Rowntree’s® of York

When people hear or say the brand name Rowntree’s, it is difficult not to add the words “Fruit Pastilles”. Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles were introduced in 1881 and fast became the confectionery company’s most associated product. Yet, there are several well-loved chocolates and sweets brands that began their lives in the Rowntree’s factory in York. The company itself has a long and varied history and, thanks to York’s Chocolate Story museum, the Rowntree’s founders have been immortalised forever.

Rowntree’s history begins with Joseph Rowntree Senior (1801-59), a Quaker from Scarborough, who moved to York in 1822 to open a grocery shop. Unlike today where many products are sold pre-packaged, Rowntree usually had to measure out his goods for each customer. Unlike other grocers who cheated their customers by adding sawdust to increase the weight, Rowntree’s Quaker morals prevented him from doing such a thing and he quickly developed a reputation for good quality.

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Rowntree Senior was not personally involved with the confectionery or chocolate trade, however, he would likely have sold products by the Tuke family, who produced “Rock Cocoa” drinking powder. One of Rowntree’s sons, Henry Isaac Rowntree (1837-83), went to work for the Tukes after his father’s death in 1860.

Two years later, in 1862, Henry Isaac Rowntree bought out the Tuke family who were focusing on other things, such as mental health retreats, and established a confectionery business in Castlegate, York. Following in his father’s footsteps, Henry insisted on quality above anything else. In 1864, for £1,000, he purchased an old iron foundry at Tanners Moat by the River Ouse and set up a factory. His chocolate business suffered somewhat, however, due to his devotion to the Yorkshire Weekly Press, of which he was both editor and printer.

By 1869, the business, which was staffed by 12 men, was beginning to struggle, so Henry invited his older brother Joseph (1836-1925) to become a partner, thus renaming the company H. I. Rowntree & Co. With Joseph Rowntree in control, the factory was transformed. Under his expertise book-keeping and stock control, the business went from strength to strength. He also helped to found one of the first Occupational Pension Schemes.

Whilst the company was beginning to do well with their chocolate sales, it was the launch of Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles in 1881 that truly saved the company. The sweets, which are still produced today, are small and round with a diameter of approximately 1.5cm. They have a jelly consistency and are coated in sugar. Each pack contains a mixture of lemon (yellow), lime (green), strawberry (red), blackcurrant (purple) and orange (orange).

Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles were an immediate success and, by 1887, were responsible for at least 25% of the company’s profit. In 1893, H. I. Rowntree & Co introduced Rowntree’s Clear Gums, later rebranded as Fruit Gums. These were similar to Fruit Pastilles but without the coating of sugar. Although they never became as popular as the original sweets, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums were marketed as “The nation’s favourite sweet”.

Sadly, Henry Isaac Rowntree died suddenly in 1883 before he could see the extent of the company’s profits. Fortunately, Joseph Rowntree had everything in hand and used the company’s success to invest in a Van Houten press, which enabled them to produce chocolate with the cocoa butter removed. In other words, it allowed them to make their own cocoa powder.

The Van Houten press was developed by a Dutch chocolate factory owner, Casparus van Houten (1770–1858), in 1828, although it is his son, Coenraad Johannes van Houten (1801-87) who usually takes the credit. This hydraulic press could reduce the cocoa butter content by nearly half so that it could be pulverised into cocoa powder. Ten years later, the patent for the machine expired, allowing other factories to use it. As a result, British chocolate maker J. S. Fry & Sons were able to use this technology to produce the world’s first chocolate bar.

With the Van Houten press, H. I. Rowntree & Co were able to make products to rival other chocolate companies. By then, the company had far surpassed its small family business status and was developing into a large-scale manufacturer. Between 1880 and 1890, sales had more than quadrupled, yet, they felt they were still a step behind their strongest competitor, Cadbury.

In 1889, Joseph Rowntree hired his son, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), to research into rival company products and run a small research laboratory for analysing ingredients. Seebohm’s task inspired his future career as a sociological researcher, social reformer and business magnate. In 1899, 1935 and 1951, he conducted studies in his home city, analysing the living conditions of the poor in York and argued for a national minimum wage.

Whilst Seebohm was conducting his research, H. I. Rowntree & Co was struggling to keep up with consumer demands and needed a much bigger factory. In 1890, Joseph Rowntree purchased a 20-acre site at Haxby Road on the outskirts of York upon which he began to construct a modern industrial complex. In 1899, a further 31 acres were purchased to expand the factory further. Over the following century, developments and expansions were made to the site, including the addition of a school building to train their workers. Today, the factory is being repurposed as a housing estate.

The move to Haxby Road, however, resulted in a shortage of funds, which prompted them into becoming a public limited liability company and renaming themselves Rowntree & Co in 1897. In 1899, Rowntree & Co finally produced their first milk chocolate bar. Unfortunately, the chocolate bar was not as successful as they hoped and failed to match the quality of their rivals, Cadbury and Lindt. At first Joseph Rowntree was undeterred and believed milk chocolate bars to be a passing fad, however, he was soon proved wrong.

