The art of success: a history of Tate & Lyle

Tate & Lyle is the largest sugar business in Europe. Henry Tate built his fortune by popularising the sugar cube In Britain, and later established the Tate Gallery in London.

Henry Tate establishes the business
Henry Tate (1819 – 1899) was born in Chorley, Lancashire to a Unitarian minister from Newcastle upon Tyne. He was apprenticed to an elder brother at a grocery shop in Liverpool from 1832.

Tate acquired his own grocery shop at Old Haymarket, Liverpool, from Aaron Wedgwood (1789 – 1840) in 1839. He began to focus on the sale of tea.

Tate had six shops by 1855; four in Liverpool, one in Birkenhead and one in Ormskirk. He expanded into the wholesale trade from 1857.

Tate entered into partnership with John Wright, a sugar refiner of Manesty Lane in Liverpool, from 1859. In order to concentrate on the sugar business, he sold his grocery interests to a brother-in-law in 1861.

Tate built a sugar refinery of his own at Earle Street in 1862. Little is known of Tate’s refineries at this time, but they probably produced low quality sugar and treacle.

Tate bought out Wright’s stake in 1869, and his sons Alfred Tate (born 1846) and Edwin Tate (1847 – 1928) were brought into the business, which was renamed Henry Tate & Sons.

Tate acquires new patent rights
Henry Tate acquired the rights to the new Boivin-Loiseau sugar purification process in 1872. Despite having been first offered to every other sugar refiner of scale, none but Tate had recognised its potential. It was this patent that really offered Tate a serious advantage over his rivals, as it was more efficient than the then-predominant Greenock process.

Tate established a new refinery on Love Lane, Liverpool in 1872. The factory produced 1,000 tons of sugar every week. The business employed 400 people by this time.

Tate partnered with David Martineau, a London sugar refiner, to acquire the British rights to Eugen Langen’s sugar cube manufacturing process in 1875. Sugar had previously been sold to grocers in large cones, with servings to customers then broken off with a hammer. The old method was inefficient, and the pre-packaged “Tate’s Cube Sugar” was to prove a great success.

Early packaging for Tate's Cube Sugar
Early packaging for Tate’s Cube Sugar

Tate acquired a derelict shipyard at Silvertown on the Thames in London in 1874-5. He established his largest sugar refinery there in 1878, and appointed Edwin Tate as manager. The new refinery focused solely on sugar cube production.

By 1883 Tate had the largest sugar producing capacity in Liverpool, and the third largest capacity in London. The Liverpool plant produced hard sugar and the London plant produced soft sugar.

Henry Tate & Sons employed 538 people by 1889.

At the age of 76, Tate was asked why he did not retire. He replied, “when you pull on a string and gold sovereigns come tumbling down, it’s very difficult to stop pulling that string”. However he finally did retire the following year.

Henry Tate & Sons was registered as a private limited company in 1896. William Henry Tate (1842 – 1922), became the first chairman, and his brothers served as directors.

Henry Tate in 1897 by Hubert Von Herkomer
Henry Tate in 1897 by Hubert Von Herkomer

Henry Tate was a private man, a good employer and a generous benefactor. He built the Tate Gallery for the people of Britain at a cost of £500,000, and donated his collection of art including Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott. Other benefactions, sometimes anonymous, but always discreet, amounted to almost £1 million. Despite his great wealth he lived a modest life, and refused a baronetcy twice before finally accepting in 1898, having been told by the Prime Minister that a third refusal would offend the Royal family. He died the following year.

At the turn of the century the factories in Silvertown and Liverpool employed between 2,000 and 3,000 people. The London buildings occupied 36,000 square metres, and the Liverpool buildings occupied 19,400 square metres.

Public offering and acquisitions
Henry Tate & Sons was registered as a public company in 1903. The assets of the business were valued at nearly £1.4 million in 1910. Henry Tate & Sons was the largest sugar refiner in Europe by 1914.

The anticipation of greater European competition in the post-war period, as well as a lack of suitable managerial talent in the Tate family convinced Henry Tate & Sons to merge with Abram Lyle & Sons, another large British refiner best known for its golden syrup, in 1921. The new company, Tate & Lyle, had a capital of £4.5 million and employed over 5,000 people. The business controlled around 50 percent of Britain’s sugar refining capacity.

Edwin Tate died in 1928 with a net personalty valued at £813,575.

Fairrie & Co of Liverpool was acquired in 1929. The business employed around 900 people. The Fairrie sugar refinery was immediately closed down.

Tate & Lyle was the 32nd most valuable company in Britain by market value in 1930.

A view of the Silvertown refinery in London in 2018. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Tate & Lyle employed 7,000 people, and was among the 100 largest employers in Britain by 1935.

A major rival emerged after the British government nationalised fifteen sugar beet refiners under the British Sugar name in 1936.

Tate & Lyle acquired Macfie & Sons of Liverpool in 1938. The ageing Macfie refinery was immediately closed down, and production was relocated to Love Lane. Following the acquisition, Tate & Lyle controlled 57 percent of the British sugar market.

The Silvertown site became the largest sugar refinery in the world, with an output of 14,000 tons a week by 1939.

Tate & Lyle employed 10,000 people in Britain by 1958.

Tate & Lyle acquired control of the Canada and Dominion Sugar Company in 1960.

United Molasses, the largest producer of molasses in Britain, was acquired for around £30 million in 1965.

Britain entered the Common Market from 1972, which saw quotas imposed on imported raw sugar cane by the Common Agricultural Policy. As a result, Tate & Lyle was forced to diversify.

Manbre & Garton, a Fulham-based sugar and starch producer, was acquired in 1976. The acquisition gave Tate & Lyle a monopoly on cane sugar production in Britain.

Unfortunately Manbre & Garton was to prove a major drain of financial resources. Combined with other ill-fated diversification attempts, Tate & Lyle profits were declining by the late 1970s. The first dividend cut in three decades was announced in 1979, and 4,000 jobs were lost.

Tate & Lyle grows internationally
Canadian-born Neil McGowan Shaw (born 1929) was appointed managing director of Tate & Lyle in 1980. He would transform the business into a professionally-managed company.

Shaw shut down the Garton starch factories, sold six of Tate’s ships, closed its glucose operations, reduced head office staffing levels and cut out excessive levels of management.

The Love Lane refinery was closed with the loss of 1,750 jobs in 1981. The site had become loss-making due to a sugar glut caused by the EU Common Agricultural Policy.

Worldwide staffing levels had been reduced from 16,400 to 11,400 by 1984.

Tate & Lyle acquired two American manufacturers; A E Staley, best known for corn syrup, and Amstar Sugar, the largest cane sugar refiner in the US, at a total cost of $1.8 billion in 1988.

Shaw was described as a quiet man, “seemingly embarrassed by his own power and success”, according to the Toronto National Post.

Bundaberg Sugar of Australia was acquired in 1991.

Tate & Lyle employed 16,000 people by 1993. It was the largest manufacturer of artificial sweeteners in the world.

Shaw stepped down as managing director of Tate & Lyle in 1995.

Tate & Lyle sold its sugar business to American Sugar of Yonkers, New York, in 2010. This allowed the company to concentrate on its industrial food products division.

The Silvertown refinery supplied 40 percent of Europe’s cane sugar in 2013.

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