1906-1920

1921-1945

1946-1957

1958-1969

1970-1979

1980-1989

1921-

HISTORY

1906-1920

1921-1945

1946-1957

1958-1969

1970-1979

1980-1989

1921-

1921-1945

Going national

These were crucial decades. New machinery enabled the firm to sell good sweets at lower prices. A fresh generation, in the form of Marks’ son Sydney, set its sights beyond London and the southeast. Introduced in 1921, the Trebor brand soon became a name nationwide.

By the 1920s the firm had lost William Woodcock, the master sugar boiler around whom Thomas King had first fashioned the business. He retired, aged 66 and exhausted. But shortly after, the firm gained the main architect of its future success. Though barely out of his teens, Sydney John Marks was persuaded by his father to spend time at the firm before college. He stayed for 53 years, retiring in 1971.

The 1930s saw the arrival of iconic products such as Refreshers and Extra Strong Mints, a workforce now in its hundreds and the first foreign sales. By 1938 the works at Forest Gate had grown from a small corner plot to a 580,000 square foot factory along Katherine Road. As with 1914-18, the firm proved adept at seizing opportunities during wartime after 1939, from building a new factory in Chesterfield to serve customers nationwide, managing the sugar ration and winning special contracts from the War Office.

Comic copper, cheeky robber and some tasty alliteration - a recipe for selling sweets for much of the 20th century.

Mr Sydney goes to Germany

Having rejected engineering college to join his dad’s firm, Sydney J Marks put his technical interests to practical use.

Trebor introduced glass jars during the mid 1920s to replace the old seven pound tin. This 1927 trade ad extolled their benefits.

In 1924 Sydney travelled to Germany to spend several months studying how German sweet firms used modern machinery. But he nearly didn’t get there. As the company magazine later reported, ‘There happened to be a pilot strike, which meant the director of the aviation company was piloting. On the second lap, from Brussels to Cologne, he joined the pilot with the intention of navigating. Greatly to his and the pilot’s horror, the only map in the cockpit turned out to be a Michelin road map. This is possibly the only time a pilot has been directed to “turn right at the next crossroads.”’

Once safely arrived, he stayed with a family called Hiller and worked in their confectionery factory. Not surprisingly so soon after the war, there was some ill-feeling towards the English.  As John Marks explains, ‘When grandfather was working on the hot sugar line, they would steal his gloves. But he wouldn’t stop, even though his hands got badly burned and he got sugar poisoning.’ This didn’t prevent the Marks and Hiller families starting a friendship that spanned generations. John stayed with them during his National Service in 1949 and said, ‘It was at the Hillers that my brother and I learnt to make Trebor mints.’

At the Henkel factory in Viersen, Sydney discovered the new Hansella forming machinery, while at Krefeld he saw the latest vacuum-cooking equipment. On returning to Forest Gate, he persuaded the board to re-organise the factory around these new machines. With vacuum-cooking, the firm could now make boiled sweets much faster and more cheaply, while the Hansella machines allowed production of sweets such as satins, which had seldom previously appeared in London and the Southeast. These enhancements, helped by lower sugar prices, enabled the company to produce high quality boilings at low cost – perfect for expanding market share during the 1920s.

A model of the first continuous high boiled sugar sweet forming machine, made by Albert Henkel, which reached Forest Gate in 1924. This Hansella Plastic Machine formed sweets from a rope of ‘plastic’ or malleable sugar fed into it. Such high tech machinery replaced the hand-turned machines used previously.

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.

Chesterfield factory

Seeking a safer place to make sweets, far from Nazi bombs, the firm found an old brewery in Derbyshire. Created within the chaos of wartime, the Chesterfield factory was to become one of Trebor’s most important operations.

The new Chesterfield factory backed onto green fields, but was handily next to a railway station and goods yard.

The Chesterfield authorities were keen to welcome Robertson & Woodcock as potential investors. The chairman of the town’s development committee had already written in February 1939 to extol the virtues of setting up a factory there. He claimed that 16 million people lived within 70 miles of Chesterfield, a greater population than within the same radius of Charing Cross in London.

Sat at the centre of England, the town not only lay within the northern industrial area, but was also well placed to serve all major British cities from one spot. Both the London Midland and the London & North Eastern Railways served the town, a crucial factor in these pre-motorway times. The town clerk, a Mr Clegg, was a great help in setting up the operation. He even managed to find some local bedsteads to join those brought up from bomb-struck London. These served to hold together the new concrete put into the building.

In 1941 most of the firm’s key staff were on army or territorial service, while the main factory at Forest Gate in London was working flat out. Who then could go to Chesterfield and set up the new plant? The directors chose Hilda Clark, who had joined the firm as a teenager and worked her way up to manage the sample room. It was a wise decision. Clark ran the Chesterfield factory successfully until she retired in 1963. But, as boss Sydney Marks recalls below, her first experience there was not easy.

