In 1849, John Thomas Morton (1828 – 1897) established a small factory in Aberdeen producing preserved and canned foods aimed primarily at the export market. In 1866 he relocated his head office to Leadenhall Street in the City, and in 1872 he opened a new cannery and processing plant in Millwall on the former site of Sir Charles Price’s Oil Works.
The success of the company saw its Millwall works quickly expand to include the site of former the Canal Iron Works as well as a site on the other side of Westferry Road (the two were connected by a tunnel under the road).
This 1885 photo shows the celebrations surrounding the closure of the toll gate in Westferry Road just north of Cuba Street. The buildings on both sides of the road – connected by flags – belonged to Morton’s at the time. The men behind the gate are local businessmen and dignitaries; it is likely that John Thomas Morton is among them.
Outside of the docks, Morton’s was for decades one of the the largest employers on the Isle of Dogs. And, unlike the docks, the firm employed many women. There was a sharp division of labour between the sexes: all tinsmiths and the like were men, cans and jars were filled by women, tin boxes were made by women, and men handled the packing. This is very clear in these photos from the early 1900s.
It is well known that Millwall Football Club was founded by Morton’s employees; a fact extensively covered in Millwall FC – The Millwall Year(s), so I’ll say no more about it here.
When Morton died in 1897, the business was taken over by his sons, Charles and Edward. Forbidden in their father’s will to trade under his name, the firm was renamed C & E Morton Ltd. By all accounts, John Thomas Morton was a bit of a queer fish: he left a large portion of his wealth to churches and charities, but nothing to his manager of forty years’ standing who had helped him build up his business.
Morton was a dedicated Puritan, and devoutly observed the Sabbath. He was a reserved man, with very few close associates, and his only known sentiment was towards his mother. He was emotionally cool, but just and honest.
Morton’s claimed that their factory workers were among the highest paid in London, and paid half-wages to workers who were serving in the armed services during WWI. In March 1914, however, the company – claiming it could not otherwise find sufficient labour – hired 4 young girls aged between 14 and 15 – in the tin-box making section – for less than the 18s to 20s a week that skilled women could expect to earn.
Suspecting a management ploy to reduce wages in general, the women demanded that the girls be moved to a department where no skilled work was involved. The management refused and 300 women walked out on strike, followed shortly after by other workers from other parts of the company.
Looking for union help, 800 women joined the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) while the men joined the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers Union. On 28 March a procession was organised from Millwall to Trafalgar Square.
Many meetings were held outside the Morton factory gates.
These meetings frequently enjoyed speeches from suffragettes and well known prominent women of the time. The following photo shows actress and acting manager Lena Ashwell (centre, light coloured fur coat) after she had addressed the strikers. On her right (our left) is suffragette and actress Eva Moore, and on her left is trade unionist and women’s rights campaigner Mary McArthur.
The strike lasted twelve days before the management, overwhelmed by the public support the strikers received, and embarrassed by the media coverage showing the girls singing and dancing in the streets, caved in and agreed to the strikers’ demands.
WWI broke out a few months after the end of the strike. Morton’s had for many decades already been a major supplier to the British Army:
Their factories were said to have produced anything that could be bought in a grocer’s shop – from cornflour to cigarettes, canned fish to meat paste. They built up a very good name and became suppliers to the British Army serving in India through the East India Company, and to many other parts of the world. It is said that most steam ships leaving British ports at that time carried Morton products.
(Lowestoft Archaeological & Local History Society)
Their canned rations were not exactly loved by soldiers, though, especially as there was often little opportunity to warm up the contents to make them somewhat more palatable.
Some products were welcome though, as described by one soldier who was a Morton’s clerk in civilian life:
30 December 1915
I spent my Xmas in the front line trenches 100 yards from the Huns & it rained the whole time and the only people who were allowed shelters were the platoon Sgts and we were continually dodging in & out on patrol. I had a nice box from the firm, our best brands of tinned fruits etc which I divided up amongst the platoon.
