By 1912 Needlers price list had expanded to nearly six hundred items: 106 caramels and toffees, 79 pastilles and lozenges, 33 rocks and cracknels, 34 tinned assortments, 74 chocolate lines - and a staggering 224 kinds of boiled sweets. All from one firm - and Britain had hundreds more. Visitors to 1914’s trade show, the last before war broke out, when company reps still wore tops hats, would have blinked at the sparkling glass: rank after rank of sweet jars, packed with colours and corners, like so many kaleidoscopes frozen in mid-tumble. Floral Tablets, Pear Drops, Clove Cushions, Army Rock, Lime Juice Pastilles, French Almond Rock, Bon Bon Kali, Hothouse Grapes - every conceivable combination of fruit, nuts, sugar, herbs and spices, boiled up and turned into sweets.
Wonder at these names, barely discerned in faded photographs: Moonstone Assorted, Cocoa Scotch Cubes, Trinidad Candy, Alabama Coons, Town Hall Gums, Berlin Mixture... Lovely names, but as baffling as hieroglyphics. Flavours, shapes, colours - all lost. Everton Mints and Lemon Sherbets are still with us; Caramel Bullets, Choc Cream Dots and Dolly Pears we might make an educated guess at. But what on earth were Tom Tit Mix, Little Yorkshire Girls, and San Toy Mixture, all 2oz a penny from Horns? Hard to say, but they sound delightful.
Why so many? Why the need for such restless invention?
Because sweets have always been more than sweets. Used for medication, meditation, resuscitation, as dummies, bribes, tokens of love - confectionery had an all-embracing agenda. Breath freshening too, with tiny cachous, perfumed and delicately tinted. Who could resist these jars, crystal minarets with queer and exotic labels: Opoponax, Heliotrope and Pink Aromatics, Tsfani-Ihang, Phul-Nana and Shem el Nessim? Or, saucy and upfront, Sweet Lips and Kiss Call.
Who could resist? Men could. Breath freshening today is a unisex imperative, but Edwardian chaps would rather carry the hum of stale ready-rubbed - bear it with pride! - than be overheard asking ‘An ounce of Sweet Lips, please.’
With sweets widely regarded as effeminate and childish, sales to males demanded a knack for diplomacy. This helps explain Batger’s Jockey Club, an odd name for sweetly-scented cachous but a perfect face-saver. It may well have been this same cleverly-marketed brand which accounted for the considerable amount of cachous purchased by MPs from the House Of Commons shop.
Confectionery was already surrounding itself with guilt and humbug. Fibs came easy. Call your sweets cough drops and perhaps you’d get away with it. No one could accuse a man of sissiness, not while he sucked on a mouth-sized brick which could include anything - peppermint, ginger, cayenne pepper, sassafras even wintergreen - with fusions so fearsome and macho as to risk spontaneous combustion. People even wrote to newspapers, asking for mints to be segregated from other sweets since the smell and taste contaminated anything within six feet. Jokes about the effect of mints on the digestive system were numerous and coarse. ‘Take some when you go yachting,’ advised one wit, ‘just in case the wind drops. We gave our captain peppermints and he was able to bring us home in record time!’
Others looking for excuses could always claim the goodness angle. A spin on the name was all it took: Grapejuice Caramels, for instance, or All Fruit Nutlets. Children were unlikely to share a taste for Keiller’s Lactor Chocolate. ‘Guaranteed to contain highly active bacillus,’ proclaimed the wrapper. The magic ingredient was Bulgarian sour milk - as recommended by the serious-sounding Prof Metchnikoff. Inspired by the longevity of Balkan peasants, Prof M’s formula was touted as a perfect answer to rheumatism, neuritis, indigestion, not to mention the tactfully-termed auto-intoxication.
But, surely, confectionery ought to be fun. Like Rocket Rinking Toffee, all the rage in 1910, the perfect chew for that Edwardian pick-up place, the rollerskating hall. Looking cool couldn’t have been too easy though. There must have been many an awkward moment when the toffee - not nicknamed stickjaw for nothing - was at its tooth-clamping stickiest.
For younger kids, fizz was the biz. Teasdale’s 1911 New Season Kali, for instance, was announced with as big a fanfare as the latest Beaujolais. Could it really have been that much different to 1910’s kali? It may well have been. Sweet-makers were bold, innovative, and perhaps slightly crazy. Kids waiting at the sweetshop door never quite knew what would turn up next - sweet tobacco, candy confetti, liquorice chains, boiled sweets in the guise of gooseberries and lemons. Whatever it was, they’d always be tickled, could count on a fair exchange for their precious pennies. The time when new products would only appear after surveys, committee debates and banking advice was still a long way off. Factory owners were more than happy to leave things to the eccentric genius of their sugar-boilers...
When Fred Needler set up in Hull in 1886 his staff comprised of two - a sugar boiler and a lad named Watson. The ‘man and a boy’ set-up was something of a joke even then. One of history’s unsung menials, Watson’s tasks would have included anything Needler and his boiler disdained. They had a horse and cart, so it’s probable that Watson, as well as sweeping floors and humping boxes, did the deliveries too.
A year previously Fred had been the junior, at Buckton’s confectionery just across the road from Hull station. His mother had secured him the post, ostensibly as a book-keeper, but everyone was expected to muck in, high-collars or not. Hours were long, conditions filthy, and the boss a drunken bully who disappeared for days on end - a lot to suffer for 5s a week. But Buckton’s benders gave Fred chance to pick up valuable knowledge. When the old soak finally went under and his business went up for sale, the two stoves, slabs, rollers, and sundry utensils necessary for making boiled sweets, listed at £100 - were bought for 22-year-old Fred by his mother.
Money and business brains were provided by Fred, but the real main man was his sugar boiler, one of the alchemists behind all sweet-making. Sugar turns liquid at 100° C, but it has to get hotter before work starts. A finger, licked and crack-nailed, was the dipstick of choice for many old hands.
Old hands gauged temperatures by sight, using a variety of tests. Between 107° and 110° the syrup gets tacky, forming threads when pressed between finger and thumb. At around 112° comes the ‘blow’ state: dip the round end of a skewer in the syrup and you can blow a sad bubble. At feather stage (115°) the bubble bursts, leaving flossy threads floating in the air (which gives us the simple principle behind candy-floss). And soon we’re in business...
