Sweet success turned sour for Hackney Wick confectionary company

Today, Hackney Wick is dominated by modern, Olympic Park developments. But, scratch the surface and the area’s sweet history isn’t far beneath.

Where the International Broadcast Centre and the Basketball Arena now stand was once the site of Britain’s largest sweet manufacturer, Clarnico.

Now the only clue remaining to this part of Hackney Wick’s past is the naming of one Olympic neighbourhood Sweetwater.

But a new book, The Trebor Story, preserves the area’s sweet-making heritage through the stories of the manufacturers.

Author Matthew Crampton, nephew of former Trebor owner John Marks, said he was inspired to write the book to honour the family’s achievement after they sold the business to Cadbury’s in 1999.

“I’m not a Marks but I’m very close to them so I was in a good position to know about the business but also have the distance to talk about it.

“It’s a huge thing when a family sells a firm. They made money for it but they didn’t do it for the money. Sadly by 1989 it was almost impossible for a very large family firm to compete against the big corporations.”

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But back in 1890 Hackney Wick’s sweet-making industry was thriving. Clarnico, on Carpenter’s Road, was the largest sweet manufacturer in the country and employed 1,500 people.

Ideally situated for deliveries of sugar on the banks of the River Lee navigation channel, it was famous for mint creams as well as producing liquorice Chinese Pigtails, coconut-based Toasted Haddocks and the eclectically-named Pig’s Head & Carrots and Dolly’s Musical Bottles.

Founded in 1872 as Clarke, Nickolls & Coombs, its main product was candied peel though it soon diversified into making marmalade, jam and then sweets. By the 1900s the company had its own fire brigade, ambulance, a brass band that toured abroad and a 100-strong choral society.

“For many people their work provided a lot of social life,” said Mr Crampton. “The social aspect of factory life was crucial. I think the relationship with your employer in those days was much better than it would be for most of us today. If it was a benign employer in those days, you would be very thankful because there was a lot of exploitation.

“I don’t want to romanticise it but I am sure they were seen as a very virtuous employer and in return people felt deeply allied to them in a good sense.”

Though successful at first, the 20th century was “generally a steady decline” for Clarnico, said Mr Crampton.

“It was a tough business. The sugar price was very volatile. In the first two decades of the 20th century, it veered between eight shillings a hundredweight and 135 shillings.”

Then, in October 1940 the factory was hit by German bombers; a setback from which it never truly recovered though the War Damage Commission paid for it to be rebuilt.

“Sadly it was out of date the moment they built it,” Mr Crampton explained. “It was on several floors in the old style but the forklift truck had transformed how factories worked.”

He said that war rationing took its toll as sugar prices rocketed but Clarnico’s Forest Gate-based competitor Trebor had an ingenious solution.

They paid a scientist to dissolve sugar in water and then imported it, boiled it to evaporate the water to leave sugar.

“By the late 1960s Clarnico was very down at heel. In the end I think the problem was it was a very traditional firm and didn’t move with the times.”

It was bought out by Trebor in 1969 for �900,000 which stopped making all of its products expect the most famous. Today Clarnico exists as CNC, a property firm.

Until it was knocked down five years ago for the Olympics, the factory building could be seen from the Overground train near Hackney Wick.

After the Games, the area will be renamed Sweetwater, in recognition of its sugary heritage.

Mr Crampton is keen to hear from anyone who used to work at Clarnico or remembers the firm. Visit the website at http://thetreborstory.com/index.html

The Trebor Story is published by Muddler Books. It is available on Amazon and can be ordered from any UK bookshop. RRP �18.