London Made: Food

By Londonist Last edited 104 months ago

Last Updated 06 October 2015

London Made: Food
Photo by Matt Brown.

Mark Amies takes a trip round London's food manufacturing past.

Not so long ago London was a manufacturing giant. Large amounts of goods and products were made within Greater London, and sold not only in the UK, but across the globe.

Now it is a shadow of its former self, with a tiny fraction of its manufacturing industry left — in 1960, 1.5m Londoners were employed in manufacturing; today it's around 250,000. The companies that had their bases in London moved out to greenfield sites outside of the congested streets of the city. Some prospered, others were either absorbed into other companies or, sadly, went out of business.

We felt it was about time we looked at what London has lost within the last 100 years. These companies, and their factories, employed hundreds of thousands of Londoners over many years. People met their future partners in them, and their offspring often went on to be employed in the factories.

Time passes, and memories fade. The factories and the products they made were a source of pride to the communities they were based in. But the people who worked in these industries are now old, and many have passed away.

Fortunately some of the factory buildings stayed after their previous owners had left, allowing us to enjoy the sites of some very interesting architecture. Many of the factories have been converted into homes and offices, some keeping their signage, as a lasting reminder to us.

It would be easy to reel off great long lists of manufacturers, but let's consider those brands that have real resonance with most of us. These names still exist in most cases. And let's start with an industry that we all understand — food. While London's food manufacturing industry is still healthy, a great many brands that we buy today were once made in our capital city.

Quaker, Southall

Breakfast, to many the most important meal of the day. One of the first big cereal brands to market itself was Quaker Oats. Many people assume that Quaker is a British company, but it started in Ohio, USA in 1877. Quaker built its factory in Bridge Road, Southall in 1936. It is a fairly unremarkable building, and certainly not an Art Deco masterpiece.

The company made a large number of cereals here, including the legendary Sugar Puffs. Surprisingly, the company also made pet food on the site. Sadly Quaker Foods (now part of the PepsiCo family) moved out in about 2006. However, cereal based products are still made on the site by Honey Monster Foods, who continue to make Sugar Puffs under their new name Honey Monster Puffs at the Southall plant.

Wrigley, Wembley

Photo by Mark Amies.

Londoners must have chewed their way through hundreds of tons of chewing gum, and much of it has been produced by Wrigley's. The American company opened its factory in South Kenton, near Wembley, in 1927. The architects of this building were Wallis Gilbert and Partners, the same firm that designed the iconic Firestone and Hoover factories. It has some every nice detailing on it, very much in the Art Deco style.

Wrigley's moved to Plymouth in 1970, and the factory is now the Wembley Commercial Centre, housing a number of different businesses.

Lyons, Hammersmith and Greenford

J Lyons & Co had an enormous factory in Hammersmith called Cadby Hall. This was a sprawling complex that produced bread, cakes, biscuits and ice cream products. After the factory closed down in the mid 1970s, it was used as warehousing space — and turned up in a number of episodes of ITV's popular series The Professionals. Not long after this, in the mid 1980s, Cadby Hall was razed to the ground, to be replaced by some rather characterless office blocks.

In addition, in 1919 Lyons built a factory next to the Grand Union Canal in Greenford, which produced tea and coffee products. After World War Two, the site was expanded, and the company started producing its iconic Lyons Maid ice cream there. By the early 1970s another family favourite, Ready Brek hot oat cereal, was made at Greenford.

The factory was still there in the late 1980s producing Tetley tea. The site is now a redeveloped trading estate.

OXO, Southwark

This iconic building was originally built as a power station in 1900. In the late 1920s it was bought by the makers of OXO cubes, Liebig's Extract of Meat Company. The illuminated letters of OXO were done in such a way as to avoid rules on advertising on buildings at the time.

The company left the site sometime during the 1970s, and it was left derelict until the late 1980s, when it was converted into workspaces for artists and craft people.

Wall's, Acton

For many of us Wall's is synonymous with two things, sausages and ice cream.

Thomas Wall arrived in Acton in about 1919. A meat products factory was built at Atlas Road, and a later ice cream factory at Friars Place. At the height of its production in the late 1950s the two sites employed over 3,000 people. The Atlas Road factory closed in 1978, and Friary Road some time in the 1980s.

The company has been through some change in ownership, with the ice cream brand now owned by the giant Unilever and the meat brand a part of Kerry Foods.

Bond's of London, Leytonstone

Photo by George Bowdidge.

London has a large number of companies producing confectionery to satisfy its collective sweet tooth.

Bond's of London started off in a small factory in Leytonstone, and eventually moved to larger premises nearby, on Lea Bridge Road. They were there until the late 1990s, and one of the perspex signs acted as a reminder until very recently.

Crosse & Blackwell, Charing Cross Road

Photo by Peter McGowan from the Londonist Flickr pool.

Crosse and Blackwell has been a household name for years. In 1840 it started a bottling factory at 21 Soho Square. Over time the company expanded within the area, and by the late 1800s they had a huge warehouse facility in Charing Cross Road.

