Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind them, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we take a look at Rowntree Mackintosh, finding out how a grocer from York gave us some of our favorite confectionery.
Along with many other successful confectionery companies, Rowntrees has its roots in the Quaker movement. In 1725, Mary Tuke, whose grandfather was among the 4,000 jailed for their beliefs in 1660, started a grocers shop in York. In 1746, she took on her nephew William as an apprentice, and when she died in 1750 (some sources say 1755), he took over the business. By 1785, the shop was trading under the name William Tuke & Sons.
Initially, the business ran as two strands. The first was concerned with trading in tea and coffee, which was later acquired by Twinings after World War 2. The second arm was in manufacturing chocolate. It was this part of the business that was bought by Henry Isaac Rowntree (also a Quaker) in 1862 who set up shop in Coppergate. In 1864 he expanded the business, building a new factory at Tanner’s Moat. At the time, he was also heavily involved with editing and printing the Yorkshire Weekly Press, so in 1869 he took on his brother Joseph as a partner, renaming the company H I Rowntree & Co.
Initially, the company’s range was limited to mainly cocoa powder and chocolate drops. Their breakthrough came in 1881, when they began producing fruit pastilles, which had previously only been imported from France. Business expanded rapidly with the success of these new sweets, and the following year they bought and converted an old flour mill. In 1890 they expanded further, buying the 140 acres of land where their factory still stands today. By 1906 they employed over 4,000 workers.
The company introduced schemes to benefit their workers, including a widow’s fund, workers’ dining room, gym, company optician, and a week’s paid holiday. They also reduced the working week to just 44 hours. Like other Yorkshire philanthropists, such as Titus Salt in Saltaire, Rowntree built a purpose built model village to house the factory workers and keep them away from the industrial slums, which had developed in other parts of York. This new settlement was called New Earswick, built in a green space at the side of the River Foss between 1902-4. Each house had its own garden, complete with two fruit trees. The Rowntree family were one of the largest employers in York and at the forefront of social reform for its workers.
Staying true to his Quaker upbringing and philanthropic ideals, Joseph Rowntree set up several charitable trusts to aid with social reform. The Rowntree Trusts are still in existence today, and in 1942, the Joseph Rowntree School was built in the city. A park named after him was opened by the entrepeneur himself in 1921.
In the early twentieth century, business declined as tastes changed and their cocoa products became less popular. It was Marketing director and future chairman George Harris who turned business around using his knowledge of American promotional methods, focusing on the brand. In the 1930s, Rowntrees introduced many of their most famous and lasting brands including Kit Kat (then called Chocolate Crisp), Aero, Smarties, Dairy Box, and Black Magic. To ensure they had ‘the perfect chocolate assortment’ for Black Magic, they interviewed over 7,000 typical consumers. Polo mints were added to their roster in 1948, followed by “After Eights” in 1962. In the 1960s, Creamola Food Products and Sunpat Products Ltd also became part of Rowntree’s. The year 1969 saw the company merge with another company, known as Mackintosh.
When they married in 1890, John Mackintosh and his bride Violet bought a pastry shop in Halifax with their combined savings of £100. Violet had worked as a confectioner’s assistant, so she ran the business while John continued to work at a local cotton mill. To attract customers, Violet developed Mackintosh’s Celebrated Toffee – a blend of brittle British Butterscotch and American caramel.
They placed an advert in the local newspaper inviting the public to come and try a free sample of this new toffee – they sold out on the first day. The week after, a second advert read “On Saturday last you were eating Mackintosh’s toffee at our expense; next Saturday pay us another visit and eat it at your own expense”. Soon, people were coming from all over the country to the ‘Toffee Shop’ in Halifax, and the product became so successful that the definition of ‘toffee’ changed forever, having previously been a description for any sugar or boiled sweet.
The success of their toffee saw them move from retail to large scale manufacture and they rented a small warehouse in Bond Street. By 1895 they needed to expand further and moved to larger premises in Hope Street. They converted to a limited company in 1899, John Mackintosh Ltd, raising £11,000 – along with a £4,000 loan from the bank, they were able to build a new factory in Queen’s Road. The factory burnt down in 1909, but the insurance payout was enough for them to rebuild and also buy the vacant Albion Mills, which became their permanent headquarters.
The Mackintosh’s realised the power of advertising, which led to John Mackintosh declaring himself the ‘Toffee King’ in 1902. When he died in 1920, his son Harold commissioned cartoonist, Heath Robinson, to create full page cartoon advertisements, depicting the exploits of the ‘Toffee Town’ has Halifax had come to be known.
In 1932, Mackintosh’s purchased the Caley chocolate company from Unilever, giving them access to chocolate production. Another innovation was the world’s first twist-wrapping machine, which allowed them to sell individually wrapped chocolate covered toffees. 1936 saw the introduction of their most famous brand, Quality Street (named after a play of the same name by Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie). Other well known names followed including Rolo in 1937, ramac in 1959, then Tooty Fruity and Toffee Crisp both in 1963.
Following the merger of Rowntree and Mackintosh in 1969, deals were struck with companies around the world to produce some of their more famous brands under licence. This included the American chocolate manufacturers Hershey, who began making Kit Kat and Rolo for the US market. In 1987 the company went public, and in the following year was taken over by Nestle for the value of over £2.5billion. Much of the company’s production still takes place today at the York factory and new products are still being made under the Rowntree’s name. This includes the new “Rowntree’s randoms, ” in 2009 and “Rowntree’s Fruit Bottles,” three years later. Nestle have also made York the centre of their research and development arm, ensuring that chocolate production in the city is set to continue into the future.
In the next post in this series, we will look at the other York chocolate manufacturers, Terry’s. Further reading for this article:
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