Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
With a large factory in Staple Street, off Long Lane in Bermondsey, at the end of the 19th century E & T Pink were said to be the largest producers of jam in the world. No trace remains of the company today, or the factory, and the once famous brand has disappeared and remembered now mainly for a history of bad labour relations.
The company was founded by Edward Pink in 1860 when he was aged 33. He had moved to London from Hampshire to serve an apprenticeship with a grocer. A newspaper advert that appeared in 1879 declared that the products he supplied included jams, pickles and sauces under the trademark of a tortoise, and already the factory in Staple Street had been established. During the same year, the company described themselves as the largest producer of preserves in the world, a claim they were to repeat often in subsequent years. Two years later they employed a total of 629 people though many were employed on a casual basis to help in busy periods at the time of the fruit harvest. When Edward’s sons Thomas and Edward Junior entered the business the company became known as Edward Pink and Sons. Thomas became Managing Director in 1890 at which time the company became known as E&T Pink.
Working conditions at the factory were exposed at a coroner’s inquest in April 1893 that investigated the death of 15 year old Delilah Figgins who had died from blood poisoning arising from a wound to her knee. She had only worked at the factory for eleven days and at the inquest her father Ephraim declared he believed his daughter had died from inhaling the putrid smell of rotten oranges. He stated employees were not allowed to leave the factory premises at lunch-time and were forced to eat their lunch in the work-room that smelled of putrid fruit. In the event, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death, caused by an infected wound Delilah had received two months earlier from a blow from a piece of wood. They did though add the recommendation that the workers at the factory should have a special place to eat away from the workroom.
The company changed their working practices and immediately put up notices around the factory that workers were free to leave the factory at lunchtime. At the end of the following year, Thomas Pink invited guests including members of the press to a luncheon in the newly completed 4 storey mess-house he had erected for workers in the grounds of the factory.
It had facilities for washing before meals, provided lockers for each employee and each floor was equipped with a large steam-heated closet for warming food and the provision of boiling or grilling. The roof of the building was concreted so employees could walk around in their lunch break and the mess-house opened early so that workers who came from some distance could have a hot breakfast before starting work at eight in the morning.
It was said that Pink’s were the first company in London to provide such facilities for its employees on such a scale but Thomas Pink denied they were provided for purely philanthropic reasons, more their provision was based on sound business sense and profitability for “the better the factory-worker is treated the greater the profit will be. The principle on which his business is conducted, and on which he bases his relations with the 1,400 people in his employ, is that it is economically unsound to underpay and overwork; and that it is economically sound – in other words results in larger profits – to pay well, to work fairly, and to make most generous provision for the comfort of his workpeople. “ (St James’s Gazette, 14 December, 1894).
However, despite such apparent enlightenment, it was only two years previously that about 60 women working in the finishing department who went on strike in protest at a reduction in their wages were quickly replaced by other women desperate for work. And in 1895 a woman worker was killed when she fell into a vat of boiling apples and as a result Pinks were ordered to provide covers for boiling pans.
We learn a lot about the company and Thomas Pink himself from a long article entitled ‘A Chat with Mr Thomas Pink’ that appeared in The Sketch in July 1894. Though most famous for their jams and marmalade (in 1893 they sold 8,000 tons), Pink’s produced a range of other products including sweets, pickles and potted fish. The Pink peppermills ground 16 tons of pepper each week, in fact one eighth of the English pepper trade and one twelfth of the English tapioca business was handled by the company. The fruit used to produce the jams mostly came from Kent though sometimes plums were obtained from abroad as of course were all the oranges for marmalade. By now the company employed 1800 workers during the busy season, together with a sales force and office staff.
Thomas Pink marched the (unnamed) reporter over the vast factory site which made the latter “tired and cross though I did not see even half. How can I in a few lines give any idea of acres of jam-boiling, packing, potting, pickling, picking, preserving rooms, of engine houses, 100-stall stables, of a vault containing 110,000 three gallon jars.” The reporter did not like jam himself for it gave him tooth-ache but nevertheless he was “startled, not only by the fatiguing magnitude of the place, but by the wonderful cleanliness of it.” He makes no mention that locally the factory was known as The Bastille, the same name given to the workhouse.
The reporter described Thomas Pink himself as “in face somewhat like Lord Randolph Churchill and showing the same look of alertness and determination. In his manner is the quiet force that shows the man whose word is law to hundreds." As for his relationship with the factory’s workforce, he anticipates what he is later to say at the opening of the mess-house. “I hope and try to believe that I look after my people out of honest warmth of heart, but who can tell? You see, I know it pays. I get the pick of the
labour market and avoid strikes and friction. It pays a manufacturer to be kind to his employees. “ Clearly he had forgotten about the 60 women he had replaced when they went on strike regarding a reduction in wages two years previously. In 1911, the women in his workforce were to be at the forefront of what became known as the Bermondsey Women’s Strike.
The strike started on 10 August 1911 and some say the first workers to walk out were those employed at the Pink factory. The walk out happened against a background of industrial action already taking place, the Transport Workers Union were striking as were the London dockers, many of whom were married to female factory workers in Bermondsey. There was currently a freak heatwave with temperatures around 100 degrees Fahrenheit: working in such heat in a food processing factory must have been unbearable. The walkout was spontaneous and the women in high spirits and as they walked through the Bermondsey streets singing and laughing, some dressed in their Sunday best, women from other factories joined them. In total, women from 22 factories joined the strike including those employed by Peek Frean’s, Hartley’s, Shuttleworths and Southwells, and other factories not connected with the food processing industry such as those that made glue and tin boxes. Some reports say many women did not go on strike voluntarily but were pressurised by militants and because of the lock-outs by the factory owners. Women from Pink’s factory held up a placard saying “We are not White slaves, we are Pink.”
When the women walked out, they had not formulated their demands other than a general call for “more pay.” They were not members of a union, their wages were so meagre the money spent on union dues would be better spent on bread for their children. Their walk out was spontaneous and unorganised. However the National Federation of Women Workers became
involved under the leadership of Mary MacArthur and the Union not only met with the factory owners to negotiate on behalf of the women strikers but also raised money to provide bread and sterilised milk for the women and their families. Out of the 22 companies where strike action had been taken, agreement was reached with 19. The Pink workers won an extra 2 shillings, increasing their weekly wage from 9 shillings to 11 shillings. The women’s strike was over in 10 days.
A further, more serious strike occurred in 1914 which resulted in Thomas Pink closing the factory, claiming safety concerns. This left over 1,000 people idle and was only settled when Pink agreed to pay the minimum wage recommended by the Board of Trade. The company however had been making losses and although it made a profit during the First World War, having been awarded contracts to supply the armed forces, returned to making a loss after the war ended. Within a couple of years, the company was acquired by Dutch margarine manufacturer Van den Bergh who merged it with Plaistowe, another of their subsidiaries. The Pink side of the business still made losses and that part of the company was liquidated with Plaistowe acquiring the assets. Sir Thomas Pink died in January 1926 aged nearly 71, the same year that Plaistowe went into receivership.
The factory was demolished in 1935 to make way for an LCC housing estate. Some pictures that were taken during the course of the demolition can be found on this website.