When Crosse and Blackwell moved out in the 1920s the warehouse was converted into The Astoria Cinema and Dance Hall. Sadly, this entire building was sacrificed a few years ago for the building of the new Tottenham Court Road Underground and Crossrail station.

Smith's Crisps, Cricklewood and Brentford

These days, the dominant potato crisp brand is the ubiquitous Walkers. However, some of us who are a bit older will recall Smith’s Crisps, and they long pre-date Walkers.

Frank Smith started making potato crisps in a premises behind the Crown Hotel in Cricklewood not long after World War One. In 1927 it moved to a larger, purpose built factory on the Great West Road not far from the large illuminated clock that dominates the Chiswick end of the road now. The company was doing so well that it expanded the site again in 1930.

The factory was quite innovative in its use of large graphic displays on the sides of the building to promote its products to traffic passing by on the Great West Road.

We're not sure when Smith’s moved out, but the factory has long since gone and the site has a large modern office block on it. Smith’s was absorbed into the Pepsico-owned Walkers group in the 1990s.

Hartley's, Bermondsey

William Pickles Hartley started his jam making business in Lancashire in 1871, and opened a number of factories in the North of England. Hartley’s opened its new London jam factory in Rothsay Street, Bermondsey in 1900. At its height the company employed over 2,000 people in the building. After being absorbed by the rival company of Chivers, all production was moved to Histon in Cambridgeshire around 1960.

Having lain idle and derelict for many years, large sections of the old factory were converted into apartments called The Jam Factory, in the early 2000s.

Peek Frean’s, Bermondsey

Photo by Mark Amies.

The name of Peek Frean has somewhat faded of late, but right up until the 1980s it was a very familiar and popular biscuit brand.

The huge factory in Bermondsey at one point claimed to be the biggest in the world, and the area was referred to as Biscuit Town. Peek Frean's was absorbed into the United Biscuits empire in the 1960s and baking stopped on the site in 1989. Fortunately the factory complex was saved, renamed The Biscuit Factory, and converted into business units and studios, housing a large number of creative and media businesses.

Sarson's, Bermondsey

Probably the best known vinegar brand in the UK started off in Shoreditch, and then moved to Tanner Street in Bermondsey. The brand, famous for its tear-drop shaped brown bottles, has changed hands a few times over the years. At one time it was owned by Nestlé, and now by the Japanese company of Mizkan.

Manufacturing in Bermondsey stopped during the 1990s and the remaining buildings were converted into apartments and offices in the 2000s.

Cerebos, Acton

Photo by Mark Amies.

"See how it runs" was the tag line for this salt brand, apparently French in origin. Cerebos was also responsible for the creation of gravy icon, Bisto.

The factory was based off Victoria Road, near the giant Park Royal industrial area. If it wasn’t for spotting a sign declaring the rather dull housing estate built on the site, we would never have found out that Cerebos was there at all. We're not sure when the factory went, but we guess some after 1968, when the company was purchased by the giant Rank, Hovis, McDougall’s.

Percy Dalton, Hackney

Percy Dalton’s was a big importer and processor of peanuts and, for some older readers, there was only one leading monkey nut — Percy Dalton’s Famous Monkies. The a factory was in Dace Road. The company left in the late 1990s, moving to a new purpose-built factory in Suffolk. Sadly the company was bought by the owner of KP snacks in 2013.

Clarnico, Hackney

The sweet making company of Clarke Nickolls & Coombs built its factory in Hackney Wick in 1879. It later started using the name Clarnico, joining up the three names together.

We now associate Clarnico with the mint creams that are still made, but the company did make a great variety of sweets. A larger factory was built nearby in 1955, and this survived until the development of the 2012 Olympic site. However a part of the old brick built factory (complete with the CLARNICO name) still exists, and can be seen from the London Overground.

Trebor, Upton Park

The sweet making concern of Robertson and Woodcock started in 1906 in Forest Gate, and moved to a purpose built, state of the art factory in nearby Upton Park in 1937. The trade name Trebor was adopted at around the same time, being a clever reversal of the owner's name. It may also be down to the fact (according to a local person we spoke to) that there was a house on the original site called Trebor.

After many successful years, the company was bought out by Cadbury in the 1980s, and not long after the factory was closed and production of sweets moved up to Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham.

The factory stands to this day, as apartments, and the name has been reapplied.

Despite the loss of some of these familiar names and brands, London does continue to be the home of food manufacture. One of the great survivors is United Biscuits, in Harlesden. The factory was built by McVitie and Price in 1902, and it is still home to the ever-popular digestive biscuit. As we move to the fringes of London, Slough boasts two very well known brands that have been with us for decades — Mars, and Horlicks, who are still churning out products. At one point in the 1950s, Horlicks employed near enough 800 people in Slough; these days the factory (built in 1906) employs less than 50. There are also a great many ready meal manufacturers and niche products companies. The difference is that these factories are not employing the same huge numbers of people, being reliant increasingly on automation.

We've tried to include the food companies that have left London, and whose brands remain on the supermarket shelves. We may have missed some out, and if so we do apologise. If you know of any, or maybe you or a relative worked in the factories mentioned, let us know.

By Mark Amies