney Herbert Marks, a sweets salesman from Leytonstone.


Co-founder, Robert Robertson


They were to turn it into Forest Gate's most successful, ever, business and rename it Trebor. This is their story.

Co-founder, William Woodcock
The business was originally named after its two full time employees, the other two moonlighted for it, while employed by others, at first. There is a widespread misconception that the company later renamed itself as the reverse spelling of Robertson's christian name, Robert (Trebor). This, however, is merely a co-incidence.  There was already a Trebor House (built in 1891) and a Trebor Terrace on the Katherine Road site, on which they founded the firm (see photo).


Co-founder, Sydney
Herbert Marks

Trebor Terrace, predated the building
of the factory in Katherine Road
The original rent for the premises was £1 per week.  The year after the company was established the founders purchased their first horse and cart van (see photo) and paid the driver 23/- (£1.15, today) a week and his van boy 6/- (30p).

1908 staff photo of Robertson and Woodcock

One of first delivery vans for
Roberston and Woodcock, c 1910
The company was, in many ways, very forward looking - as will be shown, and it became one of the first businesses in London to purchase its own motorised transport, in 1915 (see photo).

One of earliest company motor
vehicles in London c 1915
The war was, of course, a challenge for the company - which had 16 employees in 1916.  It faced rationing of sugar, in 1917, but it rose to the challenge. It even produced products aimed at the troops, one called Army and Navy Paregoric Tablets (see photo), contained tincture of opium (!), for its soothing qualities. Other sweets produced at the time included Mixed Fruit Drops, Rock Allsorts, Pineapple Drops and Pear Drops.



Opium-laced product for
World War 1 soldiers!

The partners registered the name Trebor as a trademark four days after the end of the First World War, which effectively became its new trading name, after the retirement of William Woodcock, who was perhaps more interested in alcohol than sugar.

 Sydney Marks, son of one of the firm's founders ,also joined the company that year, on leaving the army, and was to be its driving force for over 50 years. Once sugar rationing ended, trade picked up, and the company quadrupled its workforce in a couple of years - to 60.

Trebor adopted electricity as its power source around 1920, which brought the end to hand production.  Marks visited Germany in 1925, amid much criticism of trading with the recent enemy, and returned recommending the firm bought very advanced production equipment from that country.

This revolutionised the business. It considerably improved the capacity of the business and the quality of its output.

One major effect was to enable to company to introduce products from compressed powder, rather than simply boiled sugar, and helped launch and establish the company's two most iconic products - Extra Strong Mints and Refreshers.

1935 label of consistent number
1 product: Extra Strong Mints
The company simply took off. By the mid 1930's it rebuilt its Forest Gate premises, by knocking down the existing one and four adjacent houses and built the Art Deco factory, in what is now converted loft apartments. (see photo).

Not satisfied with the rapidly expanding British market, lead by Marks, the company began to develop its huge export potential. In an extremely innovative step - that almost sounds commonplace today - the company became one of the first to develop "tie in" products to movies.  In 1937 they bought the rights from Disney to launch a range of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sweets, following the launch of the film - for £150! - plus a price per ton on goods sold with the label.

Early, 1930's "tie-in" product

Soon, even the doubled size Forest Gate factory wasn't big enough to cope with massive demand, so the firm, again fairly innovatively, took advantage of some inward investment incentives (dare we say sweeteners!) to build a new production facility in Chesterfield, on the site of an old brewery.

Again, with a glance at the future, the company felt the Chesterfield plant would provide a production insurance policy in the case of bombing, expected in WW2.

Just as WW1 had proved a challenge, so did the second World War. The company faced sugar rationing, but fared rather better than most other companies in the industry, for a number of technical reasons, and some aggressive acquisition of other firms, thus being able to acquire their sugar quotas, as part of the takeovers.

The anticipated, and almost inevitable, happened on 18 April 1944, when the Katherine Road premises was hit by a bomb - see photo.  Fortunately it was mainly the warehousing, rather than the machinery and production side that was affected, but according to contemporary reports ""Luckily, few people were killed"!

