In a previous life I was involved in the processing and sale of sugar and associated products and so I’m always interested in sticky subjects.
Walking down Cannon Street I came across a rather austere looking pub called “The Sugarloaf” which piqued my interest. Unfortunately for me and my thirst they were shut at the time (sadly this is the norm with a lot of city pubs post Covid).
Taking my thirst with me to a nearby hostelry who had opened more in hope than expectation I settled down with a pint of my preferred and started to look into the name of the pub.
A big clue was to be found in the rather discreet pub signs at each end of the building which show cones of roughly processed sugar knowns as Sugarloaves. Not being able to access the pub I wasn’t aware of any other clues that there might be, so had to dig into the history of Cannon Street itself. The name first appears as Candelwrichstrete ( Candlewright Street ) in 1190 and was the area known for the production of candles, no mention of sugar.
Scanning trade directories pertaining to sugar refining I was astounded to find the numbers that I did. Firstly looking at Queens Street (Now Queen Street Place) opposite the pub I found the earliest record from 1707 and over the next one hundred and fifty years there were 43 instances of Sugar refiners offices or premises in the street. In fact most streets within close proximity to the pub had many such companies. The map below shows the surrounding area with the blue dot representing the pub.
So what happened to this hive of industry, as very little evidence of it survives today?
The sugar refining industry in England began in the 1540s when Cornelius Bussine came to London from Belgium armed with secrets to the art of sugar refining and established the first sugarhouse within the City of London. A few other companies followed suit, however it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that the business of sugar refining started to be more prevalent in London. By the mid 18th century there were said to be eighty sugarhouses in the capital. Despite the noxious nature of the refining process and the regular occurrence of the buildings to catch fire, most of these London refineries were located in the area shown on the map. As for the demise of these locations I have read a few articles siting the construction of the nearby Southwark Bridge and the redevelopment of the approaches as the reason. This is a possibility as far as the sugarhouses in Queen Street are concerned as it forms the main approach to the bridge, but by 1819 and it’s opening many of the companies had moved and the remaining ones would have been Company offices only.
The reason for their disappearance was the opening of the West India Docks to the east of the City in 1802 which lured the sugar trade away and then in 1807 a ruling by the Court of Common Council which forbade sugarhouses to remain within the City due to all the hazards and nuisance involved with the process.
So the Sugarhouses moved to the docks where it was easier to get their cargo unloaded, a shorter distance to bring the sugar to the refineries and free (for a time) from the constraints around the hazards and pollution they had encountered in the city. And there they stayed until the balance between imported unrefined sugar and the growing and processing of sugar beet in the UK saw many of the small companies fold or become part of larger refining companies who situated their processing plants around the beet fields of East Anglia.