Yorkshire has always had an exceedingly sweet tooth. The love affair probably dates from when sugar stopped being an expensive luxury reserved for the gentry; probably from 1660 when John Taylor set up his sugar refinery in Skeldergate, York and dentists started rubbing their hands.
Mackintosh’s in Halifax made Quality Street and Toffee. Liquorice Allsorts and Pontefract Cakes came out of Bassett’s in Sheffield, York had Terry’s and their famous Chocolate Orange while Rowntree’s invented the Kit Kat. Little Maxon’s in Sheffield remain the family firm, independently making their mint humbugs and Jesmona Black Bullets, Yorkshire has given Britain an historic conveyor belt of household names.
Yorkshire manufacturers made world-beating breakthroughs in the development of toffee, chocolates and boiled sweets and at Rowntrees, in enlightened management before foreign regimes took over. Today, Nestlé Rowntree stamp out six million Kit Kats from the Haxby Road site. It is Britain’s biggest confectionery exporter, but the sad truth is Rowntree is just a name now albeit with a history worth remembering.
It was the maverick Mary Tuke, aged 30 and scandalously unmarried from an influential Quaker family, who started it all. In the 18th century she ran a grocer’s shop in York without a license from the Merchant Adventurers. It took seven years before they finally allowed her to trade legitimately. Her descendants began manufacturing cocoa and chocolate until another Quaker, Henry Isaac Rowntree acquired the company. When he faced financial difficulties, he brought in his brother Joseph to help sort things out.
Joseph brought in a French pastille maker to produce fruit gums and pastilles and it was these, not chocolate, that proved to be the turning point for the business. Only later did Joseph purchase state of the art equipment from Holland to begin producing a purer form of cocoa and raising enough funds to build a large factory on Haxby Road.
There they developed countless new lines that grew into household names. The first chocolate selection box for the mass market was Black Magic, followed by Dairy Box along with Aero, Kit Kat and Smarties.
For Joseph Rowntree, whose Quaker principles meant he was as concerned with people as much as product. He introduced medical and dental care for his workers, he instituted the first ever company suggestion scheme, offered cookery lessons, singing classes, a book club and an angling club, though works outings were abandoned when everyone got drunk in Whitby on the first trip. At New Earswick he built a model village with green spaces, a folk hall and sunny, well-built houses with gardens for working people, and he created one of the world’s first pension schemes on which many of today’s systems are based,
At much the same time, Joseph Terry was setting himself up in competition with Rowntree’s. Since 1767 he had been producing candied citron, jujubes, mint cakes and coltsfoot rock at a site on Bootham. In 1823 he moved to St Helen’s Square and there laid the foundations for the famous company.
In the 1930s Terry’s built their factory, the Chocolate Works, a red brick, art deco building on 170 acres on Bishopthorpe Road. They named themselves Terry’s of York, acquired their own cocoa plantation in the Venezuelan Andes (using a cocoa palm as their logo) and developed Neapolitans, All Gold and Terry’s Chocolate Orange; and like Rowntree initiated insurance, pension schemes, convalescent and social clubs and holidays with pay.
The 1960s brought massive changes for Terry’s. It is a story of takeover and merger, by United Biscuits and eventually Kraft who closed the Chocolate Works, moved production to Europe and made 300 workers redundant.
The landmark Chocolate Works is yet to be developed into flats and offices. The shop in St Helen’s Square is now a bar named Harker’s, though a replica of the shop can be found in the Castle Museum – a reminder of the glories of this pioneering Yorkshire giant.
By the mid-80s Rowntree’s was also facing takeover. A hostile approach by the Swiss multi-national Nestlé led to vigorous protests. Opponents even traveled to Switzerland to protest at the Nestlé headquarters. The takeover went ahead anyway.
Nestlé was and remains, the world’s biggest and most powerful food multi-national. It also stands condemned in some countries for its marketing of infant formula in the developing world where access to clean water is limited. A British boycott of Nescafé has been in place for many years supported by bodies as august as Save the Children and the Women’s Institute. There is little doubt where Joseph Rowntree would have stood.
For more information on Rowntree’s www.rowntreesociety