118° is soft ball, 121° hard ball, when a pea-sized blob moulded between finger and thumb and thrown on floor should bounce - perfect for caramels and butterscotch - and, no doubt, some great fun when the boss wasn’t watching.
At around 137°C comes Soft Crack, when syrup dropped into cold water hardens immediately, cracking and sticking to the teeth when chewed. Another 15° (between 154° and 160°) and it becomes Hard Crack, as brittle and translucent as glass, perfect for boiled sweets. Sweets to you and me that is; the trade prefers ‘deposited boilings’ - technically correct but hardly suitable for the soft sell.
Control is vital. At 151° the syrup yellows, turning into barley sugar. A spot of bleach would be sufficient to fix that, though a drop of colouring could easily suffice to hide any defects. But any more boiling and the stuff becomes Black Jack - useless for anything.
Turned out onto a slab (greased by lard, olive oil or petroleum jelly), colours and flavourings were added and the molten gunge was kneaded, turned, folded and thumped a hundred times while it cooled. After being rolled out into an elongated sausage - or ‘rope’ as they called it - pieces were snipped off with oiled scissors, the flattened ends giving a sharp-cornered pillow shape to the sweets.
By pressing two or three or more lumps of molten sugar together prior to rolling out, all kinds of patterns could be obtained. Stripes and chequerboards were kids’ stuff. and even a Union Jack didn’t take a much planning. With a good eye and a sense of humour, arty sugar-boilers could make all kinds of novelties - miniature slices of orange, for instance, formed with half a dozen roughly triangular lumps wrapped around by a sheet of ‘peel’ and then extruded and sliced.
Most sweets and toffees were made to order. Apart from gums and pastilles, which might take up to a week to dry, little stock was kept in reserve. But, even in small batches, weekly output soon amounted to around ten tons. Turnover was healthy, the money rolled in. By the turn of the century, with Watson and the boiler joined by ten girls and 23 men, Needler’s humble workshops were getting crowded. In 1905 they all decamped to bigger premises, where the workforce soon grew to hundreds.
Ingredients arrived daily, by the cartload - barrels of glucose, boxes of starch, bottles of acids, wooden crates packed with oranges, lemons and grapes. All the men were rallied to help, unloading the supplies along a human chain. Sugar loaves - conical sticks of moulded crystals weighing anything up to 14lbs - were the main form in which the industry’s most vital resource arrived.
In one process oranges were grated against the rough surface of sugar loaves, the flavoured crystals then being scraped off and stored in jars for later use. The oranges, wrecked and denuded, were given away to employees, thereby providing management with waste disposal and worker welfare in one.
The scale of manpower (more accurately, womanpower) needed to run a confectionery factory was staggering. From cutting out and folding boxes, to an inspection for each chocolate soldier, every stage called for a keen eye and nimble feminine fingers. Every chocolate was decorated by hand, by girls who’d become experts in squiggling, swirling and scoring. Fifty lasses were assigned to caramel-wrapping duty, with twenty more to weigh and box. Nuts for Needler’s famous Buttered Brazils had to be cracked open one by one, a job for a team of twelve girls wielding hammers. Glass jars, which Needlers pioneered the use of, were returned empty, properly washed in soapy water and dried with a tea towel. At lunchtime Needlers’ high-roofed canteen hummed with the chatter of over 300 girls. And girls they were, since most started at fourteen, as soon as they left school. Smartly dressed in works uniform of bow ties and starched polka dot dresses they were widely regarded as a credit to their employers.
‘Happy as a lark, chirpy as the morning sparrow’ was how one observer described girls at another firm. And lest anyone scorn them as working-class drudges, let this fan hasten to disabuse them. ‘Many of the women make up in the evening into well-dressed respectable members of society. They like factory life and prefer it to the endless rope of domestic service...’
But sparrows often starve. If food was short at home, work provided an ideal opportunity for free snacking. Sometimes, if caught out, they were hauled up to the manager’s office for a ticking off. Now and then one got nabbed by the Grim Reaper instead - like the young almond sorter who died shortly after collapsing with agonising gut pains. Doctors confessed themselves mystified - until her workmates spoke about the poor starving soul trying to keep body and soul together by nibbling dozens of nuts from the production line. And there, amongst all the sweet almonds, enough bitter ones - up to 8% prussic acid - to kill her.
A girl’s career as a box-folder or nut-cracker could be curtailed by other indiscretions. Like falling in love. At Needler’s, rules called for Saturday’s brides to leave on the preceding Friday. With a suitable send-off, of course, and a company wedding present, value dependent on length of service.
While firms like Needlers grew, many sweetshop owners still made their own goodies in a back room or shed. Some tongs and knives, a couple of saucepans and a stove were ample tackle for some entry-level sugar-boiling. A marble slab would be handsome, but for those who couldn’t afford state-of-the-art, any old table might suffice. Recipes and tips were easy to come by. Here’s one for sherbet.
With appearance almost as important as taste, good colours were vital to catch the eye. D-I-Y-ers avidly followed the advice in trade journals, like this formula for a toothsome red:
‘The young woman of today owes much to this little bug,’ the writer noted. ‘The roses in her cheeks, her crimson lips - not to mention the pink ices and chocolate creams which she loves to eat - all are given colour by these little insects from the Canary Islands.’
Colourings were one thing, but flavourings were often beyond the amateur, however enthusiastic. Synthetic vanilla, for example, could be obtained by oxidising glucose from the sap of conifers - a daunting task for do-it-yourselfers, even those with a larch plantation down the road. Far easier to buy it in handy packs from one of the increasing number of professionals, the Confectioners Vegetable Colours and Fruit Essences Co, for instance, based in Hackney Wick.
Chlorophyll of spinach sounded yukky, but it produced a lovely green. The new products were infinitely preferable to extracts of chromium, copper, mercury and arsenic - all widely used until an outcry in The Lancet in the 1850s. The latest colours, though sounding just as fearsome, were quite safe. Pretty pink, obtained from hydrochlorate of phthalein of Di-Ethyl-meta-amido-phenol; cherry red came from sodium salt of tetra-iod-flourescine. And what, pray, was sodium-benzene-napthosulphonic acid? Simply red.
