The Great British Chocolate Factory

The Great British Chocolate Factory

We’ve loved chocolate in Britain for centuries – but how did we get the taste for it, and who was responsible? Nell Darby finds out

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

An 18th century serving maid carrying a cup of chocolate
An 18th century serving maid carrying a cup of chocolate

Peter was a very nice little boy, but he had one great fault; he was greedy, and he was specially greedy about chocolates.

This short story, from a 1941 issue of the Liverpool Evening Express, was a rewriting of Alice in Wonderland, the newspaper making it a cautionary story about a greedy little boy who ‘could keep on eating chocolate all day long’. In this nightmarish tale, the boy, Peter, was taught a lesson about greed and consumption – something deemed necessary during the increasingly difficult war years, but also a reflection of the great hold that one particular, sweet, substance had on children in Britain.

An 18th century French woman being offered hot chocolate in the bath!
An 18th century French woman being offered hot chocolate in the bath!

This chocolate obsession owes much to our exploring and entrepreneurial forebears, although, of course, it dates back further – to around 1900 BC in Central America. Christopher Columbus then found the cacao bean on his travels in 1502, and brought some back to Spain, but his discovery had little impact at the time. It was only when the Spanish court discovered how much more palatable it was when mixed with sugar or honey that it became popular. In the 17th and 18th centuries, nations including the English colonised countries and planted cacao beans, using slave labour to help process them with the aid of mills. Until the Industrial Revolution brought with it faster production methods, it was a slow and laborious process, and one that contributed to the high price of chocolate in Britain.

A tour of Fry’s chocolate factory in Bristol in 1884
A tour of Fry’s chocolate factory in Bristol in 1884 British Library Board

The golden age
It was the late 18th century that was a golden age of chocolate consumption. The Bristol company of Joseph Fry had been established in 1761. Fry, a Quaker, was born in 1728, and was making chocolate by the time he turned 30, but it was in 1761 that he and colleague John Vaughan bought Walter Churchman’s chocolate-making business and renamed it Fry, Vaughan and Co, basing it out of Newgate Street. Churchman and his son Charles had gained a patent for the water engine they used in their business, and developed recipes for making chocolate until they both died.

The first surviving advertisement for the new company dates from December 1761, and was published to explain the establishment of Fry, Vaughan and Co. Headed ‘Churchman’s Patent-Chocolate’, it stated:

Poseidon taking chocolate from Mexico to Europe, from a 1644 book
Poseidon taking chocolate from Mexico to Europe, from a 1644 book

“By the late Mr Churchman’s famous Water-Engine, at the Castle Mills of Bristol (the only Work of the Kind in Great Britain) is now made, and sold, by Jos. Fry, who has long been concerned in the Chocolate Business, and John Vaughan, Junior, the said Mr Churchman’s Executor, the present sole Proprietors of the said Engine. And we hereby acquaint the Publick, that they may be accommodated with the best Chocolate, of every Kind, by Nathaniel Burrough, at the Tea-Chest, in Threadneedle-Street; and by no other Person in London or Westminster. To prevent Counterfeits, each Pound will have a Stamp, with Mr Churchman’s Name affix’d to it. NB The great Superiority of this Chocolate to all other, will appear on Trial to be made by any one…’"

Fry’s was one of the biggest players in the chocolate industry throughout the 18th and 19th century

The advert stated that the chocolate should be added to liquid until it dissolved, creating “full flavour, [and] Smoothness on the Palate”, and that it would have none of the grit or sediment associated with cheaper, more ‘faulty’ chocolate. Fry’s plain chocolate cost, at this time, six shillings a pound.

Initially, the business was operated from Joseph’s apothecary shop in Small Street, Bristol, but in 1777, it relocated to Union Street. When Joseph died in 1787, it was renamed Anna Fry & Son, before Joseph Storrs Fry took control in 1795. Fry gained a patent for his method of grinding cocoa beans using a Watt steam engine and so, by the turn of the 19th century, the company was advertising Fry’s Patent Cocoa – described as scarcely distinguishable from “a delicate Chocolate”, and a suitable breakfast or cure for those whose nerves and stomachs had been ‘injured’ from prior tea-drinking. It was warned that only the genuine cocoa – which would have a Fry’s label on it – should be purchased, and to counterfeit a product as being Fry’s would be a felony – a major crime.

Shortly after Fry’s was founded, another confectioner opened up shop in York. Robert Berry opened his shop in 1767, being later joined by William Bayldon. When Bayldon left, former apothecary Joseph Terry joined the company. He used his training to develop new products – chocolates, marmalade and sugared sweets. When Berry died in 1825, his son George joined Joseph; but three years later, George left and the company became Terry’s of York.

The grocer’s influence
It was grocers who introduced the concept of drinking chocolate to the general public. Back in the 1770s and 1780s, Berkley Sidney Knox, who had a grocer’s shop at 55 Great Britain Street in Dublin, advertised his business in the press, marketing himself as a ‘grocer and chocolate maker’. In 1778, he stated that he sold “chocolate of his own manufacture”, and was advertising for an apprentice to help him in his business. By the early 1790s, he had a competitor in Henry Thwaites, a grocer and chocolate maker at 23 Lower Ormond Quay.

