They never planned an empire. They simply sought a cheaper way to provide local shops with sweets. As the twentieth century dawned across the hungry, rising boroughs of East London, four men pooled their skills and ventured their ambition upon a humble sugar-boiling business.
Set up in East London in 1906, Robertson & Woodcock was one of many tiny confectioners competing to sell boiled sugar sweets. The firm succeeded because it made good sweets – with popular lines such as Rock Allsorts and Cokernut Candy – and because it invested in ways to deliver those sweets, first through horse and cart and in 1915 with its first motorised van.
World War One was a hard test for the fledgling firm. Staff left to fight. The tax on sugar rose by 500%. For a time, it was even seen as unpatriotic to eat sweets. Nevertheless, Robertson & Woodcock survived the war and was well placed to prosper during the peace. Now it could set its sights beyond London.
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 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 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.
Like many such one-man businesses, he operated 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’s parents had already escaped the old East End by the time he was born in 1878. Like King and Woodcock, the family 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’ 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 a salesman, selling ‘oil and colour’.
The family lived 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.
Many people assume the founders reversed Robert Robertson’s name to create the word Trebor, but this was just coincidence; the name already existed on their first premises.
To keep costs down, King first planned to run the new business out of Woodcock’s workshop in Queens Road. But he hadn’t factored in Mrs Woodcock, who forbade her home to be used. This setback proved a blessing as the company could never have grown so fast in so small a property. Instead, Woodcock found premises on Shaftesbury Road in nearby Forest Gate.
A small building known as Trebor Works enclosed a stable-yard and was fronted by Trebor House, built in 1891, and a line of seven two-storey villas called Trebor Terrace. Company legend recounts that Sydney Herbert, when visiting the premises with Robertson, turned to his colleague and said, ‘That word on the front of the house, Bob, is your Christian name and part of your surname spelt backwards.’
Backwards spelling was a common feature of East End slang. But this named link between premises and founder member was co-incidence. The name Trebor actually came from the site’s builder, a Robert Cooper, who went on to name his grandson R. Trebor Cooper. That said, the co-incidence may have helped seal the deal. Eleven years later the name was adopted as the company trademark.
The initial rent for Trebor Works was one pound a week, though – their eyes on costs – the partners sub-let space for five shillings a week to an engineer making machines for trimming wall-paper. This arrangement did not last long. ‘He objected to paying rent so we had to clear him out sharpish,’ recalled Robertson; they found a better tenant in a local coal supplier who needed space to stable his horse.
The name Trebor remains on the site to this day. The factory has been converted into flats but upon their front wall still proudly stands the slogan TREBOR QUALITY SWEETS.
A dapper young gent, memorably monocled with cane and bowler hat, Sir Kreemy Knut first appeared in 1919 as the face of Sharps Toffee.
The word ‘knut’, meaning a dedicated follower of fashion, appeared around the time of the first world war, and was gloriously referenced in a 1914 music hall song by Arthur Wimperis: ‘I’m Gilbert the Filbert, the knut with a K, the pride of Piccadilly, a blasé roué.’
After the second world war, Sharps brought him back. As Nicholas Whittaker recounts in his book Sweet Talk: ‘Sharps resurrected Sir Kreemy Knut, pressing him into service as a mascot for their toffee – as a live person. Not, alas, a dotty member of the aristocracy, but a rep named Nobby Clarke, co-opted from the sales force. Arriving by Rolls, Sir Kreemy was a regular visitor at shows and seaside resorts during the Fifties. A pocket hero at only 5ft, he was a great favourite with the children.’ He also appeared as a marionette with the Sharps Toffees Puppet Theatre. Forty years later in 1994 Monkhill Confectionery reintroduced the character to relaunch their Sharps of York range. Today Sir Kreemy Knut exists mostly as a highly collectible metal figurine.