R. White’s Mineral Water

R Whites Factory, Neate Street, Cobourg Road 1969

R Whites factory, Neate Street, 1969, looking west from the junction with Cobourg Road. This factory opened in 1887, on the previous site of a floor cloth manufactory; it stood where the floodlit football pitch is today. Demolished 1970s. Photo courtesy of SLHL, P5987.

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.

Photos of ceramic ginger beer bottle, Codd Bottle c 1880s, R Whites bottle crates

l-r: Ceramic ginger beer bottle, Reliance Codd Bottle c 1880s, R Whites bottle crates. Photos courtesy of Jacko McInroy R Whites facebook group

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.

photo of Rawlings Factory on the Surrey Canal 1970s

Grand Surrey Canal, 1970 seen here looking east from Wells Way showing the huge canal-side Rawlings factory, built circa 1880 and taken over by R Whites in 1891 (demolished 1986). Photo courtesy of SLHL.

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.

photo of wall next to the astroturf

The last vestige of R Whites’ premises; the perimeter wall demolished in 2013.

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.

Advertisement for R White & Sons, 1885

Fragments of R White stoneware bottles found by the Thames

Postscript

Benedict O’Looney contacted us with this image of R Whites bottles which were found in Peckham Rye Station

PeckhamStationBottles

They were discovered lying on bare soil beneath the floorboards during the recent resoration of north wing of the satation, presuably discarded by no-longer-thirsty builders!

 

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8 thoughts on “R. White’s Mineral Water

  1. Thanks for this.
    Please may I use the information on a web page remembering Caroline Rennles maiden name Caroline Webb who was born in Camberwell and lived at 45 Harling Street. She worked at Slade Green Munitions Factory during the First World War. Here is a link to her Life Story on Lives of the First World War.

    https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/7674574

    1. Of course – you’d be most welcome. If you could include a link to our site, that’d be even better! And thanks for drawing attention to the interesting IWM site. And another connection is to our page on the Zeppelin raid in 1917

  2. I am interested to learn more about the early history of R.Whites for a TV documentary and would be interested to hear from anyone with a knowledge or early R.Whites memorabilia.

  3. What number Neate Street did the R Whites premises occupy please. Was it any
    where near number 133 – 137 Neate Street please?

  4. I have a clay R White bottle that I found while working in Elstree in London. It has a few chips but is intact. I wondered if it is worth anything?

    1. Do you have a picture you can send us (firendsofburgesspark@gmail.com)? It might be worth a few pounds now. We recently bought quite a few on eBay – it’s worth doing a search there. They’re not uncommon at all, and broken ones are found all over the park now, as soon as any soil is turned – see here

  5. Lived in Neate Street 1942-1963 when we were moved out from prefabs to make way for the so called next Hyde Park. Remember also Haycock Press and the tent factory. Our prebab no was 42 .

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