This week my wife and I drove from the centre of Glasgow to the Clyde Estuary, stopping off at ‘Lyle Hill’ in Greenock. There I read one of the placards, giving a synopsis of the history of Greenock. It was interesting to read that it had the nickname ‘sugatown’! It’s not hard to understand why, for at the beginning of the last century 400 ships per year were bringing raw cane sugar from the West Indies and Central American sugar plantations into the port, to be refined in one of Greenock’s fourteen sugar refineries. Mr Lyle was a local entrepreneur who invested heavily in sugar, and eventually joined with Mr Tate to form the world famous ‘Tate and Lyle’ sugar business.
All that brought memories flooding back to mind as I served my engineering apprenticeship in a heavy engineering works in Glasgow called Watson Laidlaw & Co Ltd who specialised in the manufacture of centrifugal machines for the Sugar Industry. I would later spend 20+ years working with A & W Smith & Co Ltd. (part of the Tate & Lyle group) who were manufacturers of all kind of equipment for the sugar industry, and were involved in the construction of complete Sugar Factories in some of the world’s remotest places.
Glasgow and the Clyde basin actually became the key hub for the world manufacture of sugar machinery. The photographs of nine company adverts show the companies that were all operating in and around Glasgow when I was an apprentice.
Sadly Tate & Lyle closed its last Greenock refinery in 1997, and today not one refinery is operating in Greenock. Likewise not one engineering company is producing sugar machinery in Scotland, not since A & W Smith (which became Smith Mirrlees) closed its doors in the late 1980’s, the last survivor of Scotland’s sugar engineering companies.
I guess for most this story is just symbolic of the general demise of heavy engineering in the UK, which reached its peak during the Margaret Thatcher era.
For me it is much more than that, because I invested half of my working life in the Sugar business, and it was a career that I really enjoyed, as the work was so varied and interesting. I first worked as a ‘hands-on’ engineering apprentice, then as a draughtsman, an estimator, chief estimator, and company buyer. This work took me to Mexico for a year with my family when we built the Tambaca Sugar Factory, and then to the northeast of Brazil (x 2), and to Thailand for a year with my wife and daughter, and on other shorter visit to factories at home and abroad.
It spite of everyone’s best efforts however, the tide was turning against the Scottish industry, as more and more sugar producing countries set up their own engineering establishments. Shipping charges too had also soared in price, and competition became increasingly fierce. The refining side of the business took a great hit when we joined the European Union, as there already existed a sugar mountain in Europe, as farmers there were growers of sugar beet. So quotas were set, restricting the amount of raw cane sugar that could be imported.
So slowly but surely, companies closed, and thousands of workers were made redundant including the undersigned. It was great while it lasted, but I’m happy to say, that in retrospect God was leading me into a different sphere of work in the Christian Mission sector, which proved even more rewarding and fulfilling than my time in engineering.
None-the-less I still keep a wee stash of items I can’t bring myself to throw out, as can be seen in the photographs. I guess they are of no interest to anyone else in this day of calculators and computers, but I enjoy taking a glance at them from time to time! My drawing instruments, notebooks, rulers and slide rulers, logarithm tables, ‘ready reckoners’, steam tables etc. My wife says I’m a hoarder, and she is right, but to me they are an important memento to a big part of my life.
If you are interested to read more about the Sugar Industry in Scotland you can find more details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenockor https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/e96cbd45-8bbc-3957-9484-832afe316ede
Now as a Christian I keep pressing forward as best I can with a number of activities, and like to keep in mind the words of Paul the Apostle, (who also dramatically changed course mid way through his life) when he said ‘I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ Phil. 3.14