R White & Son was the largest soft drinks producer in Britain, and possibly the world. R White’s remains the leading lemonade brand in Britain.*
Robert White establishes the business
Robert White (1825 – 1901) was born at Horsleydown, London. Assisted by his wife Mary, he sold homemade ginger beer from a cart in the streets of Camberwell from 1845. This was to prove a success, and he soon established a market stall.
Sales grew, and a factory was established at Charles Street, Camberwell. The factory was greatly extended in 1866.
Ginger beer, soda water and lemonade were distributed throughout London. Unfortunately, Robert White overreached himself, and was forced to declare himself bankrupt in 1867.
Robert White was far from discouraged, however, and employed twelve people by 1871. By this time he had been joined in partnership by his two sons, Robert James White (1849 – 1921) and John George White (1851 – 1942), to form R White & Sons.
R White & Sons had established a factory at Cunard Street in Camberwell by 1881, and employed a workforce of 50.
H Wilcox, soft drinks manufacturers of Rodney Road, Walworth, was acquired in 1884.
R White & Sons enters into mass production
R White & Sons had a stock of three million stone bottles by 1886. Unlike some manufacturers, the firm had not yet made the transition to glass bottles, which were increasing in popularity.
Artis Capel & Co, soft drinks manufacturers of Neate Street, Camberwell, had been acquired by 1888.
Robert White retired from the partnership in 1888. There were two factories on Neate Street and one on Cunard Street, all in Camberwell; one on Rodney Road, Walworth; one at Kingston upon Thames; and one at Barking. Neate Street was the principal manufacturing site.
R White & Sons grew quickly because of the low cost of sugar. The business sold 46.8 million bottles of soft drinks, over 410,000 gallons of soft drinks in casks and over 31,000 gallons of cordials in 1890.
H D Rawlings, a prestigious soft drinks manufacturer of Marylebone, was acquired in 1891.
R White & Sons was incorporated as a public company in 1894, with a share capital of £300,000. By this time it was one of the largest soft drinks manufacturers in London. The company had seven modern factories and thirteen depots in London and the Home Counties. It supplied 40,000 trade customers via a distribution network of 639 horses and 325 vans. The company was largely debt-free (under £3,000).
The business continued to grow rapidly, and an 1897 advertisement claimed that the company was the largest manufacturer of soft drinks in the world.
R White & Sons was awarded the licence to distribute Kops Ale, a non-alcoholic beer, in the London district from 1892. The Kops Brewery business was acquired outright in 1898.
R White & Sons had thirteen factories, including sites in Birmingham and Manchester, by 1899. There were also three breweries where Kops Ale was produced. There were 15 depots located throughout the South East of England. That year, share capital was increased to £800,000.
A factory at George Street, Camberwell, used for producing flavouring and preservative chemicals, was destroyed by fire in 1903, with damage estimated at £100,000 to £150,000.
R J and J G White were well-regarded as employers, and the workforce was a contented one. An employee sick fund was established in 1895.
R J White was a local philanthropist. In 1902 he opened the largest and best-equipped soup kitchen in Camberwell at his Albany Road factory. He funded the distribution of 143,000 quarts of soup in 1903. In 1905 he took 1,400 poor Camberwell children on an excursion to his farm at Ewell.
It was claimed that R White’s produced half of all lemonade and ginger beer sold in England by 1908. The London factory covered 20 acres, and the company employed 3,000 horses and 1,000 lorries.
Company capital was reduced in 1910, and again in 1914, to £82,000.
Over 600 R White & Sons men were serving in the armed forces by 1918.
In 1921 R White & Sons was fined by Surrey County Council for misleading the public by advertising its lemonade as being made with “Messina lemons”. An analysis found that R White’s lemonade was simply carbonated sugar water acidified with phosphoric acid, four times the maximum amount allowed by the British Pharmacopoeia. There was no trace of lemon juice in it. The company stated that it had used phosphoric acid for forty years as it enhanced the lifespan of the product, and that they used lemon oil for flavouring purposes. The company was fined £41 including costs.
Robert James White died in 1921 with an estate valued at £96,506.
Company capital was increased to £164,000 in 1925. R White & Sons was reconverted into a private company in 1927.
Sydney John White (1884 – 1938) died in 1938 with an estate valued at £192,484. He had been a director of R White & Sons and the managing director of H D Rawlings.
John George White died in 1942 with an estate valued at £268,073.
R White & Sons employed 725 people in 1951. In 1952 the company had seven factories in London, the Home Counties and Birmingham, with a production capacity of over 1.5 million bottles per week, and a fully-paid capital of £500,000. Net tangible assets amounted to £847,000. That year, the family-controlled company was forced to go public in order to meet the cost of death duties.
Harold Artis White, a director of R White & Sons, left an estate of £122,933 in 1957.
R White & Sons is acquired by Whitbread
R White & Sons was acquired by Whitbread, a brewer, for £3 million in 1969. The takeover was recommended by the directors, who sold their 60 percent stake in the company. It was Whitbread’s first major venture into soft drinks, and was to prove difficult and unrewarding for the brewer, despite substantial investment.
Whitbread divested the R White & Sons factory at Barking in 1972, and transferred production to a new factory at Beckton, East London, where it continues to this day. Built at a cost of £4 million across a 6.5 acre site, it was one of the largest soft drinks bottling plants in Britain.
The popular “Secret Lemonade drinker” television advertising campaign was launched in 1973. It continued to air until 1984.
R White & Sons held a franchise to produce Pepsi-Cola by 1975. Between 1975-77 the company held the franchise to produce A G Barr’s Irn-Bru for the London area.
R White & Sons held ten percent of the British market for carbonated drinks (excluding cola) by 1977, and was the brand leader in lemonade, with a 40 percent share.
Mergers and product portfolio rationalisation
Whitbread and Bass merged their soft drinks operations to form Canada Dry Rawlings from 1980. Bass owned 65 percent of the venture and Whitbread owned the remainder. The business concentrated on supplying the licensed trade.
R White’s held 2.5 percent of the carbonated soft drinks market (excluding cola) in 1985-6.
Britvic acquired Canada Dry Rawlings in 1986. The merger brought together Britvic’s strength in fruit juices and cordials, and Canada Dry Rawlings’ strength in carbonated drinks.
R White’s had the fourth highest sales for a carbonated drinks brand in Britain in 1989, behind only Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Schweppes.
As late as 1994, R White’s produced dandelion and burdock, cream soda and ginger beer, as well as lemonade, but these were soon phased out until only lemonade was available.
R White’s was the third highest selling soft drink brand in the British on-trade (sales in pubs and bars) in 2009.
Sugar in R White’s had been replaced by artificial sweeteners by 2010.
* Sprite and 7 Up are lemon-lime drinks, and thus not “lemonade”.