Greenock has no claim to be regarded as a pioneer in sugar refining. For over a hundred years previous to its introduction to the town the industry had been established in England, Ireland, and some other parts of Scotland. The first sugar works in Glasgow were started in 1667, but manufacturing had to some extent been going on elsewhere in the country earlier than 1655, in which year an Act was passed imposing an ad valorem duty of 5 per cent. on exportation. In the middle of the seventeenth century there were about fifty refineries in England. Sugar was being smuggled into Scotland from the Continent, refined from the raw brought from the West Indies to France, Portugal, Holland, etc., and it is recorded that although the West Indian growers were offered special privileges by the Government to send the cargoes to the home markets they persisted in their policy of dealing most extensively with the Continent in the hope of getting higher prices. In the matter of evading the Customs duties Scotland at this period held an unenviable prominence in respect of sugar, large quantities finding their way into the country by means of the smuggler.
Trade between the Clyde and the 'West Indies began about 1732, but by 1775 the total sugar
imports did not amount to more than 4,000 tons, of which, a very small proportion went to
Greenock or Port-Glasgow. Glasgow merchants were concerned in the earliest Greenock refineries,
and the first considerable works were situated at the foot of Sugarhouse Lane and opened in 1765.
The site is now occupied by the Brewers' Sugar Company (which in turn is about to give way
before the shipyard extension of Harland & Wolff). While there is no absolute proof available,
it is believed that one or two small refineries had existed prior to that date. A second
refinery followed in 1788, at the head of Sugarhouse Lane, but it ceased long ago to be used
for this purpose and is now a workingmen's lodging-house. The third was built in 1803 in Bogle
Street, and to-day is the property of the Caledonian Railway Company. By the beginning of the
nineteenth century Greenock had made a distinct advance in the industry, which promised great
In the early Seventies three causes were said to have been at work to destroy the profits of the refiners - competition amongst themselves, with other British ports, and with the foreigners and their bounties, and the consequent stoppage of works after the Budget of 1873, led to a falling-off in the output, to the extent of upwards of 12,000 tons. In 1879 it was stated that the trade had been operated upon by a variety of influences of so depressing a kind as almost to point in the direction of its abandonment by many of the refiners, and to threaten its extinction as a leading industry of the town. Those influences included French bounties, large shipments from America of cube and granulated loaf sugar, etc. It was remarked also that rather frequently during the preceding five or six years the crushed market had been unnecessarily weighted by anxiety on the part of refiners not to be outdone by their neighbours in the extent of their output. Eleven refineries were at this time at work, and the total weekly output about 5,000 tons.
Beetroot, which was fated to have a disastrous effect on Greenock refineries, was first imported to the Clyde in small quantities about 1855, and in 1858 the first cargo, a small one, arrived at Greenock. So long as the raw beet sugar was imported, it was our Colonies that were the sufferers, but when the white sugar began to arrive in yearly increasing quantities for home consumption the imports bore heavily upon our refineries. There naturally ensued a steady downward tendency of British exports and a corresponding upward tendency on the Continent, which process of inversion went on without break for many years. Year by year the quantity had increased, consisting principally of French and Belgian, with a small proportion of Austrian sugar, until in 1873 the importation amounted to 40.000 tons. At the opening of the nineteenth century Scotland had used no sugars worth speaking of that did not come from the West India Colonies; at the close of the hundred years the average from that source was a little over one per cent., or 2,358 tons against 203,699. Java, Surinam, and the more distant countries supplied a much larger percentage, but the Continental countries grew to be our greatest sources of supplies.
The duties on sugar were abolished in 1874, and there was no duty for 27 years thereafter. An increased consumption naturally followed, and so greatly were Greenock refineries affected that in 1881 the meltings were 260,299 tons, the largest figure they have ever reached. Of this, no less than, 100,000 tons were beetroot sugars, principally from Germany, while of 220,000 tons melted in 1890 213,000 tons were largely German, the remaining 7000 tons having come from Java. It was the Glebe Refining Company , who in 1891 offered the first strong practical opposition to the flood of beetroot, and so skilfully was the assault conducted that Messrs Kerr's cane sugar enterprise became a brilliant success.
For several years more refiners in general were having an anxious time through the redoubled
effort of Germany, which was now exporting large quantities of refined and consequently causing
a diminution in Greenock meltings. Fortunately the crusade of Mr Joseph Chamberlain and his
allies against the bounty system was drawing to a successful issue, and in March, 1902, the
Brussels Convention unanimously resolved that they should cease. An additional factor in favour
of British refiners was introduced - when in 1901 Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Michael Hicks
Beach, imposed an average duty of 3s 6d per cwt. in order to meet the payment of the Boer War,
and the lucky possessors of large stocks enjoyed an addition to capital that had been
impoverished during the unprofitable years. The growers of cane sugar, too, were now greatly,
encouraged in extensions of their cultivation, so that soon their cargoes were coming into the
British markets and, owing to cheapness of production, successfully competing with the beetroot.
From the beginning of the war the trade was under Government control. Supplies from the Continent were necessarily stopped, and in the face of enormous freight difficulties and the dangers involved in transport the Sugar Commission succeeded in delivering the raw article from America and the Colonies, and the refineries were enabled to continue melting on a large scale. The output in Greenock during those years were : 1915 - 229,689 tons; 1916 - 221,512 tons; 1917 - 237,185 tons; 1918 - 236,521 tons; 1919 - 259,000 tons; and in 1920 - 216,907, a reduction owing to coal strike and other labour troubles. The total of 1919 has only once been exceeded, in 1881. In the House of Commons in 1921 the Burgh Member, Sir Godfrey P. Collins, supported a clause to reduce the sugar duty from 2 3/4d to 1 1/2d per lb., on the ground that the tax was a thoroughly bad and vicious one, because it was a tax on both food and raw material. The Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that the result of acceptance of the clause in the Finance Bill would be a reduced revenue in that year of £9,500,000, and in the full year of £15,000,000, and that he could not afford to lose that.
Greenock Sugar Exchange was erected in 1857 by Mr William Anderson. In 1866 the Clyde Crushed Sugar Dealers Association was formed to foster and increase the trade of the Clyde, to act as a medium of reference between refiners and dealers, to arrange for the sampling, weighing, and forwarding, and to publish a daily report of the market. The Beetroot Association was instituted in 1882, the name was changed to the Sugar Association of Greenock, and in 1916 to the Raw Sugar Association of Greenock, Limited.
Members of many Greenock families identified with the sugar refining, after having helped to establish the industry in their native town, sought wider fields for their energies, making both fortune and name in London, Liverpool, and elsewhere. Those prominent at home have now passed out of the trade through death or retiral - three generations of Richardson, Steele, Anderson, Wrede, Currie, Patten, Scott, Orr and many besides.
1. 1st large refinery built in 1765 by Mark Kuhll at the bottom of Sugarhouse Lane.
[The Tate & Lyle Westburn Refinery on Drumfrochar Road was due to close on 29th August 1997. The last sugar boat was due at Greenock Ocean Terminal on 20th June 1997, called the Corola 1.]