To celebrate national chocolate week I’ve raided the archive and found out everything I can about one of our most elusive confectionery brands: Wonka. Wonka is one of those brands that appears every so often, and then disappears quietly (a little bit like the character of Willy Wonka himself; reclusive and then showstopping by turns), only to make a big comeback years later.
As all Roald Dahl fans know, the name Wonka was invented by Dahl for the character of the great chocolate factory Willy Wonka in his excellent book Charlie and The Chocolate Factory in 1964. Willy Wonka ran a competition to invite… you know what, I think you all know this story, and if you don’t: I really recommend the book because it’s amazing.
People often try to tell me that Dahl set his book in our York chocolate factory (it was called Rowntree’s in those days) after visiting it as a boy, but I’m afraid the truth is quite different. In interviews, and in his memoir Boy, Dahl talked about his school days in the midlands near the Cadbury’s factory. In those days Cadbury’s used to send prototypes of new chocolates to Dahl’s school and ask the boys to taste them and fill in questionnaires about them. Dahl said that this made him realise early on that there must be someone, somewhere in the factory, whose job it was to invent new sweets and he dreamt of being that person and running in to the office of Mr Cadbury or Mr Rowntree and showing them a marvellous invention.
In the end Dahl got his wish, but he invented his sweets on paper, along with a whole factory and a whole invented chocolate world. As an adult he still took a keen interest in my favourite subject (confectionery history) and when he was interviewed he was still able to list the launch dates of all the major confectionery products on sale in the UK, just off the top of his head. But what of his connection to Rowntree’s? Well, the rivalry between Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s was famous, and during Dahl’s childhood both factories were constantly on the alert against industrial espionage (that’s chocolate spies coming to steal your sweetie recipes and secrets), so I fear we may have been the inspiration behind Slugworth’s… oh dear!
Looking through the archive I think I’ve tracked down our earliest piece of Wonka packaging (but let us know in the comments section if you have an earlier example) on a Christmas Selection box in 1988. Rowntree Mackintosh acquired the Wonka name, and at first only used it with other brands at Christmas time.
But soon (in 1989, in fact) the first Wonka sweets arrived in UK sweet shops and, oddly enough, they weren’t Wonka chocolate bars. Nerds “tiny, tangy, crunchy candy in two flavours” was shortly followed (in 1992) by Dweebs, Runts and Everlasting Gobstoppers (Dahl fans will recognise that last one).
Next was our first real Wonka bar, which exploded when you least expected it (May 1999):
Then a new Halloween Wonka bar (also 1999):
The purple snozberry Wonkalate in 2000:
And the square egg in 2002:
Wonka was back in 2005 to celebrate the launch of the latest film version of Charlie and the Chocolate factory and was last seen in a limited run to celebrate the appearance of Willy Wonka in London’s West End in 2013.
There are no plans to bring back Wonka in the UK at the moment. Wonka is one of those brands that comes and goes and is always a nice surprise when it returns. You may see some Wonka sugar sweets from time to time in specialist shops or the world food aisle in the supermarket; these haven’t been made by Nestlé UK, they’ve been made by our American cousins and imported via a third party.
If you have some memories of Wonka that you want to share, why not leave a message in the comments section below. Or maybe tell us which your all-time favourite Wonka product was?