A Love Affair with Sweets

Yorkshire is home to more confectionery companies than anywhere else in Britain. Here I look at why the county has had a long-standing love affair with all things sweet for Y 2017 Magazine

Without a doubt, we have a sweet tooth here in Yorkshire, and it’s no coincidence that confectionery landed here. We are all, of course, grateful that it did.

Various factors gave rise to sweet-making with the major one being the excellent transport links both in and out of the county. Yorkshire was central to the trading routes from the South of England through to Scotland and York was ideally placed en-route.

London of the mid-17th century had little relationship with the warm drinks we so enjoy today. Tea still had to make its appearance but coffee was widespread and coffee houses abundant. The arrival of chocolate, a mere five years after coffee, was not as well received chiefly because of the high price.

The thick, warm, sweet drink was met with suspicion and only after a concerted and somewhat mendacious campaign on its merits as a cure-all and aphrodisiac did the drink become more familiar. Cheapened versions of the drink were served in the coffee houses but being significantly more expensive, was never popular.

In fashionable areas of London, however, chocolate was considered the drink of the socially elite and soon the Chocolate House was born. These establishments were known for the gatherings of those wanting to socialise, to gossip and to hatch plots, so no wonder they are considered the forerunner of the pub. The City of York quickly embraced the Chocolate House making the city not only a sociable and fashionable stopping off place but also a great way to introduce the delicious chocolate to a new audience.

By far, though, the most significant reason for Yorkshire’s association with all things sweet was the easy access along the Ouse from the East Coast ports. Here, shipments of both cocoa beans, sugar and fruits arrived from the continent where sweet making, especially chocolate confectionery, had taken hold long before it did in Britain. The raw materials came in and once made, the ever popular rail links to major cities including London took the sweets and chocolates outwards and onwards, and their popularity soared, as did the fast growing industry in the county.

York has possibly played the largest part in the sweetie heritage of Yorkshire with much of the credit given to the abstemious Quaker movement that had a stronghold in the city. The benign nature of cocoa was not lost on them and from humble beginnings, the three top players of the 18th century in chocolate and other confectionery were Rowntree, Terry and Craven – of the toffees and humbugs fame.

The former two went on to become global brands and at one time employed more than 14,000 people in the chocolate industry in the city. The philanthropic benevolence born of their Quaker origins saw workers given paid holidays, company pensions, doctors and dentists and many of the good works continue today in the charitable efforts at New Earswick Village and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

It is not merely the leading world brands like Rowntree’s, Terry’s and Mackintosh who are synonymous with confectionery in Yorkshire though. There are many other companies, though smaller, they have a big a place in the hearts and memories of sweet lovers far and wide. In the fascinating book, Confectionery in Yorkshire Through Time by Paul Crystal, he talks of companies which still exist today and others that are long gone or taken over by more major players. What is also apparent in the book is the industrial and social impact that confectionery brought to Yorkshire. Names abound in the book such as Thornton’s, Needlers of Hull, Dobsons of Elland, and Lions of Cleckheaton. It would be remiss not to add to the list the likes of Dunhill Aniseed Balls and Wilkinsons Pontefract Cakes, Farrah’s Toffee, Nuttall’s Mintoes from Doncaster and Slade and Bullock in Dewsbury credited with making the first lettered rock, just what would the seaside be without it today?

Chocolate is possibly the number one sweet on everyone’s list, but liquorice must come a close second. It has been synonymous with the West Yorkshire town of Pontefract for nearly 400 years when it was brought there from the Mediterranean by Dominican monks in the early 16th century. The area provides excellent growing conditions for the plant, with the local soil enriched by local muck.

However, in the 20th century, the cultivation of the plant all but ceased as it became cheaper to use imported liquorice. Happily, the plant is now homegrown once more with local farmer Robert Copley having planted half an acre; this will hardly supply the sweet industry but it’s a start and who knows, the rhubarb industry in nearby Wakefield is thriving once more. Originally, the liquorice was used purely for medicinal purposes in the form of a small cake or Pomfret invented by George Saville.

In 1760 apothecary George Dunhill added sugar to the cake, and the liquorice sweet was born. The sweets continued to be made by hand in Pontefract until the 1960s with an experienced worker, commonly known as ‘thumpers’, used their hands to make the cakes and were able to stamp out 30,000 cakes a day. One of the most popular uses of liquorice in sweets is the Allsort. Who does not know or recognise Bertie, the Allsort boy who is possibly one of the world’s most recognised confectionery brands? Cadburys now own Basset’s, but their roots are from Sheffield with the company formed by George Bassett in 1842.

He then went on to produce Liquorice Novelties, a combination of liquorice and cream paste. The myth goes that in 1899, Bassett’s disgruntled salesman, Charlie Thompson clumsily gathered his sample boxes of novelties together when a shop refused to buy any. He accidently knocked them over and spilling the colourful sweets in the jumble on the counter gave birth to the Allsort, a sweet which remains as popular today and also virtually unchanged.

As with many artisan and heritage foods, chocolate and confectionery are enjoying a renaissance with a wealth of small producers once more creating exciting, high quality, handmade products. Thanks to this demand for authentic, artisan sweets and chocolates, these are once more exciting times for chocolatiers and confectioners in York and throughout Yorkshire.

This article was featured in This is Y 2017 magazine. Photo Credit Welcome to Yorkshire

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