By the turn of the century, more men were branching into the selling of chocolate. In 1800, Reading grocer Morgan Smith advertised in the Reading Mercury, stating that at his grocery and tea warehouse at 4 Market Place “may be had all sorts of fine flavoured teas, coffee, chocolate, and every other article in the grocery trade”. Two years later, Thomas Dykes was advertising his ‘chocolate and cocoa manufactury’, at 12 Great Eastcheap in London, in the press. He claimed there were medicinal benefits to his chocolate and cocoa, which had been prepared from recipes given to him by “the late Dr Buchan, author of Domestic Medicine, etc, who many Years constantly used them, and recommended them as the best Articles of Diet he knew”. Meanwhile, ‘Churchman’s Patent Chocolate’ – Fry’s chocolate – was also being advertised as having a century-long reputation and being so nutritious that it was recommended for “Infants, for Children and Young Persons; for extreme Old Age, it being, perhaps, more than any other substance in nature, a renovator of the blood, and making a palatable nutritive meal for aged persons”. It was also stated that women should drink chocolate as it could prevent them dying in childbirth!

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In 1824, John Cadbury opened a grocer’s at 93 Bull Street in Birmingham. Among the goods he sold were cocoa and drinking chocolate, which he made himself using a pestle and mortar. Fundamental to the decision to sell drinking chocolate was his religion – as a Quaker, he didn’t believe in the consumption of alcohol, so he concentrated on selling ‘soft’ drinks, such as tea, coffee, cocoa and drinking chocolate.

The shop was successful and, seven years after opening, John Cadbury decided to start manufacturing chocolate himself, and so bought a four-storey warehouse in Crooked Lane. By 1842, he was selling 16 different types of drinking chocolate, and 11 cocoas, selling chocolate both in powder form and as ‘pressed cakes’ that could be melted, and cocoa in various forms, including nibs and flakes. The chocolates included plain, British, Grenadian and Spanish. By 1847, the growing business had to move into a larger factory in Birmingham’s Bridge Street. To improve the efficiency of how chocolate was moved in and out of the factory, it had its own canal spur, linking the factory to the Birmingham Navigation Canal.

But what about chocolate bars? They had existed in 18th century France, but Britain didn’t have anything similar until 1847, when Fry’s created one. The company mixed cocoa powder, sugar and melted cocoa butter, moulding it into bars. It was also poured over fruit-flavoured centres to create different tastes. Fry’s Chocolate Cream bar was produced in 1866, the first UK Easter egg in 1873, and then Fry’s Turkish Delight in 1914. The firm was run by members of the Fry family until 1913, and in 1919 it was merged with Cadbury’s.

A vintage Cadbury’s advertisement from 1885
A vintage Cadbury’s advertisement from 1885

Keeping ahead of competition
Fry’s had been one of Cadbury’s competitors; another was Rowntree’s, based in York. Like Cadbury, this was another company with strong Quaker links. It was founded in 1862 by Henry Isaac Rowntree; originally based in the city’s Castlegate, two years later, it moved to an old iron foundry that became its 12-man factory. When Henry started to struggle financially at the end of the decade, his brother Joseph joined him in the business. By 1882, the company was producing ‘chocolate niblets’, nibs, or beans – a sweet that originated with the Georgian elite, but that Rowntree’s now commercialised. They were balls of chocolate that were given a sweet sugar shell, and remained popular. In fact, they are still popular today, although known as Smarties.

George Cadbury in 1917
George Cadbury in 1917

Marketing and promotion had always been important tasks for chocolate manufacturers, but as the 20th century dawned, more creative ways of publicising types of chocolate were being sought. The Lucerna Chocolate Company in the city of London offered an ‘absolutely free’ five shilling box of milk chocolates to the sender of the first letter to be opened by the company every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in August 1907, on condition that the letters were written on the outside of a Lucerna chocolate wrapper. By 1927, one newspaper was commenting that housewives now ordered chocolate ‘blocks’ in their weekly grocery orders “as a matter of course”, because it was “one of the most nourishing and easily digestible of foods”. This promotion of chocolate as a way to gain good health was misleading, yet very effective.

When such promotion techniques worked, and products were coveted and bought in large numbers by consumers, they could create fortunes. In 1923, when George Cadbury died, it was stated in the press that he was a ‘cocoa millionaire’, having left property worth £1,071,099 – around £32 million in today’s money – although his death duties amounted to £330,000 (£9 million today).

With the availability of numerous chocolate brands and bars on the supermarket shelves today, it is hard to understand the novelty of hot chocolate and chocolate bars in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet these products stood for luxury, wealth and also happiness; and for those who produced or sold them, they were marketing themselves as very modern individuals, selling a lifestyle as much as a product.

A sweet shop specialising in European chocolates
A sweet shop specialising in European chocolates

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