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Ipswich Icons: The rise and fall of the Sproughton sugar beet factory

PUBLISHED: 17:20 26 February 2016 | UPDATED: 17:20 26 February 2016

Sugarbeet from Stoke

Sugarbeet from Stoke

Archant

Do we need sugar? Why is sugar added to nearly everything we eat and drink? Perhaps it should be taxed to reduce consumption? asks John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Sugar silos at SproughtonSugar silos at Sproughton

Sugar (sucrose), refined from sugar cane has been used in this country since the 16th Century. Sugar cane is a grass, mainly grown in tropical climates and imported and refined by Tate & Lyle.

Henry Tate started his sugar refining business in Liverpool in 1859, expanding to Silvertown on the banks of the Thames in 1878. Abram Lyle started in Glasgow in 1865, moved to London in 1882, coincidentally alongside Henry Tate’s business. Both grew independently until just after the First World War when, in countenance of the threat from the sugar beet industries, their business amalgamated in 1921.

Britain’s reliance on cane sugar both during the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War became an obvious target, the enemy targeting ships bringing the vital commodity to the UK. At the turn of the 20th Century the Government actively encouraged the development of sugar extracted from locally grown sugar beet as an alternative to importing sugar cane. In 1925 they introduced the Sugar Industry (Subsidy) Act guaranteeing continuing but declining subsidies to the infant and sickly sugar beet industry.

This encouraged a number of firms to build sugar refining factories in East Anglia, following on from Cantley (Norwich) which had been built in 1912. Plants were built at Newark and Nottingham. The plants at Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds both followed the Royal Assent and were built in 1925.

Sugar silos in the sunSugar silos in the sun

A further Act of Parliament in 1936 created the British Sugar Corporation which took control of the beet sugar industries. The Government sold their stake in 1981, it became British Sugar in 1982 and today the company is owned by Associated British Food who sell sugar on the domestic market under the Silver Spoon brand but the majority of production is sold in bulk to the food processing industry.

The 100-acre sugar beet factory at Sproughton (Ipswich) was built by the Anglo Dutch Sugar Company (builders: Hal Williams and Co.) using machinery imported from Holland. When operations first started the managers were all Dutch nationals.

The site at Sproughton was chosen because of its close proximity to the railway and a branch ran into the site crossing Sproughton Road with a level crossing (last used in 1930). The railway divided the plant into three distinct sections. To the east, incoming beet with separate sheds for both washing and cutting. The middle section housed the power house and boilers with steam-driven pumps which had come from British Navy destroyers.

The third or western section housed the sugar house, sugar pans, crystallisers, centrifugals and liquor presses. Also on this side of the plant were four hoppers where sugar dropped into sacks which were sewn by hand before dispatch. British Rail trains brought coal to the site and a narrow gauge railway was used to cart away the ash from the boiler.

The British Sugar factory in Bury St Edmunds.The British Sugar factory in Bury St Edmunds.

After the Second World War the plant enjoyed continued expansion and modernisation, the first silo was built in 1962 with a further three following in quick succession. Surprisingly the demand for sugar declined in the later years of the 20th Century and several of the British Sugar plants closed, including Ipswich at the end of the 2000/2001 campaign.

The site was purchased by housing developer JG Land and Estates in 2006, who applied for planning permission to Babergh District Council for 1,100 homes together with associated infrastructure.

Permission was refused on appeal as the land was assigned for employment on the district plan. Ipswich Borough Council purchased the site in 2014 mainly to prevent the site being used as retail park (warehouses with trade counters). It is ideally placed next to the railway, and to junction 54 of the A14.

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