What with rivalries, money worries and keeping up with developments (not to mention sugar tax at a halfpenny a pound) home-based sweet-makers were often stressed out. In South Wales people still talked about the Llanelli man who prised the lid off a barrel of sugar from Cuba and found a Negro’s severed head staring at him. Gruesome tales lived on for years. It provided a great argument-clincher for wheedling kids. The bogeyman may not come to their bedrooms, but did they want his nasal hairs in their toffee?
Almost matching it for gothic horror is this tale of a fellow tradesman up the road in Cardiff. One spring evening, cheesed off with kids messing around the door of his Greyhound Street workshop, he scattered them with a pan full of lukewarm water. When their mother turned up to complain about her sodden offspring (wasn’t one wash a week enough?) he brandished an iron bar in her face. But Sarah Jones was a feisty sort. She refused to back off. As the row escalated the sweet-maker picked up a pan from the stove and chucked the contents at her - not water this time, but boiling sugar, half a pint of frothing crack, ruined now because of the aggro. A crowd, attracted by the screaming, found Mrs Jones with a huge blister already forming across her throat and breasts, her hair matted into a glittering cake. But this was worse than a bad hair day. Much worse. As the sugar cooled it formed a translucent mask, through which horrified onlookers could see the poor woman’s countenance, burned and bubbled - ‘the skin drawn in such a way as to take the face out of all resemblance to a face.’ As panicky first-aiders picked off the flakes of dried sugar, large pieces of skin came away with it. Mrs Jones looked boiled, flayed and very very upset.
‘I thought it contained cold water,’ the sugar-boiler told magistrates.
‘Aha!’ The prosecution swooped. ‘Then why did you take off your cap to hold the handle with it?’
After being fined £5, ‘the sugar boiler thanked his lordship and left the court in tears - to receive the hearty congratulations of his friends.’
With hours in the kitchen followed by hours in the shop, a small trader’s life was one of hard work and hassle for modest rewards. The run-up to occasions like Easter and Christmas was especially hectic. But, when the clamour died down and the Closed sign went up, maybe there’d be a few minutes peace. Time, perhaps, for a peek at the festive issue of his trade magazine, The Sweet Shop. Best to make sure his missis was not around though. Many years before Page Three came Page 22. The headline was not ‘Phwoar!’ but Compliments of the season from Natal’s new woman - and underneath, with a winning grin, a topless Bantu girl astride a bicycle. Quite what such blatant nudity had to do with sweets is unclear, but what the heck! Car traders weren’t the first to use sex to sell transport then. What if the old girl caught him? She’d never believe it was a piece about the latest errand boys’ bikes...
Women - always jumping to the wrong conclusions! Luckily, they were easily pacified with sweets, at least according to an one oracle writing in a confectionery trade journal.
Xenophobia came easily to traders who felt their livelihoods threatened by imports. At a trade fair in Yarmouth a drunken sugar-boiler abused a Russian visitor for a whole fifteen minutes, much to the amusement of the public. Perhaps the British could hardly be blamed for distrusting foreigners, especially when confronted with adverts featuring cartoon Frenchmen snakily hissing: ‘Vill you try mine nougat?’ (Any accent would do, it seemed, even if inaccurate). By being less up-front, other competitors could infiltrate more easily - like the German Confectionery Co, who were doing quite well until the First World War broke out. The firm’s Channel Mixture may have had dangerous hints of Continental ways, but their Britannia Assortment was sweet diplomacy.
This plaintive appeal, from a Tommy fighting the Boers was typical of many letters sent to folks back home. Charities responded noblely, collecting enough for 10,000 packs of Invalid Toffee, to be sent out to Red Cross stations in the veldt. Queen Victoria matched them, sending 10,000 tins of chocolate. Sweetmakers flew the flag too, repackaging products with all manner of topical names - like Buller’s Bullets, Khaki Toffees and Kruger’s Favourites. The Dewsbury Confectionery Co offered Ladysmith sweet cigarettes and Transvaal Toffee, while Filshills, makers of the gentle-sounding Reindeer Caramels, rushed out Real Tommy Atkins Rock. From Batgers came a series of marzipan generals - French, Buller, Roberts, Brabant, DunDonald.
Liquorice had a plasticity that was ideally suited, with twists, sticks, strips, laces and loops all taking on a wartime guise, reinvented as lifebelts, motor chains, telephones, cartridge belts and pneumatic tyres. Again, the names were delightful: Royal Navy Monster Screws, Military Braid, Telegraph Wires, Tommy Talkers and Dr Jim’s Rifles. And, for rounding up deserters, there were even liquorice handcuffs.
Celebrating war with sweets was nothing new: even the Crimean campaign had enjoyed its moment of sugar-coated glory in the shape of Alma Drops, Inkerman Balls and Sebastopol Balls. Impossible to imagine such exploitation now. Would Cadbury’s cash in on our patriotism with a Gulf War Chocolate Assortment or a Falklands Creme Egg? How about a Goose Green sherbet dip, a bag of SAS Caramels or Scud Nougat? Buller’s Bullets must have seemed perfectly normal to the Victorians, but would anyone today dare bring out sweet land mines or liquorice Kalashnikovs? For all that there is touching honesty about those sweets with the military touch, as if war was only a game for boys, which many believed it to be...
By the end of Victoria’s reign, chewing gum was well established. Great health benefits were claimed by some brands. Pepsin Gum, for instance, boasted one grain of pepsin in each piece - ‘enough to digest 1000 grains of food!’ What they didn’t bother to mention is that pepsin already existed in saliva and most people could slobber up enough of it to digest 10,000 grains of food.
Names - Dixie Liquorice, Susannah, Queen Of The May, Hiawatha - were as inventive as flavourings - blood orange, lime fruits, pineapple and vanilla. Since any supposed benefits were more than offset by potential hazards, perhaps Prudence would have been more apt than Susannah. Early versions of gum comprised anything from 8% to 30% paraffin wax. Little wonder that labels carried warnings - ‘This must not be eaten but chewed only’ - and gruesome fables were told about the fate of idiots who swallowed the stuff. Such folk-lore persists to this day, especially among older generations, despite modern gum being fairly harmless.