Sergeant George Smith, London Scottish Battalion
(From “Letters from the Trenches” by Jacqueline Wadsworth).
After WWI, the Lowestoft works of Morton’s displayed a Roll of Honour dedicated to the members of staff who had served in the armed services during the war. When the factory closed in 1988, it was presented to the Lowestoft War Memorial Museum
It of course included the names of those who worked for Morton’s on the Isle of Dogs (names printed in red are of those who ‘made the supreme sacrifice’).
Mentioned in the roll is Morton’s new Manchester Road site. In 1917, Morton’s purchased the lease on London Yard. The large warehouse is named as a ‘Jam Factory’ in the following map but there is no evidence that jam was manufactured there; other records state that it was used for the manufacture of cases, while the smaller sheds and open yard were used for storage:
Morton’s in Millwall could boast of having one of the longest river frontages of any Thames wharf.
However, the 1930s saw a serious decline in Morton’s business, due to increased competition from British and overseas companies in combination with the economic crisis of the 1920s. Former Morton’s worker Bert Hiscott (Text: Island History Trust Newsletter, Feb 1986):
The slump became acute especially after 1930, and more especially in the export trade (our main business) and experts were called in to see if the position could be improved….
Generally, the staff was reduced in a most drastic way, and the manner of doing it was inhuman. Mr T. the resident manager at Millwall, was called in late one day and was told, here’s a cheque, and we will want your house (which was on the premises) at such-and-such a date.
This system went on and men were replaced by, I presume, cheaper staff, at all levels. One instance: two of our gatekeepers (we had four gates) were disabled men, one minus an arm and one had a lame leg; each earned say £3.15s. per week. Each could sweep his yard and enter up his gate book, yet each was, I was told, replaced by a boy at about thirty shillings. It may have been necessary, but it was heartbreaking to see.
The high-handed approach of the new manager was also described by Mrs L Perfect (nee Juan) in the same IHT Newsletter:
I was at Mortons when Mr. Tibby was the manager. I don’t know whether he died or retired, but the new manager came from Lowestoft. He was a Mr. Evans, and he used to stride around the factory wearing a bowler hat on his head, and he wore a white coat with a belt round the middle.
Well, the first thing he did was to have all the cats in the Factory put to sleep. Then, he couldn’t understand why most of the employees were family – but of course he couldn’t do anything about that. Then he started trying to sack some of the employees; he didn’t have much luck until he got to our department, which was then called P5. He started by sacking our foreman, Fred Bailey. Well, that called a strike.
We were in the confectionary department; we came out, and opposite the factory, next door to the pub called The City Arms, was a small tea place where were used to spend some of our time. We were out for a fortnight, getting no money, as we didn’t belong to a union then. I was a teenager, earning twelve shillings and sixpence a week.
In the end he had to have us all back, because there was no one to set the machines up, and we were very experienced at it. He didn’t reign for very long.
In 1936, Morton’s – perhaps due to the decline in its business – decided to sell its Cubitt Town site, and advertised it in national newspapers. It took 10 years before the site was sold, to wharfingers Badcock’s, who had had previously occupied part of the site as a tenant of Mortons.
Unsurprisingly, Morton’s suffered bomb damage during WWII (most text in this section is taken from my book, The Isle of Dogs During World War II). On 7th September 1941, the first day of the Blitz, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) reported:
23:45 Westferry Road, Crude Oil Bomb
Preserving manufacturers-building of two floors, 10×40 ft, used as workshops and stores. Top floor and contents damaged.
This is almost certainly a reference to Morton’s (Islander Arthur Mather, reported damage to Morton’s when he scrambled out of the shelter in the morning of 8th September).