Chesterfield: the new factory backed onto green fields, but was handily next door to a railway station and goods yard. The firm soon made sure that everyone for miles around could see it was a Trebor factory.

Sydney J Marks remembers

‘It was Saturday 7th April 1941 that Mr Bonner driving an 8hp Standard, with Miss Clark, a tea chest filled with stationery, a typewriter perched on top, suitcases, hat boxes etc, called to collect me from an army course in Watford. On the way Mr Bonner told us of the tremendous difficulties he had had to get the ruins of the old Chesterfield Brewery waterproof and habitable. The three of us had dinner in this room, and Mr Bonner and I spent the rest of the evening trying to cheer up Miss Clark. We were living in rather trying times, she was leaving home for the first time, the job looked a bit much when she was closer up to it and she didn’t know a soul in the place. On Sunday morning we took the tea chest over to the warehouse, helped her unpack it, showed her round the building, such as it was, a patched-up ruin; she was horrified. We showed her where to find the Labour Exchange, as it was called in those days, told her the job was all hers, wished her good luck and left her to it.’

The initial 2oz weekly ration was equivalent to just one Mars Bar. This worked in Trebor’s favour as you could get a lot more pleasure from a coupon’s worth of boiled sweets than a chocolate bar that disappeared in a few mouthfuls.

The bombs reach Forest Gate​

In spring 1944 the luck ran out.

The Forest Gate bomb scene shortly after the 1944 attack. Aside from repairing damage, it was crucial to secure the ruined factory against looters seeking sugar.

For four years the factory at Forest Gate had avoided the horrors dropped upon East London by the German bombers, but now it received a direct hit. Luckily, few people were killed and the main factory was relatively untouched, but the severity of the damage was a serious shock to operations.

As the war progressed, the area around the factory at Forest Gate was one of few places in the East End to escape enemy air-raids. But the night of Tuesday 18th April 1944 brought the nightmare of a direct hit. As the factory caretaker Mr G Taylor reported, ‘The building was severely damaged because the bomb landed in the warehouse and set fire to a great quantity of tea chests and tins of dry lemonade. A row of shops and houses across the way was destroyed by blast and through the heavy shutters of the garage being thrown across the street. Several people in the houses were killed, including one of the firm’s stokers.

But there was one miracle. For most of the war the firm had thrown open the basement to the public, and about two hundred of them were sheltering there that night. Imagine my relief on entering the basement to find not one casualty amongst them.’ The board minutes reported, ‘The office block was severely damaged by blast and fire and much valuable equipment was lost. As the offices were untenable, the staff and such equipment as was saved had to be moved to the Handwrapping Room in the Factory.

Fortunately the Main Factory (apart from blast, damage to glass etc) was practically unhurt, and as soon as the water connections were reconnected, production was started up immediately after only one week’s delay.’

On the same night Robert Robertson’s home was severely damaged, so he and his wife moved up to Chesterfield. At one point during the war Sydney John also moved his family up to stay at the Portland Hotel in Chesterfield.

Fred Izard, who spent forty years in general maintenance at Forest Gate, later recalled cleaning up after the bomb. ‘Number one boiling room suffered the most. We had to plug all the holes made by bomb splinters in the steam pipes and all the factory girls got to work chipping away the remaining glass fragments in the windows. It was one of the most wonderful sights – dozens of girls working away with little hammers and chisels. They cleared all the glass in two days.’ One of the worst jobs was clearing shattered glass out of the big glucose tanks. Fred volunteered. ‘They rigged up a bosun’s chair over the tank. I put on a swimming costume and was lowered into the tank. Then I cut away the top layer of semi-solid glucose onto which the glass had fallen and put it into a bucket.’ Several hours of sweaty work later, Fred was hauled out of the tank and had glucose removed from his bleeding legs.

At the Henkel factory in Viersen, Sydney discovered the new Hansella forming machinery, while at Krefeld he saw the latest vacuum-cooking equipment. On returning to Forest Gate, he persuaded the board to re-organise the factory around these new machines. With vacuum-cooking, the firm could now make boiled sweets much faster and more cheaply, while the Hansella machines allowed production of sweets such as satins, which had seldom previously appeared in London and the Southeast. These enhancements, helped by lower sugar prices, enabled the company to produce high quality boilings at low cost – perfect for expanding market share during the 1920s.

A model of the first continuous high boiled sugar sweet forming machine, made by Albert Henkel, which reached Forest Gate in 1924. This Hansella Plastic Machine formed sweets from a rope of ‘plastic’ or malleable sugar fed into it. Such high tech machinery replaced the hand-turned machines used previously.

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.

Discover more

Buy the book to learn about the genius of chief confectioner David Plaistowe, how Trebor pioneered mint sweets using pill-making tricks – and how the ‘Burma Baggers’ made special Vitamin C-rich sweets for troops fighting in Burma.

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