Gum, in one form or another, goes back centuries. Ancient Greeks had the sap from the mastiche tree (origin of our verb ‘masticate’). Women used it for sticking on false eyelashes, but its major function was breath-freshening. One Turkish Sultan used 125 tons a year, half the annual harvest, in his Constantinople seraglio. His girls must have had pretty bad breath, or else he had a thing about women chewing gum. In Britain, as far back as the 17th century, they had a kind of chewie, made with isinglass from sturgeons’ guts.
The modern story starts in the 1870s, in Staten Island where Mexican dictator General Antonio de Santa Anna, most famous for his attack on the Alamo was living in exile. Like a Desert Island Discs guest he’d chosen to bring with him an enormous lump of chicle, the chew of choice in Latin America. But the lump wasn’t to satisfy any addiction. Santa Anna had got it into his head that chicle’s rubbery properties could be exploited in some way, though he wasn’t sure how. Luckily his landlord, Tom Adams, was also a would-be inventor. At his suggestion they tried vulcanising it - in the hope of discovering a new kind of rubber.
No luck. Theory No.2 was that chicle would make a good setting for false teeth and a gummy friend was even persuaded to give it a test run. His verdict is not recorded, but after these faintly farcical experiments, Santa Anna gave up and moved on.
Adams decided to try selling the chicle for its original purpose - chewing - success came immediately. Eventually sold as New York Gum No.1 - ‘snapping and stretching’ - it paved the way for Adams and his sons to become America’s top gum company. Originally sold in balls, gum evolved into the shape of a stubby pencil and eventually flat strips. In the 1880s, in a bid to prolong its freshness and chewiness, brothers Frank and Henry Fleer hit on the idea of a candy coating. Merida, a mountain town in Venezuela, exported so much of the raw material to the USA that it became known as the city of chicle millionaires.
The key date is 1891, when chewing gum’s Messiah arrived in Chicago. Like the original Messiah, William Wrigley Jnr was unaware of his destiny. His father, a soap maker in Philadelphia, had given him a horse and wagon and sent him West, his mission to get Wrigley’s Scouring Soap better known. To persuade shopkeepers to stock it, William offered free packets of baking powder and chewing gum. Realising how popular gum was he decided that the old man could sell his own soap - chewing gum was Jnr’s future. His first brands were Lotta and Vassar. Juicy Fruit arrived in 1893, Spearmint a year later. Getting a foothold wasn’t easy. Adams and the USA’s top six had formed the Chewing Gum Trust, a cartel which meant serious competition. They offered Wrigley membership but, despite rough patches, he chose to go his own way, criss-crossing the states on a one-man sales drive, offering a whole catalogue of bribes, including razors, lamps, scales, etc. In 1906 he decided to concentrate all his efforts on his most successful brand - Spearmint. While his rivals cut back in response to the slump, Wrigley did the opposite. He wanted the big prize - New York. He’d tried before but found chewers were reluctant to change brands. This time, persistence paid off. More cities fell. By 1910 Wrigleys Spearmint was America’s favourite chew. Doublemint, introduced in 1914 - and optimistically described as having ‘the flavour of creme de menthe’ - made it a winning double.
The Wrigley name has been writ large on Western culture ever since - and is surely the only one to have its HQ immortalised in song by Frank Sinatra: ‘The Wrigley building, Chicago is...’
While the British public heeded advice to treat gum with respect, they hardly expected to find paraffin wax in their chocolate. Nor their children to be slain by it. Like poor Jessie Blake, a 12-year old Birmingham girl, who died from peritonitis two days after eating ‘chocolate chumps’ from the corner shop. Described by one critic as ‘half the size of a rolling pin, a nauseous thing thickly lathered with brown paraffin wax’ the chocolate chump was confectionery for plebs. To kids, whose pennies normally stretched only to cheap boiled sweets, it looked an marvellous feast - but it was crap. Some reckoned that chumps were made from ‘grocer’s sweepings’ - including soda, bits of soap, sawdust, candle wax.
Traders summoned to the coroner’s court vigorously defended their recipes. One expressed so much confidence in paraffin wax he volunteered to eat it for breakfast in a sandwich. Doctors, on the other hand, considered the stuff as beneficial to the digestive system as a plateful of cobblestones: it only dissolves at a much higher temperature than the body ever achieves and digestive acids have no effect either. An outraged public - doubtless agreeing with the writer who deplored the pathos and tragedy ‘in the thought of a child delightedly sucking that which turns out to be its death potion’ - called for chocolate chumps to be banned from sale.
Adulteration and poisoning hit the headlines on a regular basis. Stories all followed a basic pattern. Like that of little Liza Smith, for instance. Hours after eating a pack of Margy’s Toffee she started vomiting and quickly died. Rumours quickly spread. Margy’s Toffee was nothing but a witch’s brew, congealed and bar-sized, for poisoning innocent tots. But mightn’t it have been the pork Liza had eaten previous to the toffee? In Dublin, when two children died of peritonitis, analysts seized on their sweets, convinced that arsenic had been used in the colouring. In the end their deaths were pinned down to bad corned beef. Ice cream came under suspicion when Joe Rose, a 14-year-old errand boy, vomited an egg-sized lump of green substance and was soon after carried off to the mortuary. Since thirty of his fellow townspeople were affected, the Borough Analyst sent for poor Joe’s stomach, which was delivered in a sealed jar heaving with bacteria. But no concrete proof was ever found to link the illnesses with ice cream.
While it’s true that standards of hygiene left much to be desired, sweets seemed to attract more than a fair share of suspicion. Echoes of an old puritanism were not to hard to detect in people’s eagerness to blame ice cream, toffee and chocolate for illness and death. Sweets were frivolous. Death and suffering were biblical judgements on those who indulged their greed, mandatory punishment.
