Doncaster Butterscotch. Treacle Jacks. Licorice Flaps. Grannies Chest Tablets. Fudge Fancy Boxes. These are some of the names which decorate the end papers of this handsome book. Okay, to our 21C ears I’ve chosen some slightly risqué examples, but they represent a handful of the 400-plus product lines produced by London confectionery company Trebor in the 1930s, when it was at the height of its powers. Today, just seven remain. They are market-leaders, it must be said, which is probably why they were hoovered up by Kraft* in the 2010 takeover of Cadbury which in its turn had swallowed Trebor itself in 1989.
The Trebor Story, by Matthew Crampton relates the 82 year history of this independent British sweet giant which was founded by four East London small-business entrepreneurs in 1907. Two were grocers, one a sweet salesman and one a sugar boiler: a perfect commercial pick n mix, if you will.
And so it proved. We learn how from these humble beginnings in London’s East End, Trebor grew to several plants in the area and then nationwide, employing thousands of staff and a huge fleet of brightly liveried trucks and vans (Trebor got motorised very early). Trebor spread its wings, opening factories in all around the Empire and Commonwealth, winning myriad export awards along the way. We share the vicissitudes of two World Wars, the Depression and perhaps most challenging of all – sweet rationing!
By mid-Century, the founders had retired and the next generation – notably John and Ian Marks, sons of one of the founders, chain-smoking Sydney Marks. But we also meet a remarkable group of talented businessmen and women whose expertise in sales, production, export and finance fuelled Trebor’s upward trajectory. These include the formidable Hilda Clark, who joined the company’s Forest Gate plant as a teenager in 1918, opened and ran the new Chesterfield manufacturing and distribution operation during the war and right up until her retirement in 1963, when the company gave her a car as a leaving present, an unheard of gesture hitherto.
This book has dozens of wonderful anecdotes such as these. Matthew Crampton has assembled a massively rich variety of pictures, photographs and documents. He has interviewed many employees and former employees going back many years. He has done much research. And remarkably, in best Ben Schott fashion, he has not only laid out the whole book himself, but done it with panache and skill that most large established publishers would struggle to match.
So. A lovely story, steeped in the most powerful nostalgia, with a sad ending. But an absolute joy to read.
And finally. Trebor stands for Robert backwards, after founding partner Robert Robertson, right? Well, not quite. While the company was quite happy to perpetuate this myth, Trebor was named after the premises they moved into, Trebor Terrace, after the row’s builder, one Robert Cooper. So just a coincidence. Robertson & Woodcock, as the company was officially known, took on the moniker Trebor almost by a process of osmosis.
* Kraft has now decided to call its international snack division Mondelez. No kidding. With a crappy logo to match. On a par with Diageo, but better than Consignia, I suppose.
The Trebor Story (146 pp) by Matthew Crampton is published by Muddler Books, officially priced at £18 but available for less. The author tweets as @Trebor_Story and has a nice try-before-you-buy web site here.