SOAP and SYRUP
The paper describes the history of the riverside site on Blackwall Lane now occupied by the developer, Cathedral - but previously the Syrol/Tate and Lyle/Amylum/Tunnel Glucose works
As often, the beginning is elsewhere. The Wilkie and Soames soap works began operations in Wheler Street, Spitalfields in 1808. I have found nothing more about them until 1821 when Mr Wilkie died. His name lived on in the company for another 109 years. In 1846 James and Louis Soames are recorded as holding the lease of 65 Wheler Street for a soap works, counting house, stabling etc, and James Soames owned or held leases on three other scattered premises in Spitalfields. Two were sub-let to a tailor and a greengrocer, one was noted as having stables, warehousing, sheds etc adjoining, and no subtenant. By 1853 Arthur Soames has joined the family partnership and Louis Soames is recorded as leaving it in that year. Shortly after, the company moved to the Greenwich site. Probable reasons for the move were the need for expansion and perhaps also the extremely unhealthy conditions of Wheler Street. The one certain reason was the imminent destruction of their premises as the north end of Commercial Street was cut through Spitalfields.
I have found no record of the materials used by Soames (though a Soames brother, Henry Aldwin, was a Russia merchant and may have imported Russian tallow) or which process, but I do have some knowledge of the products. An advertisement makes it clear that their soaps were generally of the heavy duty kind. Other brand names were Apron, Big Wilkie, Spry, Wonderful Washer and British Carbolic.
There appears to have been no change to the site before the 1914 edition of the OS. This shows the buildings in the southern part of the site still there. If this suggests commercial stagnation, it might be the case. There was a slump in demand around 1906 which Lever Brothers attempted to counter by inviting other soap manufacturers into a combine, so saving on research and advertising costs. Soames declined to join after strong negative publicity. (Levers successfully sued the Daily Mail for libel.)
More is known of the role of the Soames family in Greenwich society. Among peninsula industrialists, the Soames were untypical in staying in Greenwich and putting some of their considerable profit back into the area. The elder James Soames in 1849 moved into the Red House, a large establishment on Westcombe Park Road, high on the hillside, more-or-less next door to Vanbrugh Castle and with fine views north over the peninsula. A few years on he moved to Blackheath. James Soames 2nd followed him in 1854, buying Maze Hill House, lower on the slopes and facing Greenwich Park. This tends to support 1854 as a start date for the Works.
James Soames 2nd was a political liberal, supporter of various political, religious and social causes in Greenwich, a member of the Board of Guardians, chairman of the Greenwich Society for the Relief of Distress, and assisting at St Alphege where his brother was the vicar. In 1890 he funded a new church for Westcombe Park, St George, and installed another Soames, Werner Henry Kolle Soames, as vicar. Other Soames joined the company, lived in the area and married local girls. Walter Soames took over the running of the factory and stayed until the take-over in 1920. He may have been the Walter Field Soames who became Mayor of Greenwich in 1910 and 1911. (Walter Kolle and Walter Field Soames – which was which?) WHK Soames worked hard to build up his flock but the area was slow developing and he retired ill, the church being completed only in 1926 by its third vicar.
Lever Brothers’ interest in combines mutated into a desire to take over other manufacturers and in 1919-20 they went on a campaign of acquisitions including big companies such as Gossage, Gibbs, and Knights and a number of smaller ones including Soames. By 1925 their policy with regard to certain smaller companies was to allow them to close ‘on favourable terms’ if not wanted. Although the lease on the site remained with Wilkie and Soames until at least 1937, the Thames Soap and Candle Works closed in 1930.
It is quite striking that the 1937 LCC/OS differs hardly at all from the 1914 OS in respect of the immediate surroundings of the site. Tunnel Avenue, the approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel had entailed the demolition of some housing which was replaced by the group of Idenden Cottages in 1896 and this still stood. Housing, school and church on the opposite side of Tunnel Avenue were unchanged apart from the appearance of new terraces on the old allotment areas. To the north, the warehouses, works and yards on Morden Wharf Road were in form the same though the cement works had passed its big shed on the riverside to a packaging manufacturer. Beyond them, the extremely smelly Molassine Meal Works was busy producing mollasses-based animal feeds. The Sea Witch catered for the workers, as did the Mitre on the main road, and perhaps the Terry Dining Rooms.
The Callebaut family remained dominant (or at least influential) until the year 2000.
It should, though be pointed out that in the late 60s the site entrance remained off Morden Wharf Road and between the works and Tunnel Avenue there remained a small enclave which may have been, earlier, the site of the manganese refinery and was now occupied by Williams, steel stock-holders. In 1969 the curved building which came to dominate the road end of the site was completed to designs by Dennis & Partners of Wimpole Street for Glenville’s. The curve which seemed so excitingly modernist was a straightforward response to the turning of lorries in at the entrance off Morden Wharf Road.
The next couple of years saw a further expansion of the maize grind and the construction of a new plant for producing Isosweet, a high fructose glucose syrup, which adds to the certainty that the silos were now in use.
The layout of the factory at the close is given by an Amylum plan from five years earlier. Not everything is identified, only the major processing plants. From the walk round the site just before closure some other buildings could be identified particularly the admin/canteen building, laboratory and maintenance buildings and the warehouses. Buildings surviving from the soap works are heavily outlined. The oldest of them was redundant, unlit within, filled with props and with detritus scattered on the floor. It seemed advisable not to enter. For the rest the site appeared clean if a little run down in places. We were told that the effluent treatment plant had been malfunctioning for some time.