The story starts in 1907 when four bold men set up a small venture to boil sugar and make sweets. They lived in an economic wild west, a young city which had recently arisen on the marshland across the River Lee from the old East End of London. This new East End, around the boroughs of East Ham and West Ham, was ripe turf for plucky venturers. The young firm of Robertson and Woodcock pulled ahead of its many competitors by doing clever things: buying machinery from Germany, ditching horses for motorised delivery vans and grabbing the opportunities of wartime. It expanded constantly, first by building more factory then by acquiring other firms. By the late forties it was a major confectioner. By the seventies it was Britain’s biggest maker of sugar sweets. The family of one of its founders, Sydney Marks, steered most of this growth and controlled the firm. Then finally, in 1989, the Marks family sold Trebor to Cadbury. Though the brandname survived, the firm was finished.
As a company, Trebor has good tales to tell. How a mighty business emerges from tiny, uncertain beginnings. How a few ambitious people can shape the lives of many thousands. How its progress, like most progress, is haphazard, leaning on luck as much as guile or industry. How one family manages to keep its business private, and virtuous, even as it totters under the challenges of growth, competition and inner discord.
Beyond these personal stories, Trebor is also a story of Britain’s industrial past. Its founders rode a wave of new technology, explored fresh ways of working, and pioneered new sales techniques and export activities. They coped with two world wars. They coped with the ensuing peace. They coped with times of plenty and times of poverty. And when it became hard for a private company to compete with global competitors, they sold the business, as decently as they could and much more decently than they needed.
Copyright Muddler Books 2013