Oil bombs were 250 Kg or 500 Kg high explosive bomb cases filled with an inflammable oil mixture. The Luftwaffe used them only for the first year of the war, withdrawing them because of their frequent failure to detonate. The first bombing raid of the Blitz was during daylight, yet the LFB reported the fire as taking place at 23:45. Perhaps this bomb fell earlier in the evening but failed to detonate at the time.
Bill Maher also reported damage to Morton’s during the night of 19th and 20th March 1941.
…the wharves along Westferry Road were alight, Morton’s riverside received a high explosive and a great amount of damage was done to that part of the factory that was not burnt out a few months ago.
So my mum got me this job at Morton’s, just a run-about really. I worked there through the Blitz. And on the main roof, they had a flagstaff, and they would have a white flag always flying up there. And when the warning went they had all spotters up there. When it got really near, or perhaps you could hear the guns over Greenwich way, then they would pull the red flag up. And if it went red, you took cover.
The river side was where the shelters were. The other side – I was working over there. And so we had to stand in a doorway on the inland side, wait for a lull, and they would send you off in say twenty girls at a time, rushing across the open space where Germans were bound to kill you. And I can hear the aeroplanes screaming down, you know, it was an awful noise. And running – oh did I run, I was only little but I could run. It was fright, really. And running through the gate on the other side, down towards the parking bay, and there was some wooden steps, everyone was running up these wooden steps, and I took one leap, and I don’t know how I did it, I just leapt from the ground up on to this plank, and down the stairs on the other side. And of course by this time with the big guns going, you could hear the shrapnel going ‘ping!’ and ‘dong!’. And that’s how it was. And then you would all congregate in this big – it was like a warehouse and then sing – you would all have a sing-song. One half was singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’ and the other half was singing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. They both start and end at the same time, but you would try and drown the noise out. Then the ‘All Clear’ would go and we would all go back to work.
The 12th July 1944 entry in Bill Regan’s diary reports of a V1 strike on the Transporter Yard in the Mudchute (in the area where Friar’s Mead is now located). This caused much damage to buildings in the surrounding area, including to Morton’s Manchester Road factory. On 6th September 1944:
This morning, during short alert, bomb fell on foreshore at Morton’s, Manchester Road (Badcocks). 5 injured, invasion barge smashed.
After WWII, Morton’s was struggling and it was acquired by the Beecham Group, which concentrated production at Lowestoft and gradually ran down the Millwall works. This circa 1949 map shows Morton’s Millwall works at its largest size, but some sections – such as the riverside warehouses, were at least partially in use by other firms at this time (albeit firms with a business relationship with Morton’s or Beecham).
The Final Years
At the end of the 1950s, Beecham built a food and soft drinks distribution depot on the corner of Cuba Street (river end) and Westferry Road.
By 1980, most of the former Morton’s works west of Westferry Road had been derelict for some years (other than Beecham’s, but its days were also numbered).
As was the case with virtually every other industrial site on the Island during the 1980s, the works were demolished (including the Beecham’s warehouse).
The former Dockside Preserving Factory on the east side of Westferry Road was sold – in sections – to other firms and somehow managed to remain in industrial use while everything around it was redeveloped.
However, land and property development proved more lucrative than industry, and these buildings were also demolished. The former Blacksmith’s Arms (by then named Rogue Trader) was looking a bit lonely by now.
Peter Wright, while taking photos of the area, was thrilled to see remains of the tunnel under Westferry Road that used to connect the two halves of Morton’s. He had mentioned the tunnel a few times, but I was beginning to suspect he was imagining things :).
Morton’s last factory, in Lowestoft, closed in 1988 – around the time the last of its buildings on the Isle of Dogs were wiped off the map, close to a century and a half after the firm’s foundation by John Thomas Morton in Aberdeen.
The Morton brand still survives today, in India, and is in use by a former subsidiary of the firm which has been independent since 1947 (the same year that India gained its independence as a nation – probably not a coincidence, Morton’s in the UK may not have had a choice). It’s odd going to their website (http://www.mortonindia.com) and seeing the old familiar logo.