A certain glee also attended persistent rumours of evil practices. Wicked witches had been usurped by crooked factory owners. Fudge was made from glucose and rust. Marshmallows got their chewiness from horse glue. Grease from machinery was used to soften chocolate, and sweets were polished up with a solution of talc and washing-up water. When clocking off, workers in chocolate factories had to hand over their shoes for inspection - all the bits picked up during their shift being scraped off and thrown back into chocolate vats. But these colourful rumours were hardly more bizarre than reality, according to a report in the Daily Express. Sweets were often made with glue or size, colour being added by a dollop of coal tar. But it didn’t stop there. Inferior gelatine, used in cheap gums and pastilles, teemed with tetanus germs. Liquorice was coloured with lampblack and stiffened with household starch. Flavours were synthesised from all kinds of chemicals. Nitrate of ethyl for pineapple, valerienate of Amyl for apple. But pear flavour sounded distinctly dodgy - synthesised apparently from rotten cheese mixed with sulphuric acid and bichomate of potash. But it begs the question, how were such bizarre formulae discovered? Such experiments could hardly be initiated without some specialist knowledge, help from a corrupted chemist down on his luck...
Other cases of adulteration were more clear-cut, like the fruit drops coated with powdered glass, to give an appearance of sparkling sugar. No one died, but unsuspecting buyers suffered days of severe pain. Shopkeepers were aghast. Some suppliers had been caught bulking up brown sugar with sand - but this plumbed new depths. Had it really been done on purpose? No one knew for sure. Some thought it had, but others refused to believe anyone would stoop to such cynical cost-cutting. It must have been an innocent mix-up. Maybe the powdered glass had been delivered wrongly labelled and no one had seen any reason to check. On the other hand, what reason would a grocer have for ordering packages of ground glass?
Parents were understandably concerned. People began to treat sweets - and the men who sold them with a certain wariness. Caution was all very well, and justified, but nanny-ish concern could be taken to extremes, as in the case of those who fretted over the sale of sweet pebbles. What if a child got them mixed up with some real gravel? they asked, citing the poor mite who’d recently choked to death on a plum stone. Shopkeepers laughed at the idea: what child outside a home for the feeble-minded would ever get its sweets mixed up with gravel in the first place?
Despite these all-too-frequent cases, the evil hand of adulteration was less and less in evidence. With production on a bigger scale, such cynical cost-cutting exercises were much harder to get away. Big firms valued their reputations too much.
Machinery had already begun making inroads. At Needlers fearsome-sounding machines such as the Cyclone Pulverisor were busily pounding sugar into dust and nuts into paste. Dog-paddling mixers churned the ingredients, while clattering and clumsy guillotines cut out shapes, chopping off the occasional finger along the way. The first simple caramel-wrapping machine had arrived as far back as 1894, an adapted contraption previously used for packing shag and by the 1900s automated wrapping was catching on, the Oliver Twister being the most wittily named of many such machines. Early results weren’t too impressive, more like little parcels wrappd by drunken elves. By the end of Edward’s reign the raffishly-named Lightning Twister had arrived. Its adverts boasted ‘Security-Regularity-Attractiveness’ and at top speed this clattering Heath-Robinson device, one-man operated, could turn out 58 wrapped sweets per minute, all with perfect fantail ends. But then so could one of Needler’s polka-dotted lasses.
‘Can be worked by a boy’ proclaimed an advert for the Eureka steam-powered sugar-boiling machine (on minimum wages of course). Likewise, the Blackcurrant Strigging Device - ‘does the work of thirty girls.’ As, no doubt, could a Patent Gooseberry Snuffer. Yet automation seemed at odds with the industry’s avuncular style. Employers who genuinely cared for their employees would surely not replace them by a strigging machine. No, they’d keep them in work, ensuring each twig received personal attention, probably equipping each girl with one of the latest Patented Artificial (Hygienic) Thumb Nail - low-tech with kindness.
Vending machines were already a common sight on railway stations and in theatres. Even in 1896 a single machine at Paddington or Waterloo might take £2000 a day - an awful lot of pennies for someone to count. They could even be found on buses, at the foot of the stairs. More often than not these early automats were jammed - with hair-grips, pins, nails, tin discs. People inserted anything in the hope of getting a free chocolate bar. Maybe they were merely confused by new technology, hardly surprising given the instructions affixed to some machines:
DROP PENNY, IN SLOT, ABOVE,
GRIP, HANDLE, TIGHT, TURN RIGHT,
HANDLE, SLOWLY, HAS REQUIRED
The Sweetmeat Automatic Machine Company had three thousand automats on lease. To help in the ceaseless fight against fiddling, each one had three security locks. With 20,000 spare keys kept at head office along with the tons of carefully piled pennies it is a wonder the floors didn’t collapse...
A century before Camelot made gambling a national pastime, Britain had the Automatic Cackling Hen Company.
These mechanical birds could be bought outright for £7.50, or hired on a weekly basis. Each of the sixty paper eggs it held contained a cheap sweet and - for the lucky punters - a coupon entitling them to a box of chocolates, pot of jam or somesuch - a real luxury for urchins who played the mechanised laying system. Similar, but without the chickenesque charisma, were Lucky Potatoes and Sensation Balls, twopenny sweets which held an occasional prize voucher. Kids loved these games of chance, but others took a dim view of it all.
‘Illegal and disgusting,’ cried critics, an unholy alliance of salvationist spoilsports and shopkeepers who resented every penny that went into a rival’s pocket. Killjoys also had a downer on Lucky Bags, which were blamed for leading weak souls into a lifelong gambling habit. Many were undoubtedly a rip-off, but the better ones - Clinkers Lucky Bags, for instance - contained decent little amusements, like jacks, a spinning top or monkey on a stick.
The inventor of the cackling hens eventually appeared in court, charged with breaking the Lottery Act. Giving evidence, a policeman who’d kept watch on one shop, told of numerous children placing pennies in the slot and trying their luck. They were merely seeking amusement from the hen’s cackling, protested the defendant, claiming he was merely trying to encourage young people to take an interest in poultry - a ludicrous excuse that failed to save him from a £3 fine.
