Inside Preston's real life Willy Wonka's
As you devour those chocolate eggs you may give some thought to where they came from, local historian Keith Johnson reports
To visit a chocolate factory inspired by the likes of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ may be a dream of many a local youngster and Preston can proudly claim to have been the home of a chocolate factory since 1920. It was in January that year when Beech’s Fine Chocolates on Fletcher Road came into being after Collinson’s, an established catering company in Yorkshire, arrived in town. Indeed, the company T Collinson & Sons, Ltd was already well recognised for catering for banquets and balls and Collinson’s Cocoa was being enjoyed by young and old alike.The man who would head operations in Preston was Edward Whiteley Collinson and a variety of chocolates were soon rolling off the production lines. Within a couple of years the company had produced their own special souvenir box of chocolates for the Preston Guild of 1922. In 1933, as Easter approached, the Lancashire Post sent a correspondent to see how things were progressing on the egg making front under the guidance of Albert Saunders, the works manager. It had begun with the blending of beans from Ceylon mixed with others from Granada, Accra and Trinidad. It was processed through a series of machines and rollers; the resultant mix becoming a thick, luscious paste which had cocoa butter added and, later, flavouring ingredients, milk and fine sugar. What followed was a series of processes through machinery, involving the thrashing and whipping of the mixture, until it emerged soft and velvety as milk, smooth as silk. Armed with a tin mould which hinged into two parts, a skilful girl worker then poured a small amount of chocolate inside, closed the mould, and began to whirl it around like a cocktail shaker, before slipping it on to a whirling machine. Once that operation was complete the mould was sent down a conveyor through cooling rooms. Finally, the mould rolled on to a tray, a girl broke it open and there was an Easter egg. Each egg then underwent a test for thickness before heading to another department where the little fancy bits, ribbons and decorations were added.The Easter trade of 1933 had involved the manufacturing of 120,000 eggs by Beech’s. A task carried out mainly by the 200 girls employed at the works. Once the Easter egg rush was over, attention was once more focused on the making of their not very ordinary chocolates which were becoming more popular each year. In a year more than 800 tons of chocolate was being handled within a spotlessly clean environment and the girls could be seen singing, laughing and joking as they handled the chocolates off the production lines.It was time to take stock in 1941 when the company celebrated 21 years of production with a gathering of the 200 employees in their newly built on site air raid shelter. Mr Saunders led the presentation of a clock to Mr Collinson, who had been both chairman and managing director since the company’s formation. It was stated that since the beginning, from 150 to 250 workers, mainly Preston people, had been continuously employed and that Â£250,000 had been paid in wages.Also, thanks to the efforts of their sales department, Beech’s chocolates could be bought around the world from Australia to India, Malta to Morocco, Egypt to South America and throughout Europe.Sadly, in late August 1949 Mr Collinson, by then aged 70, died after slipping while out walking on cliffs near Scarborough. Besides being in control of Beech’s, Mr Collinson was also head of the catering firm of T Collinson & Sons, with their chain of cafés and restaurants in many towns in northern England. In his will published in February 1950, worth more than Â£60,000, the Quaker business man requested his daughter Elizabeth Collinson, 26, continue the Collinson family traditions.Beech’s remained in Collinson family control until 1966 when it was sold to a family of Yorkshire wool merchants. During the next decade the company became a supplier to the Supercook/ Brandway group, which eventually acquired the company in 1984.In 2000 the business was acquired by the Renshaw Scott Group, a bakery/ catering supplier, and then in 2002 a management buyout took place. It was time for another Yorkshire-bred man, chief executive Dr Peter Heaps, along with chairman Andrew Whiting and commercial director Andy Scholefield, to get the company back on track and ensure the 75-strong workforce had a future in the business. With plenty of experience in the chocolate and confectionery industry, they planned investment and modernisation of the production lines to ensure the popularity of Beech’s famous Premier Continental chocolates continued, while having the capability to manufacture chocolates for trade customers. Certainly, within a couple of years, indications were good that the business was beginning to flourish again with hopes of a Â£3m turnover and some big name customers on board, such as E H Booths, who, as long ago as 1926, were selling their chocolates, and Harrods.It is progress which has continued with chocolate creations expertly produced in the traditional way, be they dark or light, creamy or nutty, or even dusted with ginger. Although the chocolate itself comes from an outside source these days it is still made to Beech’s high specifications, both in terms of cocoa solids and flavours from the days of Collinson’s cocoa. Chances are if you taste a chocolate or two at Easter, Christmas or Valentine’s day it could well be off the Preston production line at Beech’s, where at seasonal highs up to 100 local folk are employed.