1864 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?