It wasn’t until 1897 that Cadbury’s were able to offer Britain’s sweet-toothed any halfway decent ‘milk chocolate’. Together with Fry’s and half a dozen others they’d been trying for a winning formula since the 1850s, but early versions were bitter and crumbly. Those who could afford chocolate - and it was not within the budgets of children or poor folk - preferred to spend their money on the more refined Dutch, Swiss and French versions.
Fry’s were probably first to successfully reproduce the continental style - their Five Boys bars came out in 1902 - but Cadbury’s weren’t far behind, putting blocks of Cafe Au Lait on sale the same year. Continuing experiments at Bourneville finally produced the lighter, more attractive chocolate they sought. Names suggested for it included Jersey, Dairy Maid and Highland Milk. By splicing the last two together and introducing it, in 1905, as Dairy Milk, Cadbury’s gave Britain one of its oral classics.
Chocolate assortments were becoming increasingly popular - success that owed not a little to the packaging. Asked to brighten up the hitherto plain style of Milk Tray boxes, Richard Cadbury, a dab hand with oils and watercolours, saw a perfect opportunity to satisfy his artistic leanings. Encouraged by enthusiasm shown for his first attempt - a painting of his daughter Jessica with her kitten - he rushed out a series of scenes from his holidays. It sounds like the slide show from hell - on a nationwide scale. But Richard’s cheerful vignettes brought a welcome touch of colour and fresh air into ordinary lives and children eagerly cut out chocolate box pictures to stick in scrapbooks.
In toffee history, there is BM and AM, before or after Mackintosh’s. Up until the crucial date - 1892 - toffee had been brittle and unappealing, quite lacking in chewiness. John Mackintosh, a Halifax baker who sold confectionery as a sideline, had a brainwave: ‘Why not combine English butterscotch with the soft caramel favoured by Americans?’ The first batch was boiled up by Mrs M in a brass pan over the kitchen fire. So confident were they of their toffee’s appeal it was handed out free to customers. Not that they intended to make a habit of such generosity The following week an advert appeared in the local paper:
People did. Word spread. When Mackintosh’s little shop began to get too crowded John and his wife opened a market stall selling just toffee. From then on cakes and bread took a back seat. Within a couple of years Mackintosh’s toffee provided employment for a a thousand workers. In 1899, when the company was floated, Mackintosh tried to borrow £3000 towards it from his bank, but the manager just laughed at his nerve: even if Mackintosh’s made every piece of toffee in UK it could never justify such an ill-advised loan. John had to resort to begging subs from his friends, but their confidence in him and his toffee was repaid many times over.
In keeping with the last part of his creed, Mackintosh sent a tin of toffee and a macintosh to every MP in the 1905 parliament. Such was the company's reputation that the RC archbishop of Glasgow attributed his popularity with children to sharing the same name as the toffee king.
Sugar seemed to sweeten everyone it made a fortune for. Was it some kind of symbiosis? A lazy analogy, on the face of it, even a cliché. Yet the evidence would certainly bear out such a theory. One glance at their portraits would be enough for those who pride themselves on their intuition. No mutton-chop whiskers or flinty stares here. These are not the hard men of Victorian enterprise. Our sweet-makers have jaunty 'tashes and eyes with a definite twinkle. They were businessmen, of course - but you could well believe it was all just a clever ploy to finance their grand plans...
And Cadburys were arch-exponents. Was there a hidden agenda? Quakers had been forced into trades like confectionery by being debarred from the professions. One would hesitate to call their philosophy one of revenge, but it certainly had elements of poetic justice...
Philanthropy was noblesse oblige. Sedition is a word that others might choose. George Cadbury subsidised The Sweating Exhibition in 1904 (not a promotion for soaps and colognes, but an exposé of the underbelly of British industry) and funded the propaganda of the delightfully-named Anti Sweating League.
Thirty years had already passed since the first trainload of pale and dazed Brummies arrived at Bourneville, Cadbury’s greenfields site south of the city. For workers this truly was Utopia, run with the benefit of every progressive policy the Victorian mind could think up. They had it all: pension schemes, punctuality bonuses, piece work, profit-sharing, sick pay, clean overalls, heated changed rooms, paid holidays, Saturdays off, a works doctor, cheap railway fares, ‘music while you work.’ Even by today’s standards Cadburys - and Frys, Rowntrees and Terrys too - would not fall short. Workers were encouraged to know their rights, to read the Social Security and Factory Acts, while bible readings, prayers and summer camps were part of the quasi-religious cult of capitalism cum socialism.
While these kindnesses were welcomed by the workers, others viewed it as backdoor Socialism, a threat to the status quo. Birmingham gentry, in particular, blamed Cadburys generosity for enticing girls away from service. ‘What girl won’t choose a 7-hour day for 16s a week?’ moaned one letter writer in the Birmingham Argus - as if working a 17-hour day for £20 a year was a far better career move.
Though not quite on the same grandiose scale, Needlers’ employees also enjoyed welfare and pensions, as well as company-sponsored football, netball and cricket teams. Fred Needler spent at least 10% of his personal income on charitable causes, such as a hall of residence for Hull University, still known as Needler Hall. Even fizzy pop bosses and jam-makers were touched by the charity bug: Christmas in Liverpool always meant a gift of 10,000 jars of jam from the Hartleys factory. Others, though kind, were slightly crazy too. Caley of Norwich, for instance, who banned his clerks from using blotting paper in case it smudged the exquisitely handwritten invoices.
But such kindness was by no means universal. Quakers apart, many factory owners were natural Torys and in 1910 it was time for them to show their colours. To help with the election campaign, Derby confectioners were solicited for ‘any old scraps of dirty or spoiled sweets’ which Tory canvassers could hand out to local kids to show what kindly chaps they really were.
Mad bosses notwithstanding, the industry had hazards aplenty. Breaking a nail with a nutshell hammer was only the gentle end of it. Girls were especially wary of toffee-cutting machinery. Missing fingers not only looked bad, but how could a man give you a wedding ring? Lads who worked in starch rooms, where moulds were dusted to ensure the cooling sugar mixes didn’t stick, left work looking like white miners - ‘troupes of snowmen’ as one onlooker described them.
