w64 was very much a year of engineering feats in Britain: Charing Cross railway station opened in London; the first railway bridge over the River Trent was built by engineers from the South Yorkshire Railway in North Lincolnshire, and another great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s, designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol finally became a reality, 28 years after construction had begun and more than a century after the idea had first been considered.
It was also the year when an Austrian immigrant called Steinbeck, who worked at the Thomas Fryer sweets works in Nelson, Lancashire, was tasked with engineering a mould that would produce jelly bear sweets. Either something got lost in translation or Steinbeck was a visionary who saw then his opportunity to have his and his product’s name take its place as one of Britain’s favourite sweets. Less like bears, the resulting sweets, dusted in starch to enable him to extract them from his mould-breaking invention, resembled babies instead.
We can only imagine the resulting conversation between Fryer and Steinbeck: was this considered to be the birth of a new idea or its death? Somewhat ambiguously Fryer decided to produce the new sweets under the label ‘Unclaimed Babies.’ This implied that he might not have been the father, directly, but certainly wanted his share of any alimony payments that might subsequently come his way.
More than this, many people living in Victorian Britain often enjoyed a darker sense of humour – and not just because of the ‘satanic mills’ of north-west England – than perhaps they do today when so much of our commercial history has either been passively forgotten or actively destroyed. A common occurrence in society back then was for unwanted babies to be simply abandoned on church steps – these became known as ‘unclaimed babies’ and in some quarters (presumably where the financial cost of raising an heir was more easily borne) were treated as rather amusing. Obviously their mothers, who didn’t have understanding aunts by the sea or exhausted family friends in the country where they could reside for nine months, may have had different views, but their heartbreak and sorrows were only just being documented by social reformers such as Dickens so, for now, they remained outside of this story.
Yule Cakes - made from a rich, yeast-raised white wheat flour bread cake, with lard, brown sugar, sweet spices, currants and egg – were made to celebrate the winter festival and, in the north of the country in particular, often shaped as babies to represent the birth of new life in the New Year. However, there aren’t too many examples of baby-shaped confectionery, which might also account why the unique attributes of Steinbeck’s invention attracted so much attention.
We know that the sweets were enormously popular from the outset, sold loose as ‘jellied babies’ out of initially unbranded jars in sweet shops up and down the country – as advertised in 1885 by the Riches Confectionery Company of 22 Duke St, London Bridge. They had obviously gone for the younger end of the market as they also offered 'Tiny Totties' and 'Sloper's Babies' (Ally Sloper was a popular cartoon comic character at the time who did for sweet sales then what Popeye later did for those of green vegetables).
At that time, we know that Fryer’s were mass-producing the sweets from their Victory Factory, alongside their famous Victory V’s, but Bassett’s of Sheffield then take up the narrative and were certainly manufacturing the sweets in 1918, at the end of World War One, as ‘Peace Babies.’ The different colours were meant to represent the various countries which had fought during the war.
Not only is this ironic in the context of our ‘biting the heads off of Jelly Babies’ when we were young - alongside eating worms and mud and falling out of trees - but production had to be halted because of domestic sugar shortages caused by the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. However, this was not before the troops overseas – obviously disagreeing that sweets and chocolate were considered to be non-essential items - had munched their collective way through a large number of babies. The 'Burnley Express' reported on 16th December 1939 that, of all the comforts sent to troops abroad, "the sweets which are in greatest demand are those which we [still] all know as 'unclaimed babies'.
In 1953 Bassett’s relaunched the sweets as ‘Jelly Babies’ and they remain as popular in later life as when they were born, more than 150 years ago. Christians have picked up on the symbols carried by each sweet, indicating God’s love for us; George Harrison declared them to be his favourite sweets, munching through packets of them while his guitar gently wept and before he was subsequently pelted with Jelly Babies at Beatles’ concerts in the 1960s (or Jelly Beans in the USA), and Tom Baker, as Dr Who, often offered them to strangers as peace offerings. Perhaps he was behind time after all?
In 1830, William IV became King, the Duke of Wellington was forced to resign as Prime Minister, and two other men met in a pub in Nelson, Lancashire.
One of these two (not the oldest person at that point to assume the British throne, or the composer of the hit song ‘Waterloo’) was a local man named Thomas Fryer. The other was a travelling confectioner. They decided to go into business together, making and selling peppermints and lozenges.
