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Commemorating D-Day 80: A history of the Rowntree's York factory during the Second World War

Factory workers

This week marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in military history. It marked the beginning of the liberation of France and western Europe, paving the way towards the end of the Second World War.

Commemorating 80 years since such a momentous event, we wanted to take a look back through the archives to remember the efforts and accomplishments of York factory employees through the war-years.

Needless to say, the Second World War had a huge impact on the (then) Rowntree’s factory, what is now well-known to York residents as the Cocoa Works, which underwent a huge transformation over the course of six years.


The Cocoa Works in war-time booklet.

The Borthwick Institute for Archives in York has a library reaching as far back as the 11th century. While there are many documents spanning the years from 1939 to 1945, one particular booklet held in the archive was created specifically to chronicle what happened at the Cocoa Works during the period:

‘The Cocoa Works in war time’ booklet pulls together a fascinating overview of what happened to the factory, the local community and the industry during that time. As the poignant introduction points out:

G.J. Harris
We shall all be pleased to have it [the booklet], not only for the memories it brings back, but because it is a worthy record of our community doing its best for a great purpose.

G.J. Harris Company Chairman 1930s-1940s

Join us as we shine a light on stories of dedication and resilience displayed by many playing a vital role during those times of conflict.

Ariel view of the Cocoa Works from the 1940s

Ariel view of the Cocoa Works from the 1940s.

In those first months, the national life was not seriously disrupted…but in breath-taking succession followed eventual industrial, as well as military mobilisation for total war.

The effects were far-reaching for Rowntree’s employees, with hundreds losing their lives or sustaining disabling injuries during the war. Memorials to these sacrifices are preserved in the archives and on the stone memorial just outside the Nestlé office, on Haxby Road in York.

However, it wasn’t just in active service that Rowntree’s workers made substantial contributions to the war effort. As this historical booklet so vividly brings to life, the York factory site became a hub of activity.

Not only did the site continue to produce some of the well-loved confectionery products of the day, but also products used in ration packs supplying soldiers. As well as this, it supported production of important household essentials such as powered eggs and milk, and closer to the frontline – the manufacturing of munitions.

Times of change for confectionery

Even before the introduction of rationing in July 1942, supplies of the main ingredients needed for the production of iconic confectionery were controlled by a system of allocations. Cocoa beans continued in good and regular supply but many other commodities were more difficult to obtain. Sugar was considerably reduced, ‘at one time to as little as two-fifths of pre-war’ and supplies of milk were at all times, small.

KitKat advert, 1941 and KitKat packaging

KitKat advert, 1941 and KitKat packaging.

Those restrictions meant that popular chocolate assortments such as Black Magic and Dairy Box, could no longer be produced, and many familiar wrappings and boxes disappeared from the shops.

As this advert from 1941 shows, KitKat (as it was previously known ‘Chocolate Crisp’) could no longer be produced in the same way it was in ‘peace time’. The KitKat available in the early 40s was ‘made of the best materials obtainable at the time’. In addition to this, the highly recognisable red packaging was switched to blue during those years.

Modifications at the factory

Navigating the challenges of wartime production and catering to the changing needs of the effort, required a large amount of adaptation.

Factory workers

Factory scenes from the 1940s.

In addition to its cocoa and chocolate production, it was felt that the company could offer an effective unit for the manufacture of munitions.

In 1941, what was previously the Smarties building was converted into a fuse filling factory:

Work of this kind was something which had never before been undertaken by Rowntree employees. If safety rules were disobeyed the penalty might be loss of life or limb.

Despite this, neither workers nor management were deterred from the task at hand and magazines for the storage of explosives had to be constructed. Fuses were required in vast quantities and targets were set for production at 100 000 units per week.

Staff engaged in this task worked alternate day and night shifts, with a total number of 910 employed – the majority of whom had been transferred from production departments of the Cocoa Works.

Workers operating machinery, 1940s and the ‘Emergency’ medical room

Workers operating machinery, 1940s and the ‘Emergency’ medical room.

Helping at home and away

Throughout the war, the confectionery industry provided many thousands of tonnes of cocoa, chocolate and confectionery to the forces, both at home and abroad - with Rowntree’s providing a considerable proportion of that supplied.

While milk supplies were scarce, the factory also supplied more than 9 million tins of dried egg and 7.5 million tins of powdered milk. A substantial increase in the consumption of cocoa additionally added to the production of several thousand tonnes of cocoa – although it was noted the tins did not ‘look as attractive as their peace-time fellows’. All the same, the product continued to ‘please serving men and women all over the world.’

A section of the ‘melangeur department’ with precision grinding machines. A tin of 1940s Rowntree’s cocoa

A section of the ‘melangeur department’ with precision grinding machines. A tin of 1940s Rowntree’s cocoa.

As we commemorate this momentous occasion, we would like to take a moment to remember all of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

With thanks to the Borthwick Institute for Archives in York. All original images held by the Borthwick Institute for Archives.