Some dangers were more insidious, with far more sinister consequences. For the poor lad from Clarnico’s toffee tin dept it started with a headache. Within two days the blue lurgy had attacked his face, neck and chest. Lead poisoning was the doctor’s diagnosis - almost certainly contracted through his work, soldering tins. Proof was impossible though and his employers flatly denied any blame. With young man’s death attributed to ‘natural causes’ it seems that dying in the service of capitalism was deemed no great sacrifice in those days.
Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori...
Not all youngsters would be bought off so easily. Many lads still preferred a drag instead and had only turned to sweets out of desperation when 'juvenile smokists' were outlawed by a 1910 law.
Sweating was, quite literally, a problem for the women at Murray’s London factory, who went on strike in protest at sweltering conditions. Their walk-out became a cause celebré, taken up by unions and the women’s movement. The girls, nicknamed Murrays White Mice, because they always left work covered in white starch dust, were a feisty lot and their strike chant (to the tune of Three Blind Mice) left no one in any doubt of their mood.
‘We will crush this strike,’ said Murray’s bosses, adding some choice words of contempt for the ‘agitating ladies’ of the Women’s Movement who scored political points by egging on their working class sisters. But after two weeks of lost production the management caved in, agreeing to a wage rise and proper tea breaks for the women workers.
No longer content with a role as nutcrackers and box-folders, many women, especially those with family money behind them, were aiming higher. The Ladies Confiserie Company - with a highly-respectable address in Buckingham Palace Road - offered courses for women hoping to make a mark in the trade’s upper echelons. Run by the delightfully named Miss Spenderel-Moody (an ideal role for Margaret Rutherford), this college offered a single private lesson for 7/6, though how much one might learn from one lesson is anyone’s guess. Ten lessons came to five guineas, while a six-month course cost £50.
Many, especially the trade’s universally male bosses, scoffed at their naive enthusiasm.
‘Why pay a sugar boiler good money when young ladies are quite willing to pay you to learn the trade? And what a pretty sight, to watch them arrive for lessons with their dainty embroidered satchels...’
For sweet-toothed people, war is a real drag. Bombs and bullets are bad enough, but not nearly so tiresome as those constant demands for self-sacrifice. Denial becomes civic duty - but not everyone conforms willingly. To encourage waverers London County Council published a list of commandments.
Girls at one school made a public pledge: for as long as the war lasted none would buy a single bullseye, pear drop, liquorice stick or sherbet dab. Poor kids. How were they to know they’d just signed up for a four year fast? One hopes that no mean so-and-so forced them to keep their promise. Everyone agreed: it’d be a miserable life without sweets. In ‘Life Without Lollipops’, a guest editorial in a trade magazine, MP Spencer Leigh Hughes waxed sentimental about the ‘invisible joys’ of confectionery.
In church, in work, in class, on the tube, we can eat sweets at any time. One man I know sucks toffee on the Treasury bench. There are cross-grained critics who would pillory a man for such, eating toffee at a time of national crisis, and compare it to Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Those who couldn’t give up could at least make a token bow to the flag. John Bull Caramels, Duchess Chocolates, Tally-Ho Mixture, Colonial Assortment - such names were stamped with Britishness. Little surprise then in the cool reception given to the Hindenburg Toffee sold by one Edinburgh shop. But the name was intentional - so claimed the man who made and sold it - meant as a wind-up, a jeer at the Hun. Made from treacle and best butter, his toffee was so toothsome, so melt-in-the mouth, that those who chewed it could make it vanish in minutes - just as our soldiers would see off Hindenburg’s rabble.
If sweets were considered frivolous while men died in the trenches, buying foreign confectionery was viewed as downright treason. It wasn’t always easy to tell. Chocolate boxes, with their cottages, roses, cherubic children and puppy dogs, epitomised English life - yet many, so it turned out, were trimmed with ribbons made in Germany. Patriots called for a complete embargo. Even neutral countries were viewed with suspicion. Calls were made for Swiss chocolate to be turned away from the docks. How could true Brits stomach the stuff when it probably contained German sugar? The Swiss protested: their supplies all came from France and they had paperwork to prove it.
When it came to patriotism or profit, most citizens had their priorities sorted. But many firms were still willing to do business with Germans - enough of them to worry Westminster into rushing through its Trading With The Enemy Act. Rules were easily sidestepped though. Cocoa bought in from British colonies could be legitimately re-exported to neutral companies - and if firms there chose to sell it on to the Germans how could anyone prevent them? (A similar twisty voyage could easily explain that ‘French’ sugar used by the Swiss).
The industry was in chaos. Many imported ingredients simply stopped getting through. Supplies of gum arabic, for instance, vital for the chewiness of many sweets, were cut off when Sudan fell under German rule and remained unavailable until the country was liberated in 1918. Sugar, also in short supply, became an emotive subject. One shopkeeper, seeing a man in a cafeteria put eight lumps in his tea, had to be physically restrained from clocking him one.
Sugar had a deadly side too. A munitions factory worker was hauled up in front of magistrates and fined £2 - a week’s wages - for being found with two barley sugars in his pocket. A trivial offence on the face of it, but if sugar from the sweets had somehow come into contact with the acid used in bombs - even a drop of slobber could have done it - the factory could have been blown sky high.
To justify their use of sugar, milk and other essentials, manufacturers were eager to reinvent their products. Cachous were not sweets but breath fresheners. Gum was an essential aid to concentration. A serious role for ice cream was harder to think of, but makers still protested at a threatened ban. Milk and butter were good wholesome foodstuffs, vital for public morale, everyone agreed on that - so why should their ice cream, made with the self-same ingredients be dismissed as a frivolous indulgence?
But it was chocolate sparked the biggest debate. Such vital resources - 70,000 gallons of milk at one factory alone - should surely not be squandered just to keep schoolkids and shopgirls happy. Pro-chocolate lobbyists argued that it was essential soul food. Chocolate provided Britain’s Tommies with energy and comfort. Love by proxy. Its manufacture should be recognised as part of the war effort, as important as producing munitions. The country should produce as much as possible.
Despite all these protests, by 1916 an official embargo had to be imposed on sales on confectionery in cinemas, theatres and music halls. All milk - fresh, condensed or powdered - was banned for use in chocolate.
