The sugar beet factory of Felsted/Little Dunmow

I have written before on my blog about the aerial photography taken of the town and environments of Great Dunmow by a small aircraft flying high in the skies of East Anglia in 1928.  During the same flight, the small airplane also flew over the tiny village of Little Dunmow and captured for posterity one of the area’s main employers, the factory of the Anglo Scottish Sugar Beet factory. This part of Essex and East Anglia has a long history of the refining of sugar beet and it is incredible to see an aerial photograph of a factory in it’s inter-war heyday.

Little Dunmow from the air, 1928Anglo-Scottish Sugar Beet Factory, Little Dunmow, 1928. This photo is from English Heritage’s Britain from Above project. Click the photo to be taken directly to a zoomable image of this photo from their website.

During a recent rummage around an antiques shop in Lavenham, Suffolk (a small beautiful town which also has a history of small sugar beet factories), I found the 1976 book Essex and Sugar by the local historian Frank Lewis. It is to him I turn to now regarding the Anglo-Scottish Sugar Beet Factory in Little Dunmow, Essex. In his book, Mr Lewis refers to the factory as being in Felsted, the neighbouring village to Little Dunmow.  As the two villages are so near each other, the location of the factory changes in documents/books between Little Dunmow and Felsted.  The factory also appears to have changed name over time and at points in its history was known as the “Anglo-Scottish Sugar Beet Factory” or the “British Sugar Corporation Sugar Beet Factory”.

Our main Essex interest in beet sugar lies now with the Felsted factory of the British Sugar Corporation. With Mr. and Mrs. Chartres, I spent a full and interesting day at the village, now for over three decades [i.e. by the time of the book's publication in 1976] associated with sugar production, but famed more for its ancient school [Felsted School]. In the morning at Princes Farm Mr. Gordon Crawford showed us the “Forecaster” at work, the most advanced beet-harvesting machine, and far from the days of hand-digging of obstinate roots is the operation of this mechanical giant, also an advance on machine harvesters needing an accompanying lorry in which to deposit the uplifted beet. The Forecaster is an Essex development, and is constructed as a compact unit, carrying the extricated beets to a receiving space at the top of the machine, detaching earth or mud en route, at the same time slicing off the tops of the next row of beets preparatory to lifting. Only when full did the harvester go off to deposit its contents in a lorry, thus one man only was needed for the actual harvesting; in the early days, several laboured at an arduous and unpopular toil. The crops, destined for the nearby factory are grown from seed supplied by the buyers to ensure uniformity and quality. Mr. Crawford harvested his first sugar beet with a pair of horses in 1930, and he is a member of the family formerly of Suttons Farm, Hornchurch, the site of the R.A.F. Station.

The Forecaster, Sugar Beet harvester 1976The Forecaster in 1976

During the day we had observed the lofty buildings of the British Sugar Corporation establishment with its plume of white smoke, and later its dominance in the scene when lit up at night. One writer has remarked that with a favouring wind the factory smell carries for miles around, and a former woman member of the office staff recalled her strongest memory was of the ‘sickly sweet smell you couldn’t get away from’, but though beet processing has its characteristic odour, as does a refinery, our party were not conscious of strong odours, either in or out of the buildings, though I questioned a girl on this point, knowing from experience how responsive young women are to sugar smells, pleasant or unpleasant. The warmth of the building was felt by her, not to a too trouble-some extent. On commencing this conducted tour, we were made aware of the fact that this was a factory in the country when we were informed that the visiting party in which we were included would be the last for a long period, as a precaution against the foot and mouth epidemic appearing in that region.

The factory tour showed the cleansed beets pass to machines slicing them into strips, a glimpse of the revolving drums in which the strips yielded their sweetness into water (diffusion), the resulting thin syrup of ‘juice’ charged with lime and carbonic acid gas which combined to form a precipitate trapping impurities in the juice (Carbonatation) the extraction by filtering of this precipitate, a second carbonatation and filtering, the juice treated with sulphur dioxide to a neutral reaction, the concentration of juice containing 15% sugar to syrup containing 65% sugar under vacuum in huge boilers or vessels called evaporators, another close filtering, no char, and the rest of the process as described in a refinery with vacuum pans, centrifugal machines, final drying.

This huge Essex successor to the ventures of Marriage and Duncan treats annually over 300,000 tons of beets from 23,000 acres spread over Essex and surrounding counties from Cambridge to Kent, and each day can process 2,500 tons of beet to yield 350 tons of white sugar, 250 tons of dried pulp or pulp nuts for cattle food and 130 tons of molasses for industrial and other uses. (An acre of beet will yield from 38 to 40 cwt of sugar against 8 to 12 tons per acre from cane; and the sugar content of the beet is 15% to 16%, the cane about 13%.) The personal of 325 men and women operate the process continuously day and night for approximately 120 days, each season or campaign from about late September to the end of January; and this seasonal labour force is recruited from the surrounding locality and from Ireland. Delivery of beets to the factory is by road, though in the past some cargoes in sailing boats travelled from Walton to a suitable point for Felsted. 

Mrs B. McArdle, who mentioned the ‘sickly smell’ has provided me with some other early memories of the Felsted factory where in her early 20s she was employed as a compotometer operator in the 1927 and 1928 campaigns. In those days no refining plant existed and she recalls the piles of brown sugar to be sent to Tate and Lyle. The small office had a canteen attached for the clerical and similar staff of 12; she can remember that wellington boots were worn for the necessary journeys to muddy and wet floors where the beet was washed and writes of having to work out prices for the farmers according to sugar content of beets, and allocating molasses on the amount of beet sent in. She lodged at a farm near the Flitch of Bacon [a pub still in existence today] in Little Dunmow, where only one shop existed, and without public transport the journey to and from the factory was a fair walk, unless a lucky car picked her up. Apparently there was little time for amusements as she worked ‘fairly late’, also Saturday and Sunday mornings when the beets were coming in; but a hard tennis court was outside the office, there were whist drives and dances in surrounding villages, a cinema at Braintree where you had to book your seat and the music was supplied by one tinny piano, and the manager sprung a party at his home for the staff. She was young and evidently found her situation not uncongenial, for both in her letters to me and to the Essex Countryside [a monthly local interest magazine] she writes of a ‘happy time of long ago’ and ‘pleasant memories of the happy time I spent at Felsted’.

Essex and Sugar by Frank Lewis, 1976 pp107-p111

Sugar Beet Factory, Little Dunmow, 1976Sugar Beet Factory in 1976

Sugar Beet harvesting in 1948Sugar-beet harvesting in 1948.  Click on the image above to be taken to British Pathe’s website to see a short film of Felsted’s sugar-beet harvesting in 1948.

In February 1999, the Sugar Beet factory was demolished and now in its place is a large housing development.  The estate was originally known as Oakwood Park, but in very recent years has now been renamed to Flitch Green – a throw-back to the days of the Dunmow Flitch, when it was originally held in Little Dunmow.

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Great Dunmow’s 1914 Military Funeral: A followup
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