The four founders

A wholesale grocer with an idea to make sweets, a sugar boiler skilled but short of money, a retail grocer unhappy in his job – and a confectionery salesman, ambitious and alert.

Thomas King

wholesale grocer

Thomas Henry King was born in 1869 near Limehouse in the old East End of London. His father worked as an unskilled labourer, a vulnerable job in a worsening economy, so the family often moved lodgings. By the start of the twentieth century, now in his thirties, King had moved up in the world, taking his wife and three daughters to the more comfortable suburb of Leytonstone. There at 11 Percy Road they lived a steady, church-going middle class life. Though he described himself as a wholesale grocer, King also worked as a travelling salesman for margarine – the new wonder product from Holland – and continued to set up businesses throughout his life. It’s fair to assume it was King’s entrepreneurial nature, rather than his Edwardian respectability, that attracted Woodcock. This ability to spot opportunities and gather teams set the new business on course.

William Woodcock

sugar boiler

William Baglin Woodcock came from the old East End. He was born in 1852 within one of the rougher parts of Limehouse. His father was a house painter. By his late twenties Woodcock worked as a sugar boiler operating, like many such one-man businesses, from a workshop within the home. It was a precarious business: coke fires were unreliable and one mistake could ruin a whole batch, so wasting the money invested in sugar and glucose. Woodcock lived hand to mouth, a boisterous, hard-drinking fellow, whose first wife Elizabeth wrapped the sweets between delivering seven children. Elizabeth died in 1900. Now in his late forties with most of his children grown up, Woodcock married again and was able to move up in the world, to the new suburb of West Ham and then to Plaistow, where he set up work and home at 175 Queen’s Road. But life remained hard. His second wife died and he married again, at 52, to a German widow from Islington. A new tax on imported sugar ate into his tiny margins. By 1905 he could no longer afford to buy raw materials. If he was to continue making sweets, he needed a backer to buy his sugar and then share in the profits. At this point he met King.

Robert Robertson

retail grocer

Robert Robertson’s parents had already escaped the old East End by the time he was born in 1878. Like King and Woodcock, they migrated to the new East End, in their case West Ham. Robertson’s father died when he was six, but left his wife enough money to open a grocer’s shop in Rendel Road, Canning Town. Young Robertson got a far better education than Woodcock or King and by 1901, aged 22, he was helping his mother run the grocery. Two years later he married the daughter of a confectioner – interesting, given his subsequent career – and in 1906 they moved to 66 Boundary Road, Plaistow, buying the house ‘on the Building Society never never method’. As an only son, Robertson was probably expected to take over the family grocer’s, but his ambitions aimed far higher than a single shop.

Sydney Herbert Marks

sweet salesman

Sydney Marks’ father was the son of a rope merchant from Dorchester in Dorset; the family name Marks was an old west country surname. Sydney’s father was selling ‘oil and colour’ and living with his family in Peckham, South London, when Sydney H Marks was born in 1874. Within a few years the family was living in the old East End, in Stepney, and Sydney H Marks went on to become a salesman himself. He married Margaret Scruton and lived at 62 Antill Road, Bethnal Green. Their son Sydney John was born in 1900 and Alex in 1903. By now Sydney H Marks was a top salesman, soon to be ‘Chief Traveller’, for the established confectionery manufacturer Chappel in Bow. This young ambitious man decided, like each of the other founding families, to leave the old East End. He took his young family to 23 Lytton Road, Leytonstone, a leafy suburb not far from Epping Forest. From there he set out each day on his sales trips and before long, like the other future partners, he came to the attention of King.