York’s sweet taste of success
As well as railways, postage stamps and football, one of the great inventions of 19th-century Britain was the boiled sweet. sugar syrup, colouring and flavouring, really got small local confectioners going. Many relied on mint, but other entrepreneurs (mostly women) launched into fantastic flavour combinations, such as apple and custard, rhubarb and custard and clove satins.
I grew up in the sweetie city of York, where most of the workforce either laboured on the railways or in the giant Rowntree factory. The city may have been better known for its ancient walls, Minster and Roman garrison, but was probably more appreciated for Rowntree, set up by pious Quakers who thought chocolate would divert the workers from drinking beer. The owners even founded their own village of New Earswick (naturally known locally as New Earwig), in which pubs were seen as the Devil’s invention.
Terry’s was more of an aristocratic chocolatier and its 20thcentury owner gave his collection of antique furniture to Fairfax House, where it can still be seen. Cravens hid itself in the city centre, unobtrusive in every way but its smell.
Ah, Cravens, run by Mary Ann Craven in the 1860s. I used to walk past its factory on the way to work, sniffing the air. Humbugs today? No, blackberry and aniseed on the boil if I was lucky. Cadbury’s bought it out and underneath the boiling vats was found the Viking city of Jorvik.
York is almost at the southern limits of boiled-sweet land. The theory for its success (‘one of the great vernacular inventions,’ Tim Richardson wrote in Sweets: A History of Temptation) was that cheap cane sugar was sifting into Greenock from the Caribbean and the industrious women shopkeepers of the numerous small but proud towns of the Borders saw their opportunity.
Whoever invented the first town-related mint ball has a lot to answer for, but they sprang up east of Greenock throughout the 19th century, often accompanied by legendary stories of their secret recipes or unlikely inventors. I refuse to believe, for example, that the soor Ploom sweetie of Galashiels dates from 1337 when an unfortunate party of English soldiers raiding the local orchards for plums were massacred.
More likely is a minty trio still available at their border towns: Jessie Mcvittie’s century-old recipe for Hawick Balls; Berwick Cockles, which appeared in 1801; and Jethart snails of Jedburgh apparently from a Napoleonic French prisoner of war’s recipe (always a good story). It brings up images of Claude and Jean sweating over boiling vats in their cells.
Further south, you get Needler’s of Hull with the curiously named Japanese screws and Dr Jim’s Rifles plus Fox’s Glacier Mints of Leicester, whose icy minties still carry its mascot, Peppy the Polar Bear, straddling the sweet.
I knew them all, but my favourite was Moffat Toffee, emphatically not a toffee and not minty. It was invented by Janet Cook Johnstone in the late 1880s in Moffat. My grandparents lived in this superior border town and kept a quarter of the sweets in an ornate tin, to be brought out when I was particularly good.
On a recent visit, it was delightful to find that the toffee shop is still there on the high street and, even more surprising, that one of the staff lived in my late grandparents’ house. I brought back a 7lb jar and suck one every now and again for nostalgia.
strange how a childhood taste can bring back the Biblical Berlin woolwork picture on their wall, the ‘antique’ bureau bookcase and the pair of embroidered chairs from my grandparents’ old living room.
‘Humbugs today? No, blackcurrant and aniseed