A Huddersfield toffee firm who requested military exemption for their chocolate maker, on the grounds that it would mean two girls losing their jobs as well, were turned down flat. Chocolate eating was unpatriotic, said the Appeals Board chairman and those who encouraged and profited from it were equally damned. Let the man go and do his duty. Two fit girls would have no difficulty finding work in a laundry or a kitchen.
Other requests for exemption were met with brisk and cheerful logic. Since the confectionery trade was now racked by uncertainties, a spell at the front offered shopkeepers the perfect chance to leave their business worries behind.
With chocolate increasingly rare, those who’d sent bars to their men at the front had to fall back on cheaper sweets. The reaction of a Middlesex regiment to the arrival of a 1-ton crate of bulls-eyes is not recorded. Doubtless meant kindly, it looked an austere gift compared to the chocolate still being sent to their Belgian allies. While poor rookies sat in their trenches rolling gobstoppers around their teeth and staring death in the face, les copains from Brussels and Ghent were tucking into honeyed chunks of Toblerone. ‘As supplied to the Belgian Army’ Tobler proudly stripped in on its adverts.
Though Wilfred Owen’s poems failed to mention it, Tommies trudging across the muck of abandoned battlefields came across on item more than any other - not bullet cases or cigarette butts, but discarded gum wrappers. Originally classed alongside chocolate as a non-essential, chewing gum makers had lobbied vigorously for recognition of its benefits. An invaluable aid to concentration, gum-chewing helped our soldiers think clearer, aim better, stay awake longer - and since that was exactly what army generals wanted gum received an official OK.
Soldiers needed no convincing. Gum had already acquired its own mythology. One GI sergeant, so the story went, with his unit cut off from supply lines, had to chew the same piece for 14 weeks and was devastated when it went missing during a retreating from an ill-timed foray over the top. So distraught in fact that he had no hesitation in turning straight back to look for it. Inspired by his guts, and thinking he was leading another assault his men followed. So many of them that when the Germans saw them coming they abandoned their trenches. The sergeant got the Military Cross. And the lost gum? Found sticking to the heel of his boot.
Whether soldiers depended on it or not, traditionalists viewed gum as an unwelcome intrusion in the British way of life. ‘When the big war is over one more Americanism will have taken hold,’ complained one die-hard.
Back home, in German air attacks, Zeppelins led. Having heard clattering on the roof tiles as one passed over their house in Essex, two schoolboys got a ladder from the shed and climbed up to investigate. War souvenirs were prized possessions in the schoolyard. To their astonishment, instead of bullet cases or a lost tunic button, they found a handful of sweets caught in the guttering. Understandably wary the boys handed over their booty to police who sent the sweets off for analysis. And, indeed, traces of arsenic were found. Chemists were aware that certain chemical changes in glucose can produce such deadly specks, so there was no concrete proof of its origin. But why let facts stand in the way of a good rumour? The dastardly Hun were trying to kill Britain’s kiddies by dropping poisoned lollipops... A queer story. Odd tactics. But those sweets had got on the roof somehow. Was it really an evil plot, or a simple pathetic gesture of friendship in the midst of hostilities?
Not all the Zeppelins made it home. Though Cadburys vainly requested exemption for half of their 324 male workers (and no way would they be excused an appointment with death for anything as useless as making choc bars) at least the family heirs were doing their bit. Egbert Cadbury, son of Richard, was decorated for bringing down one of the spooky dirigibles off the Norfolk coast.
Others were less worried by air raids than the increasing numbers of lady reps who’d stepped in to replace men away at the front. ‘If they think that fluttering eyelashes will make a sale they are very much mistaken!’ chuntered one shopkeeper.
Introduced in 1915, just before supplies dried up, Cadbury’s Milk Tray was intended to complement the firm’s existing Plain Tray. The ‘trays’ took their name from the way in which chocolates were originally delivered to shops - on a tray containing five ½lb boxes, from which customers made their own pick ‘n’ mix choice. Bars of Dairy Milk had become Cadbury’s best-selling brand - so popular that they’d finally broken Swiss and French dominance of the chocolate market - and though they didn’t yet know it, with Milk Tray they were on to another enduring winner. By the mid-1920s this ‘box for the pocket’ would be outselling all other chocolate assortments - no small feat considering that by that time several hundred others were competing for space on sweetshop shelves.
A year after the Armistice, Cadburys took over Frys. They’d always been rivals, though hardly bitter ones. There was even a mutual agreement whereby their reps would repair each other’s advertisements and window-lettering, often sabotaged by less scrupulous rivals. Frys though had always had an edge on Cadburys. Established in as cocoa merchants 1822 and credited with making the first decent milk chocolate, by 1907 Frys employed 4500 workers and had seven factories in Bristol. Notwithstanding Cadbury’s successes, when people thought of chocolate Frys was still the first name to spring to mind. They became, ipso facto, By Appointment to virtually every explorer who ever donned an anorak or pair of goggles. They’d supplied Captain Scott with ‘cocoa and chocolate equipment’ for his ill-fated Antarctic trip. Alcock and Brown were fans too, nibbling Fry’s Vinello chocolate bars during their 16-hour flight across the Atlantic.
But, like many firms, Frys had been hit hard by the post-war slump and found themselves in deep financial mire. Cadbury’s, by comparison, were fit and buoyant. Company policy had always been to pay in full for all purchases. Cash rich, with no debts and no creditors, they were happy to bail out Frys by buying shares - enough of them to seize virtual control. Being Quakers, rapaciousness hardly fitted their creed and the British Cocoa and Chocolate Company was set up to oversee both companies, its brief that neither one should lose its identity. But, in reality, Fry’s had become a virtual subsidiary.
At the end of the war confectionery companies counted their dead. One firm alone, Rowntrees, had lost two hundred employees, not counting the scores of limbless and shell-shocked who would never return to their old jobs...
To be fair, Cadbury's did allow Fry's to keep their name on all their products well into the 1970s, and few people were even aware that there was any connection between the two companies. Even today their Turkish Delight still carries the Fry's signature, even if it's only to distinguish it from the newer - and less charismatic - Cadbury version.