Trade began between Greenock and the sugar exporting colonies of the West Indies around the early 1730s, but very little of what was imported stayed within the area. Glasgow had been refining sugar since the 1660s, and so much of what was brought ashore at Greenock and Port Glasgow was shipped up river by cart.
It is possible that there were a number of small refining industries operating in the area at this time. However, the first commercial refinery was not established in Greenock until 1765, at the foot of Sugar House Lane, close to where the Oak mall now stands. It was built by Mr Mark Kuhl, and employed just a handful of men. Other refineries quickly followed and by the 1820s there were at least eight operating in the area.
By the 1870s, there were 14 or 15 large refineries in operation, producing a quarter of a million tons annually and employing thousands. At this time, there was no town in the Empire, outside of London, carrying out the trade so extensively and Greenock earned the title of Sugaropolis, sugar capital of Scotland.