Things went well at first – especially as the cost of importing sugar to Britain had fallen - but by the mid-19th Century Fryer and Co had major cashflow problems and the business was bought out for £1,000 by another entrepreneur of the Victorian Age, one Dr Edward Smith of Bolton.
Smith had produced his own Cough No More lozenge and been giving it to his patients to cure various ailments. Installing his brother, William Carruthers Smith, as manager of the company, Dr Smith set about creating a new range of medicinal lozenges offering pain relief and using a quite different recipe, combining ether, pulverised sugar, linseed, liquorice, acacia gum and chlorodyne; calling them Victory Chlorodyne Lozenges.
Now, you might easily see the naming connection from Nelson to an Admiral, who probably should have gone to Specsavers for optometry advice, to HMS Victory. But what of the seemingly innocuous ‘chlorodyne?’ Chlorodyne was in fact one of the best-known patent medicines in Britain at that time. It had been originally invented by a doctor in the British Indian Army – Dr John Collis Browne – and used originally for the treatment of cholera. Browne sold his patent to pharmacist John Thistlewood Davenport who marketed it as a cure also for diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia and migraine. So far, so much medicine and men in big overcoats with big handlebar moustaches you might think.
Well, probably, but chlorodyne itself was a mixture of chloroform, tincture of cannabis and laudanum – itself an alcoholic solution of opium. The original hard, brown brick-like lozenges with cut-off corners might have enticed prospective purchasers to ‘have a glow’ or been marketed as perfect ‘for cold journeys’ or, indeed, having a ‘kick like a mule,’ but, honestly, would anyone have noticed? Would they have noticed anything? Was it here that, despite it still growing at the time, the seeds of decline of the British Empire were actually sown, in an ironic kind of drug-induced victory deconstruction?
Certainly, the lozenges were immensely popular and maybe someone woke up for long enough to discover the real reason why, forcing Fryer’s to give them a snappy new name: Linseed Liquorice V Lozenge Victory. A new factory - the Victory Works – was opened to cope with demand. The plant boasted its own laboratory where raw materials were tested, including peppermint from Japan and China, liquorice from Turkey and Italy, pineapple from Hawaii and sugar from Mauritius.
Now patented as a confectionery product, their name had changed again by 1911 to Victory V Lozenges. In-between sucking on impossibly strong throat lozenges and writing largely inaccessible treatises historians have argued over the origins of the ‘victory v’ label. Some older scholars who can still remember the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 claim that the French boasted that, if any English archers were captured, they would cut off the three fingers of their right hand ‘so that neither man or horse would ever again by killed by their arrow fire’. English archers were then said to have stuck up their fingers after victory in the battle as a kind of Brexit gesture.
Other historians scoff that this is a 20th Century invention and that you have to go much further back – to Homer’s Trojan War – where the Trojans would cut off their defeated enemies’ first two fingers on their right hands, preventing them from holding a sword and thus eliminating them from being effective on the battlefield ever again. To demonstrate their victory, the Trojans would hold their two fingers high, taunting their fingerless enemies.
Some (probably quite a lot, thinking about it) suggest that Winston Churchill came up with the idea after too much brandy and cigars following writer’s block. Whatever the origin, Victory V’s and their new slogan ‘forged for strength’ captured the British love for dubious historical supremacy as the products were championed and exported across the globe.
Fryer and Co also created jelly babies, slab toffee and the first decorated tins as sweet packaging. The Victory V brand was acquired in 1992 by Trebor Bassett and now manufactured in Devon by Ernest Jackson, itself a subsidiary of Cadbury. After a bit of a detox, the chloroform and cannabis bits have been removed by the unsmiling health and safety police.
Thus, rather like the demand to eat coal during pregnancy, the medicinal case for Victory V’s has declined in recent years, but Fryer, Smith and Browne must surely be commended for their collective role in drugging a nation and therefore making it feel so much better, simply by sucking sweets.
You’d think that a fisherman’s friend would be a thermos flask of nice hot soup, or a good mac wouldn’t you? Certainly not a sweet that began as a cough and cold remedy.
