Trebor’s hard centre in a sugar coating

By Lucy Kellaway

August 15, 2012

Whenever as a child I came into a bit of money I would nip out to the sweet shop at the end of our road and blow it on a tube of Refreshers and, if there was any change, a couple of Black Jacks.

Even writing these words lifts my spirits. Few pleasures in life have proved as reliable as put­ting a pale, fizzy Refresher on my tongue or sinking my teeth into the dark, slightly sticky oblong of a Black Jack, which left my mouth inky black for hours afterwards.

Unlike a packet of sweets, a business book usually holds no such promise of pleasure. But The Trebor Story is different. On the front cover is a picture of an art deco factory in east London, above which is written: “Back to a time when sweets were fun and a family firm could lead an industry.”

Inside are treats for all – nostalgia freaks, social historians, machinery nerds, and anyone interested in marketing, manufacturing or in the history of British tooth decay.

This is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for grown-ups. Just as Willy Wonka put golden tickets in his chocolate, Trebor put red strips in the wrappings of Farthing Dips, which entitled their owner to a quarter of a pound of sweets. The Dips with the red strips were distributed separately so the grocer could choose who got the prizes.

The Trebor story starts in 1907 when William Woodcock, as fine a sugar boiler as London’s East End had to offer, got tog­ether with two grocers and a salesman called Sydney Marks. The confectionery industry was a fragmented affair, with sweets made by hand in thousands of back rooms across London. From such humble beginnings, Trebor showed the way with mechanisation. The board minutes of 1915 show how it took the bold step of replacing horses by buying Overland Cars instead; a few years later it invested in a state of the art “No 5 Baker Perkins Continuous Cooker and Melting Pan”, which meant no more lethal boiling sugar in copper vats.

The story is told in words and pictures – of women in turbans in factories, of riotous Christmas parties, of big machines, but above all of sweets.

It takes you back to a time of paternalistic management. At Trebor, the autocratic bosses had no truck with trade unions, as they believed they got between them and their precious workers. Instead, early HR managers al­lowed the girls to work in bikinis under their overalls in summer in order to stay cooler in the boiling factories. Night shifts were banned as managers considered them bad for family life. Ian Marks, the founder’s grandson, wept as he closed the factory in Forest Gate (now converted into swanky flats). And when the business was sold in 1989 to Cadbury for £146m, 15 per cent of the sale price was handed out to the workers.

My favourite character in the story is Hilda Clark, an early breaker of the glass ceiling, who in 1941 was promoted to run the new Chesterfield factory because of a shortage of men. She moved into Room 23 of the Station Hotel in Chesterfield, where she lived until her retirement in 1963. At a farewell dinner at the Savoy Hotel she is pictured with formidable bosom and a pair of spectacles that Edna Everage might have coveted, looking bleak as she says goodbye to the company to which she gave her life.

Just like its Bitter Lemons, the Trebor story has a slightly sour aftertaste. The founders are long dead, and their company, which at its peak sold more than 300 sorts of sweets, is a mere brand owned by Kraft. Loyalty is gone, the book complains. Everything is now about money.

Actually, loyalty is not quite dead. It lives on in the author, Matthew Crampton, nephew of John Marks, the grandson of Sydney Marks. He has made no attempt to write an impartial book, but instead has produced a shameless corporate hagiography.

Yet with its delightful detail and priceless pictures, it is no less sweet for that.

The writer is an FT columnist