diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 24, 2020

This is my local Tesco supermarket, a large drab box beside the A12 in Bromley-by-Bow.

I've shopped here many hundreds of times, but only now thought to dig into the site's history, which is how I came to discover the amazing exploits of Victorian philanthropist Harper Twelvetrees.

Harper was born in Biggleswade in 1823, moving to London in 1848 with the express intention of manufacturing a cheap range of laundry products. Only when the government scrapped duty on soap in 1853 did this become financially viable, and shortly afterwards he set up a small factory on Goswell Road in Islington. Initial success required him to expand, and in 1858 he moved production to a larger site off Three Mill Lane in Bromley-by-Bow adjacent to the River Lea. A century and a half later it's where I buy my milk and frozen peas.

At the centre of the site was a timber-framed house of Tudor origin, much upgraded by its previous owners the Lefevre family (who were responsible for setting up the distillery at Three Mills across the river). One of their number, Charles Shaw-Lefevre, had recently ended a lengthy term as Speaker of the House of Commons and been elevated to the Lords as the 1st Viscount Eversley. Harper Twelvetrees renamed his new property Eversley House, moved his family in and built his new factory around it.

The Imperial Chemical Works was a great success. It manufactured a vast range of products targeted at ordinary working people, with Harper's aim to "encourage cleanliness among the poor by selling them a packet of soap powder for a penny". One of his biggest brands was Saponine, a detergent which "lathers abundantly in hot or cold water" and "washes expeditiously with or without soap". If you were lucky enough to get to the Bodleian Library's The Art of Advertising exhibition at the start of March you could have enjoyed this glorious full colour Saponine ad from Harper Twelvetrees' Soapery, Bromley-by-Bow. In its day, the company's advertising was considered brash, even vulgar.
Scrubwell. Well, this is really wonderful! I had no idea that washing-day could be got over with so little trouble and labour. I think I shall try this wonderful powder.
Thrifty. And just consider what you save, in time, trouble, and labour, by using this ‘Glycerine Soap-powder'. Just consider the difference between slop, slop, slopping about all day, and having your house cleaned up before dinner, or nearly so.
Scrubwell. Thank you, neighbour, for your friendly advice and informa­tion. I will try Harper Twelvetrees' ‘Glycerine Soap-Powder' for myself.
Also manufactured here were Satin Enamel Starch, Harness Polishing Liquid, Soluble Powder Blue, Perfumed Toilet Soap, Saltpetre, Epsom Salts, Metallic Writing Inks, Powder Lead, Yeastrine, Baking Powders, Mice Killer and Bug Destroyer. In one corner of the site was a small factory equipped with lathes and circular saws for the production of washing machinery. Mrs Beeton praised Twelvetrees' Villa Washing and Wringing Machine in her Book of Household Management... "excellent for family use...very easy to work without being cumbersome... strong and very durable", and all yours for 55 shillings.

At its peak the Imperial Chemical Works employed over 400 people. Harper was keen to look after his employees' welfare, building rows of cottages nearby to provide accommodation and setting up a lecture hall on site in a former workshop. Lord Shaftesbury and John Stuart Mill are amongst those believed to have stood at the lectern. A library was set up in one corner, and the hall also hosted evening classes, sewing circles and non-denominational services. Meanwhile sick employees were covered by a benevolent fund subsidised by one hour's pay a week, while thrift was encouraged via a penny savings bank.

As the Stratford Times reported in 1861, Harper Twelvetrees was changing Bromley-by-Bow for the better.
"Instead of dirty, narrow lanes bounded by high walls, now there are to be seen neat, commodious and well-built cottages, flanking tidy roads. The old population is losing its distinctive traits before a new, fresh, and vigorous class that is rapidly settling amongst them, and giving an air of busy life and incessant occupation to a place which once wore an empty gloom hardly redeemed by the the wild rush of waters roaring in the adjacent mill-stream."
But it didn't last. In 1865 Twelvetrees sold his chemical works through a third party to the General Trading Company for £53852-8s-5d, but they then went into liquidation and he only recouped £791. Declared bankrupt through no fault of his own, Harper did what any self-respecting Victorian philanthropist would do and started again, this time on the other side of Bow at the Cordova Works in Grove Road. His reputation was strong enough that the business took off by selling a similar range of products to before, and his patented soap powder was even exported overseas. Harper Twelvetrees died in Upper Clapton in 1881 at the age of 58, leaving behind five children called William, Walter, Florence, Edwin and Herbert.

The original Three Mills site was bought up in 1871 and transformed into the Crown Chemical Works. For almost a century this was home to Kemball, Bishop and Company Limited, manufacturers of citric acid, a full history of which can be downloaded here (courtesy of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society). KB's chief claim to fame, I was thrilled to read, is that its tanks were secretly used by the government during WW2 to scale up the country's production of penicillin. Around the same time the company also teamed up with American pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which worked out well until 1971 when production was outsourced to Ireland and the Bromley works closed down. [1897 map] [1949 map]

The site was levelled and lay derelict until 1983 when Tesco came along and opened their superstore. The building's footprint is on the skew so doesn't precisely match the chemical works, but essentially the homewares and drinks aisles are outside the boundary while most of the food section and the self service tills lie firmly within. Harper Twelvetrees' house would have been in the main car park, just opposite the disabled ramp leading up to the rear entrance, should you ever wish to pay tribute to the great man. It's a shame that the pharmacy counter isn't on the site of the penicillin tanks, and that the washing powder shelves are at the wrong end of the store, but you can't have everything.

If your local supermarket has a more interesting backstory, I'll be surprised.

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