WW2 bomb damage, note policeman
guarding premises from "sugar looters"
One minor consequence is that the bombed premises were guarded by the police for some days, as a deterrent to looters seeking sugar. The blow of the bomb, however, knocked confidence by the company in Forest Gate as a longer term centre of production.

As we have suggested, the firm was very forward looking, on many fronts, but the directors were extremely hostile to having a trade union presence within it. They could best be described as benign, paternalistic employers - so were an early developer  of company pensions schemes for manual workers (1930's), and set up a sickness and death insurance company for employees as well as a forward profit sharing scheme for all staff.  They were one of the first UK companies to make major use of external consultants to assist with a whole range of managerial issues, including so called "time and motion" matters.

Their take-over activity gained apace post war, acquiring more than 50 other firms in the late 1940's.

In the early 50's they built a new facility on the site of an old coachworks and warehouse on Woodford Road, Ilford - and established the company HQ - Trebor House, there.  It remained so until the firm was taken over by Cadbury's in 1989. By now Forest Gate was a very minor part of an increasingly large British confectionery company.

Following the reconstruction of the Forest Gate premises after the war, after the bomb damage, the building was painted white and the distinctive green 'Trebor Quality Sweets' lettering, that survives today was added to the facade. In 2003 the building was converted into 51 loft-style apartments.

The firm's directors continued to exploit every opportunity to advance the company's standing, and became one of the first confectionery companies to use the new and effective opportunity that TV advertising offered, when ITV was established in the late 1950s'.

Their huge export drive continued after World War ll, and in 1961 the company bought its largest UK competitor, Sharp's Toffees, of Maidstone. The two firms were only formally merged in 1968, to become Trebor-Sharps.

1960's aerial view of the Forest Gate factory

In 1978 a £15m major investment was made in a new production facility in Colchester, with a turnover 10 times that of the Katherine Road plant - it was to be the death knell of sweets production in Forest Gate, and the factory closed three years later.
 
At that time Trebor had 3,000 employees nationwide, at 4 factories and 16 distribution depots.  Forest Gate was but a sugar crystal in a large bowl - though unfortunately we do not have details of precisely how large it was, or how many it employed at the time of its closure.


Within seven years of the closure of Forest Gate, Trebor's was sold to Cadbury's for £146m, with its paternalistic owners continuing their tradition of taking care of the workforce, by distributing £20m of that to employees in loyalty payments - upto a year's wages. The gesture came too late, however, for Forest Gate workers to benefit from this final treat.

Cadbury's, themselves, were subsequently taken over by the American food giant Kraft, which in turn has been gobbled up by some faceless hedge fund.

In another sign of how times have changed, in 1936 the very much smaller Trebor outfit produced an astonishingly large range of 452 products, today what's left of the brand produces just four: Extra Strong Mints, Softmints, Softfruits and Extra Strong Mint Gum - which between them, today form a larger share of the UK confectionery market than the 452 lines did 80 years ago.

Just some of the 450+
product range from 1930s
On a final note, the loft apartments in the old Forest Gate works  are currently trading at around £250k each - valuing the development at just a little less than Cadbury bought to entire company for, 25 years ago.

Trebor factory, Katherine Road
We are wholly indebted to an excellent company history: The Trebor Story, by Matthew Crampton, published in 2012, for the information in this article. We would love to hear reminiscences from any former employees there - particularly their views on the working conditions and the paternalistic/innovative/anti-union management.

2 comments:

  1. Annie gould who worked for sharps toffee factory maidstone born 1916 and worked there for many many years. Can anyone please tell me if anyone knows of her. I am her niece but never met her. She was born Darlington England and was married in 1940 to Henry Daniel Robert Gould who was the son of henry Herbert gould and clara Gould. My email is bella0407@yahoo.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brings back childhood memories. We lived in Halley Road, nearby, and used to play round the Trebor site. We were there until about 1970, now live in Sth Woodford E18.

    ReplyDelete

We welcome comments to all the items featured on this site. However, we reserve the right to omit offensive comments, and edit the length of comments, for reasons of space.