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.