Celebrating the women of our confectionery past for International Women’s Day

Mar 8, 2018


Today is International Women’s Day and, our historian, Alex Hutchinson, has taken a look back into the archives to tell some of the inspiring stories of the women behind our UK confectionery business in centuries gone by.

Mary Tuke

Mary Tuke was not a confectioner; she didn’t even work with cocoa, but she did found our UK confectionery division nearly 300 years ago.

Back in 1725 Mary Tuke was a Quaker in her thirties, her family had died, and she needed to support herself. She decided to open a grocer’s shop in Walmgate, York. Unfortunately for Mary there were all kinds of legal restrictions in York at the time that meant she couldn’t trade in the city without a licence from the Merchant Adventurers Company, and she couldn’t get one of those without being a Freeman of the City. To become a Freeman and get a licence would have cost her at least £50, which was a lot of money in 1725. Mary decided to break the law and run an illegal grocer’s shop instead.

The Merchant Adventurers Company fined her, dragged her through the courts, and threatened her with prison. This lasted for seven years and Mary didn’t relent once; the records show that she persisted in exercising her right to run a business as a single woman.

Eventually it was the Merchant Adventurers who lost the battle of wills. They gave in after seven years and agreed that Mary would be allowed to run a shop and keep one apprentice. The apprentice was her nephew, and when he inherited the business from Mary he developed it into a much larger concern, dealing in tea and coffee and (from 1785) cocoa.

The business would have done Mary proud, because not only was it a commercial success (such a success that it started making its own drinking cocoa from 1835, confectionery from 1879, and was taken over by Nestlé in 1988 having invented KitKat, Smarties, and dozens of other big names), but it was also a business that stuck up for the rights of the oppressed. In 1807 Mary’s nephews helped sponsor William Wilberforce’s election campaign because they, like many other Quakers, believed in the fight to abolish slavery. Mary was an amazing woman.

Violet Mackintosh

Another important female figure in the history of our business is Violet Mackintosh. Have you heard of Quality Street? Do you ever wonder who invented the recipe for those chewy toffees in your tin? Well, we have Violet to thank for that. Before Violet came along, all toffees were hard and brittle and it was Violet who invented the lovely chewy ones.


Back in 1890 Violet was getting ready to marry her sweetheart, John. John had been working in a cotton factory since he was eleven, and Violet had been apprenticed to a confectioner. They’d been saving up for a long time, not just for their wedding, but to start their own shop. They took over a premises in King Cross, Halifax, and in the week off work that they’d got for their honeymoon they set up their shop. It was a pastry shop to start with, but John encouraged Violet to turn her hand to confectionery too. Violet experimented with a mix of traditional English toffees and runny American caramel to make something completely new. The toffees were a hit and John was able to give up his job in the cotton mill to bring his experience of factory work to the job of making Violet’s toffee on an industrial scale.

Their business grew so fast that within 30 years of opening their shop they were making two billion pieces of toffee a year. Their son Harold, who inherited the business from his parents, created Quality Street and made sure that his mum’s toffee recipe was at the heart of it.


The Canary Girls

There are a group of women who are renowned for showing greater heroism than any employees in the history of our firm; they were the canary girls, and for a long time their work was a military secret.

Back in 1940 the British Government approached Rowntree’s chocolate factory (now part of Nestlé and home of KitKat) to ask them to make munitions for the war effort. The Second World War had broken out less than a year earlier and already the government were having to ask manufacturers all over the country to turn their production lines over to the manufacture of things they’d never made before.

Rowntree’s were asked to make fuses for 25lb bombs. The firm had a newly built factory building that was ideal for the job. The building had been intended for the manufacture of Smarties which, for various reasons, carries a risk of flour explosions. The old Smarties block was built with a special roof that would “pop off” in the event of an explosion and prevent the building from collapsing.

In 1940 the factory created blast-proof bunkers under their cricket pitches ready to store the explosives, and prepared the Smarties block to make fuses for bombs. There was no disguising it: the jobs in this part of the factory would be dangerous. The management went to great lengths to make the work as safe as they could, but this was a job for volunteers only.

Scores of women volunteered and they worked so safely that there was never an accident in the factory, and so fast that they filled the government’s order long, long ahead of schedule.

One of the jobs in that part of the factory was to transport explosive material from the bunkers beneath the cricket pitches over to the Smarties factory. Girls tasked with carrying explosives would be given them in a large, leather Gladstone bag, with an enormous leather gauntlet that would cover and protect their arm up to the elbow. Another girl would walk ahead of them slowly carrying a red flag in front of her to warn anyone that might be crossing their path to stop where they were, and not knock them. From the photographs that we have these were girls; they were young school leavers who wanted to serve their country in the chocolate factory and were willing to take huge risks to do so.

The older women on the factory production line were no less brave. They had to wear a special kind of thick make-up over their face and neck, and head and body coverings to try to prevent the TNT powder from being absorbed through the pores of their skin, but no amount of 1940s safety wear could keep it all out. Ladies who worked on that line tell me that even weeks after they had stopped working with the TNT their faces, the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet were still bright orange-yellow from the TNT powder that had got into their bloodstream. This was why they were known as The Canary Girls, and this is why they were the bravest employees we’ve ever had the privilege to employ.