R. Whites began in 1845, with Robert and Mary White selling ginger beer in stone bottles from a barrow. Eventually it would engulf local rival Rawlings, with seven premises around the area. Locals recall the clatter of horses and carts used for distribution, and bottles bursting on hot days at the storage depots.
Burgess Park can fairly claim to be where the nation’s favourite lemonade first fizzed…
London, 1845: Nelson’s column has just gone up, and the 25-inch Tom Thumb is P T Barnum’s latest attraction in fashionable society. Here in Camberwell, a more humble new arrival – 21-year-old Robert White and his wife Mary begin home-brewing R Whites Ginger Beer, selling it themselves in stone bottles from a barrow, at 8d a pop. A one horse, one cart operation.
The business prospers, with lemonade soon added to the offerings – “made with real lemons”. In 1871 they open a factory in Cunard Street – where the multi-cultural garden stands today, behind Chumleigh Gardens.
By then the area was filling fast with industrious new streets – packed with willing workers and thirsty customers. Testimonies fondly recall the clatter of horses and carts used for distribution, 1d back on returns, and on the hottest days, bottles bursting in the sun at the storage depots.
Over the next 150 years R White’s would go on to engulf local rival Rawlings, and have factories and depots all over the area – two on Albany Road, Harling Street, two on Neate Street, New Church Road, and the last at Glengall Road in the 1990s. Their factories employed hundreds locally.
In 1880 the Sons of R. White – Robert James and John George – joined the family business. Although ginger beer was still the leading product, the 1887 temptations included Jubilee Tangerine (capitalising on Queen Victoria’s 50 years on the throne), Jubilee Lemonade, Champagne Cider, and Seltzer Water, all available in Codd’s patent glass bottles.
The 1890s saw the Rawlings take-over, limited company status attained, and new factories open in Camberwell and Barking – becoming the group’s main headquarters. Business was booming. Over 50 years, Robert White had grown the operation from the back of a barrow to a business empire with over £500,000 capital. Finally, in 1901, at the ripe old age of 77, he passed away.
In the 1930s, already dealing a lot with corner shops, R Whites began making their own crisps at Albany Road, and sweets in New Church Road. Wartime bomb damage and sugar rationing would eventually do for sweet production. Ironically, elsewhere, residents recall R Whites lemonade being used to put out incendiary bomb fires at Neate Street, when water wasn’t quickly to hand.
As with all their bottled wares, distribution was by horse vans. 50-70 might service a single yard, delivering direct to consumers. In summer, additional coal vans would be hired, while demand for coal was slack. R Whites proudly boasted “Any order of any size, delivered by Friday”.
Petrol vans eventually displaced horse drawn vehicles. The timing wasn’t ideal. Introduced in 1938-9 on the eve of war, in 1940 much of the Bedford van fleet was promptly commandeered by the government for the war effort, being remarkably similar to army utility vehicles.
After the war, steady growth, modernization and mechanisation continued. In 1961, the Barking factory became the biggest prototype plant in Europe, producing 4 bottles every second.
Secret Lemonade Drinker
So what ultimately became of R Whites? It was bought by Whitbread brewery in 1969. It still had 21 premises in the South East and Midlands. The celebrated 1973 TV ad campaign made a household name of what had already become one of the UK’s most recognised brands. 1986 saw it absorbed into Britvic Ltd. Production had moved out to Beckton in 1972, where it continues to this day.
Though the bottle may have changed, R Whites lemonade still contains real lemons – it is made with nearly the same recipe as 169 years ago.
Benedict O’Looney contacted us with this image of R Whites bottles which were found in Peckham Rye Station