For more than a century, a factory in Lancashire exported some of the nation’s most popular treats to sweet shops all over the world. Charlie Smith investigates the life and times of the humble Jelly Baby
Jelly Babies were first created in Lancashire, according to sweet historians. One of the nation’s favourite sugary treats, the jelly baby is believed to have begun life in the town of Nelson.
The sweets were first being manufactured by Thomas Fryer and his sweet company in the 19th century.
Thomas Fryer was born in Barrowford in 1841 and in 1864 he opened a sweetshop. By 1871 the census showed him to have employed four men and one boy in his Colne Road shop.
Fryer’s reputation for sweet-making grew and after he formed the company, Fryer & Co, the Victory Works were opened in Nelson in 1890.
One of Fryer’s employees was an Austrian immigrant named Steinbeck, who is reported to have created the jelly baby.
When Steinbeck was asked to create a new mould for jelly bears, the end product looked more like babies. The rest, as they say, is history.
The sweets were originally named ‘unclaimed babies’, so-called after babies left on church steps, and can be traced back to around the 1880s.
In 1885 Riches Confectionary of Duke St, London Bridge, was advertising a sweet called ‘jelly babies’.
Author of Sweets: A History of Temptation, Tim Richardson says people did have a darker sense of humour during Victorian times.
“It’s the era when (abandoning babies) was a fact of life more,” he says. “There was quite a lot of humour in sweet names. You had humour around things to do with war. I think that’s one of the things about sweets, that we like to play with taboo topics.” By 1953 there had been extensions to the Victory Works and 300 people were employed there, making jelly babies and shipping them around the world.
In 1965 Fryer & Co was taken over by Scribbans-Kemp Ltd which later became part of the Barker and Dobson Group.
Like much of the jelly babies’ story, the staff at the Victory Works factory originated from Nelson and the surrounding areas, and were proud of their local heritage.
Jack Haythornthwaite handled the post for Fryer’s in 1899, but he stayed in the company and, by 1959, had risen to become managing director.
Gary Glover worked at the factory when he was 17 years old and has fond memories of helping make the jelly babies, working in the starch room and transporting the finished product so it could be packed.
Gary says: “Working there was a lot of fun, the air always had a sweet smell.”
His father Alan Roberts was a manager and had the unfortunate task of letting the workers know the factory was due to shut for good in the 1980s. Gary recalls: “It was extremely hard for him to tell everyone they were closing the factory and he was devastated.”
The Victory Works factory and jelly babies were an important part of people’s lives in Lancashire. The factory closed in 1987 and was demolished in 1988. It is now replaced by housing on Victory Close, opposite Pendle Wavelengths swimming pool.
Those fortunate enough to have a friend or relative employed at the Victory Works tell stories of being thrown jelly babies out of the factory windows, as well as getting free jelly baby misshapes.
One of the most far-fetched stories is an unsuccessful attempt to make a life size jelly baby mould, where a person was rolled in the starch jelly babies are dusted with. Jelly babies have firmly cemented their position in British society and are a part of our pop culture.
Tom Baker’s Doctor Who was partial to jelly babies from a little white paper bag. The Beatles, too, following a comment from George Harrison, were pelted with jelly babies by fans on at least one occasion.
As well as ‘unclaimed babies’ jelly babies have also been known as ‘victory babies’ and ‘peace babies’ to celebrate the end of the First World War.
Lancashire played a key role in the industrial revolution and life was tough for many people in the late 1800s. Jelly babies would have been one of few luxuries for many people.
Tim Richardson says: “In any working area you have to make the best of the situation and take your treats where you can find them. Sweets have always been a little treat for people. Even when sugar was very expensive I think most people knew what it tasted like because you don’t need very much sugar to get a sense of it.”
In the period between the wars, special trains would take the sweets to the four corners of the British isles with Fryer & Co’s pledge that distribution should be as fair as possible so no customer was placed at a disadvantage in getting their favourite sweets.
The success of jelly babies owes in part to the fun that can be had in eating them. Some people go straight for the head, others nibble upwards from the toes. However you attack them though, there is certainly a dark aspect to eating these sweets.
As Tim says: “There aren’t many other areas of life where you can legitimately eat a baby, or even an effigy of one.”
Tim calls jelly babies a “national hit” but they have been shipped around the world.
In the years after the Second World War the Victory V factory was making and shipping sweets and lozenges to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the Far East
In December 1914, the Nelson Leader reported that the Victory V Gum Factory in the town was sending 10,000 tins of V-gums to the Lancashire and Cheshire Regiments at the front.
The newspaper report describes the tins as being “so shaped that it makes a splendid cigarette case”.
Inside was the following transcription, “To our brave soldiers at the Front. With the compliments of the Victory V-Gum Factory, Nelson, Lancashire, England, who hope that this little Xmas box will bring you some comfort and cheer during your strenuous duties for King and Country”.
An article in the Burnley Express from December 1939 refers to “unclaimed babies” as “the sweets which are in greatest demand” for troops on the front line. Tim explains how these sweets can evoke strong emotions.
Tim says: “There’s a lot of nostalgia involved, the internet sweets firms sell huge amounts to the relatives of British soldiers serving abroad.
“Many sweetshop owners I have spoken to over the years tell me that grown men trying a sweet they haven’t had since childhood have burst into tears. Sweets are very powerful things.”
By 1918 Bassett’s of Sheffield were mass-producing jelly babies, and still do so today.
Since then the sweets have undergone a superficial makeover, each baby being given a character and appearing on TV adverts.
Brilliant, Bubbles, Baby Bonny, Bigheart and Bumper entered the world of music and television when they appeared in two commercials produced in the 1990s
They were originally packaged in boxes, rather than the packets we know and recognise today, and you could also purchase packs of only black jelly babies.
A box of jelly babies appears in a film about the Victory Works, produced by Sam Hanna for Red Rose Films in 1959.
The film is narrated by Jack Haythornthwaite, and his grandson in the film sits by the fire nibbling from a large box of jelly babies, asking about their history.
In the film and in earlier adverts the jelly babies are the same ones we know and love today. Only the packaging has changed.
Tim says: “The packaging isn’t that important, it’s the object that is important. They haven’t changed the object.
“There will be lots of people who think that jelly babies have got smaller but that’s only because their mouths have got bigger.”
He calls jelly babies a “retro sweet” and says most people who buy them are adults. A poll of 4,000 people conducted by Marks and Spencer in 2009 showed jelly babies to be the nation’s sixth favourite sweet.
Not bad for a sweet with its origins in a tiny shop in Nelson and originally named after abandoned children.