Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Sugar Baking

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[-264-]

ATA SUGAR BAKING.

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. Accidentally it came to my knowledge just recently that the manufacture of the saccharine luxury - a branch of trade of considerable importance, and providing with employment several thousand men at the east-end of London alone - was looked on, on account of its excessive hardship, with such dislike, that even that pattern of patient drudgery, the Irish labourer, could by no sort of persuasion be brought to undertake it. I was credibly informed that the bribe offered had taken even the seductive form of beer unlimited; but that still, marvellous to relate, the Emerald Islander remained obdurate, and the sugar-bakers were compelled, as has ever been the case, to resort for "hands" to the German labour market. There appeared to me something so unaccountable about this last feature of the business, that I resolved to go and find how it came about.
    I cannot give the name of the bakery selected, as I have clean forgotten it ; but the reader will be at no loss on that score, since I was given to understand that one system regulates the business, and that one bakery is as much like another as peas of a pod. It is by no means a hole-and-corner business, as one might be led to imagine it was, judging from the [-265-] rare occasions of its being brought under public notice. 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. They are buildings enormous in size, usually occupying the whole of a street side, and so high that the massy "mats" of sugar craned up to the topmost story, and there dangling from its chains, looks no bigger or more substantial than a fishmonger's rush-basket that the wind might blow away.
    A kind-hearted German missionary was my companion, and 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." Exactly the Bogeydom to which should be consigned for a term, according to the degree of their iniquity, the owners of larcenous little fingers so persistent in their attacks on the domestic sugar-basin. At the extremity of this gloomy cave, and glowing duskily at the [-266-] 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.
    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.
    It was not a nice-looking place that to which we were intro-[-267-]duced. It was not a pleasant way that led to it, inasmuch as it was in an underground direction, and through passages gloomy, low-roofed, and narrow, and lit with gas just enough to show all manner of wriggling and revolving machinery overhead and threading the walls. Down we went, however - our conductor kindly making the passage safer by illumining it by means of an old newspaper hastily twisted into a torch, and there we were in full view of the makers of moist sugar.
    The fullest possible view under the circumstances it should have been written, for a clear view was impossible ; which, as we presently discovered, was a matter to be thankful for rather than to regret ; honors bursting suddenly on the unprepared vision have a bad effect sometimes. The place was nothing but a vast cellar underground, and lit from without only by a window here and there high up where the street pavement was, and as closely grated as though it were an object to keep flies out of the factory. 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 somewhat 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 tip the liquor into the pails, that would contain half a hundredweight, 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 [-269-] shovelled out and added to the great heap that reached high nearly as the ceiling. Regarding the close, reeking, stifling place, the disgusting atmosphere, the incessant toil (machinery will not wait), and the disgusting conditions of it, the validity of the Irish labourer's objection became manifest better a hod of bricks with a sixty-round ladder to mount out in the open air than such mean, enervating drudgery as this. "They'd be dead without their beer unlimited," remarked our guide. "And does it not hurt them?" "Well, it helps to knock them off, I dare say." So that it amounts to the same thing, only that the unlimited beer-drinker of the sugar bakery has the advantage of lengthy dying.
    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. "I should imagine that you were not much addicted to the consumption of sugar," I remarked to our guide. "I can never taste it ; it has no taste, no more has nothing for me," he answered and one could easily understand how that happened.
    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 rnoulds (they turn out twelve thousand loaves a week at this [-269-] 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 cozen 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 hundredweigbt and a half, and the liquid, as it ruins, 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.
  
[-270-] No wonder that the poor wretches so employed drink much beer. With no more exertion than leisurely walking about demanded, before I had been in the factory a quarter of an hour, I was drenched with perspiration, and was not a moment free from a trickling down my face. To be sure, since indulgence in beer assists the sugar-baker in his work it is commendable in the master to provide it. But, as I am informed, it is in his power to carry his kindness a step further - he can abridge the sugar-baker's labouring hours. The poor fellow's wages are quite as low as those of the Irish hodman, but, unlike the last-mentioned, he knows nothing of a nine hours law. The sugar-baker works all hours. What he calls a fair day's work is twelve hours, but it is not rare for him to be kept at the slavery above described for sixteen, and even  eighteen hours - from three o'clock in the morning till eight at night - without a penny of overtime or extra pay. He cannot help himself. If he leaves one factory he must enter another exactly similar. It is a sight, I am told, to meet a group of the poor fellows just hurried from their beds, and making haste to their work at three o'clock of a winters morning. Unrested, shivering, pale, and agueish, they are eager to get back to the heat and the beer; they need "warming up," as they say, and that object effected, they manage to potter through the weary day somehow, and then they shuffle home to bed, and so on between Sunday and Saturday. The only time, my good missionary friend informed me - and he should know - when you can catch sight of a sugar-baker neither abed nor at work is on a Sunday afternoon, when he enjoys the luxury of idleness and a pipe at his own door or window.

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874