The Sugar Loaf Pub

is a 19th century Inn. Some say that the name was inspired by the rounded corner thought to resemble a sugarloaf but it is more likely that the name reflects the large number of sugar boilers that were originally located close to the wharves on the Thames.

Refined sugar, a compound completely unnecessary for human health but craved by almost everyone, has had a large impact on world history.

Sugar cane is a tropical plant and there is evidence of cultivation in New Guinea as early as 8000 BC. Knowledge of sugar cane cultivation and the production of a crude form of sugar spread throughout South East Asia and India; by the 6th century AD the knowledge had spread to Persia where Arab traders would bring knowledge of the new crop to Europe. The Moors cultivated sugar in the Canaries, Spain, Portugal and particularly the island of Madeira in the 9th century. However, the techniques to process sugar to a crystalline form suitable for transporting long distances were unknown at this time, so there was no export market to Northern Europe at this time unlike spices which were lighter with better keeping properties.

Mediaeval diet for English peasants largely consisted of bread, potage (a form of oat porridge) supplemented by vegetables and pulses and occasional meat. Sweet foods were naturally occurring fruits and honey. Englishmen first encountered sugar on the crusades and referred to it as sweet salt. . There are reports of Henry 111 using sugar in 1264. It was available in Britain in 1319 but cost two shillings a pound (£50) expensive enough to be kept under lock and key in special caddies. Nevertheless the cultivation of sugar cane spread through newly acquired colonies. Columbus introduced sugarcane to the new world in 1483 and the Dutch brought sugarcane from the new world to the West Indies after 1625. The British captured the West Indies from the Spanish in 1650 and by the early 18th century sugarcane was being commercially grown from Barbados to the Virgin Islands.

Sugarcane is a tropical plant. It requires heat and lots of water to grow and without good husbandry soil rapidly becomes exhausted. Harvesting and processing the crop was very hard work, initially carried out by indentured labour, prisoners and Native American slaves. Native Americans were killed in large numbers by imported diseases such as smallpox. Labour was then provided by African slaves until slavery was finally abolished in 1807. The Royal Africa Company, given the royal seal of approval by Charles 2nd after the restoration, was responsible for the sale of 90,000 slaves during this period. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht deprived Spain of its grip on slavery and handed this trophy to Britain. Over the next century Britain bought, sold and transported more than 2.5 million men women and children to its plantations in 11,000 ships. Raw Cane is heavy and bulky and had to be processed locally on each plantation. By 1725 Britain owned 120 refineries in the West Indies generating enormous wealth. Prohibitive taxation ensured that the final stages of refining took place in England. By 1750 sugar was the most valuable commodity in European trade with 90% of Europe’s sugar coming from the West Indies.

A dark raw sugar or muscovado, produced on the plantations by initial boilings of the fresh cane juice, was shipped in hogsheads to Europe on what was the third leg of the Triangular Trade.

The raw sugar was refined by a series of boiling and filtering processes. Anyone who has made caramel or homemade sweets will appreciate that sugar is a difficult substance to work with. In order to produce crystals the solution needs to be supersaturated and carefully heated. Too little heat and there is no crystallisation, too much and the sugar will burn and change formulation.

Sugarloaves were made by skilled workers in numerous small sugar houses mostly situated in East London.

When the muscovado, at the final boiling, was considered ready for granulation it was poured into a large number of inverted conical moulds. These were usually made of either brown earthenware or sheet iron with an internal treatment of slip or paint respectively, and each stood in its own collecting pot. Over the next few days most of the dark syrup and non crystalline matter drained through a small hole in the bottom of the mould into the collecting pot. To improve the whiteness of the sugar repeated applications of either a solution of white clay or of loaf sugar dissolved in warm water was applied to the broad end of the loaf. This slowly drained through the loaf readily uniting with any remaining molasses or other colouring matter and removing it to the collecting pot. The loaves were then tapped out of the moulds, dried in a stove room that would have contained hundreds of loaves, trimmed to their final shape and wrapped, usually, in blue paper to enhance their whiteness.

The moulds, and so the sugarloaves, varied in size considerably: the larger the loaf the lower the grade of sugar. The grade determined the price, though loaves were sold by weight and the sugar refiner was taxed on the weight of sugar sold. When a new batch of raw sugar was refined the best sugar came from the first boiling. After that, the waste and trimmings from the first boiling were returned to the beginning of the process and mixed with further raw sugar for the second boiling, and, as this was repeated to the end of the batch, subsequent boilings reduced slightly in quality. The finest of the loaves, maybe 5 inches (13 cm) diameter and 5 inches (13 cm) high, were extremely expensive owing to the prolonged repeating of the whitening process, as were the somewhat larger double refined loaves from the first few boilings. Lower grades of sugar were more difficult to crystallize and so larger moulds were used, usually 10–14 inches (25–36 cm) in diameter and up to about 30 inches (76 cm) high, with loaves weighing up to 35 pounds (16 kg).

Households bought their white sugar in tall, conical loaves, from which pieces were broken off with special iron sugar-cutters (sugar nips). Shaped something like very large heavy pliers with sharp blades attached to the cutting sides, these cutters had to be strong and tough. Up till late Victorian times household sugar remained very little changed and sugar loaves were still common and continued so until well into the twentieth century.

For most of the 18th and early 19th century the sugar houses were run by German immigrants who brought their traditional skills with them. The Germans had originally been fleeing religious persecution and settled in large numbers in the East End. The German Lutheran church in Alie Street is one of the rare surviving buildings associated with of this group of migrants.

The profits from the import of sugar helped Britain to industrialise and the inventions of the industrial revolution also transformed the production of sugar. Steam engines were used to power the mills on the plantations in the West Indies. In 1813 British chemist Edward Howard introduced the use of a closed vessel heated by steam and operating under a vacuum. The water boiled at a lower temperature because of the vacuum using less fuel and reducing the risk of caramelisation. By the mid 19th century the use of centrifuges made the use of sugar loaf moulds unnecessary.

Principal Sources, ://…..http, 

Books :- The Time Traveller’s Guide to Mediaeval England by Ian Mortimer & Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder




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