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'At a Sugar Baking'

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Copper sugar boiling pan. Featured in The Useful Arts and Manufactures of Great Britain 1846.

REGARDING the mild and innocent-looking sugar-lump, so pure, and bright, and sparkling, it is by no means easy to believe how its production can involve any prodigious amount of hard labour and man-sweating; so it is, however. In the neighbourhood of Back-church-Lane, in Whitechapel, there are dozens of these baking, or, as they would more properly be called, boiling-houses... as soon as I put my head in at the door of the bakery, the nature of the manufacture in progress was at once made apparent to my senses. Just as unmeasured indulgence in sugar is nauseating to the palate, so was the reek of it palling to one's sense of smell. You could taste its clammy sweetness on the lips just as the salt of the sea may be so discovered while the ocean is yet a mile away.

It was a sort of handy outer warehouse, that to which we were first introduced - a low-roofed, dismal place with grated windows, and here and there a foggy little gas-jet burning blear-eyed against the wall. The walls were black - not painted black. As far as one might judge they were bare brick, but "basted" unceasingly by the luscious steam that enveloped the place, they had become coated with a thick preserve of sugar and grime. The floor was black, and all corrugated and hard, like a public thoroughfare after a shower and then a frost. The roof was black, and pendent from the great supporting posts and balks of timber were sooty, glistening icicles and exudings like those of the gum-tree.

Sugar, sugar everywhere, but not a bit to eat.

At the extremity of this gloomy cave, and glowing duskily at the mouth of a narrow passage, was dimly visible a gigantic globular structure in bright copper, and hovering about it a creature with bare arms and chest all grizzly-haired, with a long bright rod of iron in his grasp, which incessantly he waved about the mighty caldron; this was doubtless the Sugar Ogre himself, in waiting for juvenile delinquents.

740664 Fairres Sugar Refinery London 1841

Filling moulds with hot viscid sugar. Featured in The Penny Magazine supplement April 1841.

Being in no dread of the ogre, however, we approached him, and discovered him to be a very civil fellow, quietly minding his business. The copper structure above-mentioned proved to be nothing more necromantic than a gigantic pan, in which were, gently seething, ten tons of liquid sugar. The vessel was all covered in, and looked as compact as an orange, the shape of which fruit it resembles ; but in the side of it there was a small disc of glass, and looking through it one could get a glimpse of the bubbling straw-coloured mass within. The iron rod the guardian of the pan called a "key," if I rightly remember, and his sole occupation appeared to consist in dipping it in at a little hole in the vessel's side, and withdrawing it again, along with a little blob of melted sugar, which he took between his finger and thumb, and drew out and examined by the light of the gas.

From this we were conducted to the factory where the manufacturers of moist sugar were working. It may appear strange to the reader that the term "manufacture" should be applied to what every schoolboy knows to be a natural production, but it is by no means an incorrect term notwithstanding. Some sugars are prepared at the place of their growth, and sent here ready for immediate use; but the great bulk of it is exported in a very rough state, dense, strong smelling, and of the colour of mahogany, and before it can be brought to assume the bright and inviting appearance it bears when ticketed in the grocer's window it has to undergo much torture by fire and machinery.

The heat was sickening and oppressive, and an unctuous steam, thick and foggy, filled the cellar from end to end. Presently, however, when one's eyes grew some what accustomed to the gloom, a spectacle of a novel and startling character was presented. Seeming, as it were, to grow out of the dense haze, busy figures appeared. Black and white figures running about, and flitting and skipping in the most extraordinary manner. Watching the figures, however, they were presently discovered to be men in a condition of at least semi-nudity. On one side of the cellar were two gigantic pans of sugar, melted and hot and smoking, and out of these the labourers, naked but for a covering for their legs and some sort of apron, and their bodies bathed in sweat, and their fair hair reeking and hanging lank about their wan faces, scooped up the liquor into the pails, that would contain half a hundred weight, and hurried across the cellar to deposit it in vast revolving basins set in motion at lightning speed by machinery, and where the brown sugar was bleached and dried, to be presently shovelled out and added to the great heap that reached high nearly as the ceiling.

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Wrapping sugar-loaves in blue paper. Featured in The Penny Magazine supplement April 1841.

Out of this cellar and through others similarly occupied, and then upstairs, and here to be sure was another strange sight. This was a branch of the loaf-sugar department. It was an extensive floor, a hundred feet by seventy probably, and covering the whole of it were packed loaf-sugar moulds as closely as the cells of a beehive are arranged. The moulds were stuck point downwards into earthen jars that at once upheld them and served as receptacles for their "drainings." I do not understand the process that was then operating, but what was to be seen was a dozen men of the semi-naked sort like those below crawling like frogs over the surface of the sugar moulds, getting foot and hand hold on the edges, some with a sort of engine hose squirting a transparent liquor into the moulds, and others stirring the thick stuff constantly in the latter with their hands. Upstairs, again, up crystallized stairs, with "toffee" for a handrail and hardbake to knock your head against if you were not aware of impending beams, to a room likewise full of moulds (they turn out twelve thousand loaves a week at this establishment), but where the greatest novelty to the eye of the uninitiated are many heaps of what in appearance is the exact counterpart of mud off the public roads. It was not so, however, as the guide explained it; it was merely the scrapings of beams and the shovellings of floors, and gangways, and workshops, and it was intended for filtration through charcoal, after which it would be deemed worthy to take its place as a marketable commodity.

Upstairs again - the place seemed to grow hotter the higher we climbed; and here was the "filling" department the place where the moulds were filled with liquid sugar, that flowed out of great taps. This, it seemed, was the hardest part of the sugar-baking business. Like every hand in the establishment, with the exception of the foreman and overlookers, the labourers here were midway nude (the disgusting practice is evidently one of habit rather than necessity amongst German sugar-bakers; we saw in one room - a comparatively cool room - half a dozen fellows squatted down engaged in the not over-heating occupation of painting moulds, but they were as naked as the rest). The moulds, as we were informed, when filled with the melted sugar, weigh a hundred-weight and a half, and the liquid, as it runs, is hot. The task to be performed is to fill the moulds at the taps and carry them across the great warehouses and arrange them close together for "setting," each in its own jar in the manner already described. A gang of a dozen or so are so employed, and as the work is piece work, hurry is the order of the day. But hurry is not easy with a hundredweight and a half of sloppy hot sugar to carry in an inconvenient vessel, and the result is that as they shuffle off in line with their loads there are many lurches, and stumblings, and elbowings, and the contents of the moulds hugged to the chest slop over the naked bodies of the carriers, and then harden and crust to a coat, doubtless as inconvenient to wear as it is disgusting to behold.


Elevation of a Sugar Refinery from "Essay on Sugar, and general treatise on sugar refining, as practised in the Clyde Refineries : Embracing the Latest Improvements" by Robert Niccol 1864. Printed by A. Mackenzie & Co 1864.