The year is 1865. Fifty years on from the Battle of Waterloo. Lord Palmerston had been in charge of the country until he became the last Prime Minister to die in office; Queen Victoria had been on the English throne for 28 years already and still thought that she was in charge of a growing empire; 114 years after Worcester porcelain had first been made, using soaprock, and before serious cracks had appeared, Worcestershire County Cricket Club was formed as a safe haven from the much larger factories and industrial plants that were springing up in the West Midlands and just about everywhere else, and, long before Mum or anyone else visited Iceland to create the ‘Cod War,’ Britons spent a lot of time looking for, catching and eating fish.
And so, to Fleetwood on Lancashire’s north-west coast, where the main landowner, Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, had great plans for the town’s expansion, drawing on the railway mania of the 1840s and its location as a potential sea port. In this same year a pharmacist called James Lofthouse created a liquid made from liquorice powder, menthol, eucalyptus oil and tincture of capsicum which was intended to clear the bronchial tubes of fishermen, experiencing the wet and windy conditions of the North Atlantic, long before any of the George Bushes were invented.
As with soup, drinking this potion on a ship being tossed around by huge tides was not great, practically, so James moved on from glass bottles of the stuff and created lozenges, which were easier to transport and, instead of attracting expletives understood only by those with blocked up noses, became known as ‘friends.’
However, despite the improving national communication links of this liberal age on dry land, Fisherman’s Friends remained very much local secrets. Holidaymakers would travel by rail to Blackpool – just down the coast – and on by tram to Fleetwood, where they would either encounter the sweets in the family pharmacy on Lord Street or in gift shops set up along the seafront during the summer months.
Not being able to buy the sweets at home, these same pioneers of the north-west passage would write to the Lofthouse family, asking them to send further supplies. Frances Mary Lofthouse, mother of Tony, who would go on to run the family business, used to send them out, complete with a hand-typed label. The typewriter ribbon was black and red and so ‘Fisherman’s Friend’ was typed in black and ‘Extra Strong’ in red because Frances had not wanted to waste the red ink. The company’s logo remains black and red to this day.
Nothing much changed for the next hundred years or so – well, the tides did come in and out twice a day – until the early 1960s when a lady called Doreen arrived on the scene. Previously married to Tony’s uncle, she then divorced him and married Tony instead (this is the problem with fishy stories). Doreen quickly realised that there was huge potential for these sweets (still called ‘medicinal products’ in spite of medical discoveries such as antibiotics and GPs’ poor handwriting marking a much wider distinction between chemists and confectioners) and travelled to the inland towns of Lancashire and further afield where people had been requesting supplies.
She negotiated with local shops such that, in return for stocking Fisherman’s Friends, the company would signpost this fact and drive their customers to those outlets instead. Doreen pushed for a trademark and logo based on a local trawler called the Cevic, which is still featured. (The ship itself sank in the Bay of Biscay in 1991, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the crew in trying to plug a leak in the hold with copious amounts of Fisherman’s Friends).
A national deal with Boots soon followed and Fisherman’s Friends were exported for the first time – not only to Yorkshire but Belgium and Norway too. A sugar-free version arrived in 1979 – as the company became the first confectionery company to produce a sugar free mint. Margaret Thatcher used them to ease her throat during public speaking, as did Theresa May. Unfortunately, Theresa sometimes forgot to take the outer packaging off first.
Those original paper packets eventually became foil-lined and were packaged in a cardboard carton or even collectible tins for those who like tins. The shape and size of the brown lozenge was also changed with its first alternative flavour – aniseed – which was launched in the mid-1970s. The shape was based on a button on one of Doreen’s dresses. Thankfully her dress that day had not featured Velcro fasteners or many fishermens' lips might have remained firmly sealed. On such material quirks is history quite often made.
Norway remains the highest per-capita consumer of Fisherman’s Friends and Scandinavians also enjoy a ‘salmiak’ variety where salmiak salt (sal ammoniac) is added to capture the salty old dog image of old men with ruddy cheeks and runny noses.
Germany is the largest of the more than one hundred markets that Fisherman’s Friends are exported to, including to China and the Far East where they think that Fleetwood Mac is a joint homage to the home of the Fisherman’s Friend and Mac Fisheries, where we all used to buy fresh fish until 1979, before spending our change in the sweet shop.