I thought, as I had been writing about the varied smells along the riverside and on the Greenwich Peninsula that I ought to describe one of the sources of them. The Molassine Company – and its smell – will be remembered by older Greenwich residents as well as by river users, and many more. Molassine made animal foodstuffs and is still a trade name for cattle feed sold to farmers. Locally they will be best remembered for Vims dog biscuits, writes Mary Mills…
Some years ago I was given two photographs from the 1920s – and I have never been able to track any reference to the incident which they show in the local press, so I am not sure of the date. My only information comes from a book ‘A History of the United Molasses Company Ltd.’ by W.A.Meneight.
One of the photographs shows what appears to be a factory yard with vehicles surrounded by something black and shiny. The other shows a crowd of people standing in the road and again the ground appears to be covered with something black, and shiny. The crowd are standing in Blackwall Lane and you can see the distinctive frontage of the Inlaid Lino Works further down the road. The crowd are standing roughly at the end of the footpath which now goes down to the riverside, near the Blackwall Tunnel entrammels.
I am pretty sure I know what is being shown in the pictures. The black shiny substance is 3,000 tons of molasses which was making ‘its ponderous and inexorable way into Tunnel Avenue’. Mr. Meneight pointed out that such a spill would affect the trams which ‘were served by a conductor rail running in a gully between the lines’ and, that cold molasses is ‘implacably indifferent to force’. Someone must have cleaned it up and I do hope the young lads and the little girl shown in the photograph managed to resist any temptation to investigate it any closer.
The molasses was the raw material used by the Molassine Company which had a riverside factory on the west side of the Greenwich peninsula – their site is now part of the UandI Morden Wharf development. In October 1999 we published an article about them in the Greenwich Industrial History Newsletter and included some reminiscences from John Needs. I also did an article about them for Bygone Kent.
The Molassine Company was founded in 1900 to exploit a secret formula for animal food – Molassine Meal. The recipe came from a mysterious east European called Arthur Stein who vanished in Prague during the Second World War and has proved untraceable ever since. This was to use molasses in animal food, molasses being a product of sugar refining – also known as black treacle to you and me. At first the feed this was made by Henry Tate & Sons – not of course part of Tate and Lyle. Molassine moved to Greenwich around 1908 taking over a site previously used by a mahogany importer. They continued with the relationship with Tate and Lyle buying molasses from the Tate & Sons at refinery at Silvertown and Abram Lyle & Sons refinery slightly up river at Plaistow Wharf also in Silvertown. Molassine built the steel tanks to hold the molasses between 1910 and 1914.
One of their main products was feed for horses, made from sphagnum moss mixed with molasses made from both sugar beet and sugar cane. Over the years the cattle and horse feed mixtures remained very simple but considerable skill was needed in the mix. After the Second World War, as demand for horse feed fell, a new variant was produced called ‘Main Ring’, which appears to be still made. The best known Molassine product was their dog biscuit ‘Vims’. This was made with ordinary flour and flavoured with aniseed. At one time posters and signs announcing that ‘Dogs Love Vims’ could be seen everywhere. The company made another dog food called Stimo which was a collection of broken biscuits from the pink Vims range and from a white range of Pet Biscuits. The yard sweepings from these products were mixed with rough pieces of sphagnum moss and sold as Rito, a garden fertiliser.
A company share certificate from the 1930s illustrates an astonishing range of animals apparently co-existing on farmland alongside a lake – hens, cattle (roughly the same size as the hens) sheep, horses, ducks, and dogs and so on. Also included are a shepherd, in smock with a crook, and a man – or is it a lady – feeding an apparently grateful horse. Their trademark shows a large hairy beast – presumably highland cattle – whose horns advertise the company products. He is supported by a horse and bull, with a horned sheep below – but above is a fierce looking boar.
Following publication of my earlier articles about Molassine I received a couple of letters. One was about a silver pocket watch made in Switzerland with a Molassine trademark in enamel on one side. This had been presented to an Albert Smith, perhaps as a token of long service. Another letter came from someone with a tin Matchbox with the Molassine Trade mark on the front – while on the reverse side was a ‘reclining naked lady holding a tray or plate with one elbow resting on a Pig’. Today a search on the internet will give numerous instances of such relics of the company’s publicity on a variety of website, and frequently being offered for sale. You will find items featuring the nude lady and her pig.
Publicity does seem to have been a Molassine strong point. During the First World War their feed mix was used by soldiers as an antiseptic plaster for wounds. In the 1950s and 1960s they used comedian Norman Wisdom whose films almost always included references to Vims, sometimes as part of the plot. Another artist was Petula Clark – then ‘little Pet Clark’ featuring in their pet food advertisements.
The animal feed business in Greenwich was closed in 1981 – to the relief of local residents who had never found the smell of the works particularly attractive. The machinery was transferred to Rumenco at Burton on Trent, who continue to use the trade name.
Molassine had a small jetty which they later developed. However in 1967 they took over a lease for what was then called Primrose Wharf and set up a company for ‘The storage and distribution of goods’ which used the long jetty we now know as Primrose Pier.
In 1915 Molassine built small brick office on Tunnel Avenue and in 1916; they submitted plans for a new office block. This appears to be the large red stone office block in Blackwall Lane. Behind it are a number of large tanks. I cannot believe that these are the same tanks which stood there in the 1920s and which leaked so dramatically into Blackwall Lane and which Molassine’s publicity department described as a landmark on the river. To local people the most notable thing about the factory was the smell!
I would like to thank Stewart Ash, and U&I for a sight of his work on Morden Wharf. The Greenwich Industrial History blog is at
https://greenwichindustrialhistory.blogspot.com and there are some references to Molassine in various articles. The original articles mentioned above are not now online.