Smoking, drinking and the British sweet tooth

Sugar nippers

Made in England, 1800s
Cast and forged iron

Object number 1909.753
Given by the Old Manchester Committee

See this object at Manchester Art Gallery This object may not always be on display. Please check with the venue before visiting.

Sugar nippers

These sugar nippers date from the early 1800s. They were commonly used in kitchens to cut chunks of sugar from the large cone-shaped lumps in which it was supplied, before sugar was sold in the granulated form it comes in today.

Sugar was produced by enslaved Africans on British-owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean for 200 years from the 1600s. The plantations were immensely profitable and boosted the British economy to the extent that sugar was nicknamed 'white gold'. Most sugar was exported raw and then refined when it reached Britain. Sugar refineries were discouraged in the West Indies; partly because refined sugar didn't travel well during long damp ocean voyages, and also to afford maximum protection to British profits, as the refinement process considerably increased its financial value.

Life on the sugar plantations was much more hazardous than in the cotton plantations of the USA. Sugar production involved exhausting labour and long shifts in high temperature and humidity. Many Africans died within five years of arriving in the West Indies, quickly replaced by the slave trade's plentiful supply of fresh workers.

With the growth of the abolition movement in the 1780s, people became increasingly aware of the background to sugar production. In Manchester, in the 1820s, the Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society distributed pamphlets persuading Mancunians to buy free-grown sugar from other sources such as South Asia. Entitled ‘What does your sugar cost? A cottage conversation’, the pamphlet details a discussion between two women:

Lady: I sadly fear that you are of those who eat West India sugar. Every twenty-five people who eat West India sugar, keep at least one slave to make what they consume; and the more you eat, the more they work. Will you permit me to look at the sugar you eat?

Woman: Here it is Madam. I brought it on Saturday last…

This information was provided by curators from Manchester Art Gallery.


'Like sugar nippers that break off lumps of imperialist greed; I have been broken from my roots; corroded the culture of my families soul; Irish, gypsy. My grandparents forced by starvation to poverty, to rest in Manchester Industrial City. Ironic really I was fed sugar water by my granny to keep me strong at 3 hrs old.

Mary, a visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

You can view more responses to the sugar nippers by going to the interactive artwork Chained Reactions.