When Seebohm Rowntree inherited the company in 1923, it was bordering on bankruptcy; something needed to change. Although Joseph Rowntree was against the idea, Rowntree’s had begun using advertising methods in the 1890s, such as a nine-foot replica tin of Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa that was driven around the city or sailed along the river. John’s nephew, Arnold Rowntree (1872-1951), insisted they put a greater emphasis on marketing, which George Harris, John’s brother-in-law, became responsible for as marketing manager.

Seebohm’s son, Peter Rowntree (1904-85), discovered the importance of market research, which helped Rowntree’s produce what the consumers wanted rather than trying to replicate what other brands were making. Using this approach, Rowntree’s launched its first successful selection box, Black Magic.

Marketed as a courtship gift, Black Magic, was an affordable selection of small samples of different chocolates that would otherwise be expensive to buy. Although Rowntree’s had been spending considerable resources on developing milk chocolate, the selection box reverted to dark chocolate. Each box contained chocolates with a variety of fillings, including fudge, caramel, raspberry and orange.

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Putting their rivalry with Cadbury to one side, Rowntree’s began to release chocolates and sweets that they hoped would appeal to the nation. In May 1935, they launched the Aero Chocolate Bar, which they initially marketed as the “new chocolate bar”. Their first advertising slogan for the new bubbly product was “You get a lift”, however, after the Second World War, the marketing team commissioned paintings of “ordinary” women to use on their advertisements along with the slogan “Different… For her, Aero – the milk chocolate that’s different!”

Aero was an instant success, which boosted the morale of the company. Later the same year, Rowntree’s launched the Chocolate Crisp, which is now better known as KitKat. The renaming of the chocolate-wafer bar occurred in 1937 and was a name Rowntree’s had previously used for a selection box that had not done as well as Black Magic. KitKat was an odd choice as it was the name of an 18th-century mutton pie that was served at what became the political Kit-Kat Club in London.

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The original advertising of the four-fingered chocolate bar claimed it was a snack “a man could take to work in his pack”, which he could eat on his lunch break. This developed into the much more familiar slogan, “Have a break … Have a Kit Kat!”

The milk chocolate KitKat was sold in red packaging, however, lack of ingredients during the war years made it difficult to produce the chocolate. In 1942, Rowntree’s changed the packaging to blue and announced, “This product is made with plain chocolate. Our standard Chocolate Crisp will be re-introduced as soon as milk is available.” As soon as rationing allowed, the red-packaged milk chocolate KitKats returned.

Today, KitKat is one of the most produced chocolate bars in the world and is made in 16 different countries across all continents. Each country produces a variety of different flavours. In the United Kingdom, the milk chocolate variety is the most popular, however, there are also dark chocolate, white chocolate, orange, mint, and cookies and cream versions. This year (2020), two new flavours were launched in the United States: Lemon Crisp and Rasberry Creme.

In Japan, on the other hand, there are over 200 different flavours. KitKat is a highly popular and respected brand due to its similarity to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katsu”, which translates as “you will surely win”. Different regions of Japan are associated with distinct flavours, which they incorporate into KitKats and gift to people from other areas. Flavours range from fruity (apple, banana, cherry, pear, pumpkin, watermelon) and sweet (blueberry cheesecake, brown sugar syrup, creme brulee, strawberry cheesecake, sweet pudding) to the downright bizarre (cough drop, European cheese, green bean, melon and cheese, red potato, sake, soy sauce, vegetable juice, wasabi).

In 1937, Rowntree’s, who were still using the market research Peter Rowntree had conducted, launched a Dairy Box of assorted chocolates. This was a milk chocolate version of Black Magic and contained several different fillings, such as almond crispy cluster, Aero, burnt almond toffee, cracknel and praline sandwich, nougat de Montelimar, hazelnut log, and coffee creme.

The following year, Rowntree’s began selling Chocolate Beans. Initially, these were sold loose or in small cardboard packets until they were rebranded as Smarties and sold in the distinctive cardboard tube. The chocolates, which are coated in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, mauve, pink or brown sugar casings, remain a firm favourite, particularly with children. From the 1980s, the colourful plastic lid of the tube was appropriated as a teaching aid, each featuring a different letter of the alphabet. The purpose was to encourage young children to recognise and learn letters, which in turn would help them to read. Approximately, five billion Smarties lids were produced and some are considered collector’s items. Production of the round tube ceased in 2005 when it was replaced with a hexagonal design. Although they no longer have plastic tops, they still feature a letter and also a quiz question.

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Rowntree’s next launch was “the mint with the hole”. The famous Polo was originally developed in York in 1939, however, the outbreak of the Second World War meant production had to be put on hold. Finally, in 1948, the breath mint was released to the world. This peppermint flavoured confectionery was named Polo due to its similarity to the word “polar”, which would subliminally suggest to consumers a hint of coolness.

When the rationing of sweets ended at the beginning of the 1950s, Rowntree’s launched Polo Fruit, a fruity version of the popular mint. Since then, several flavours of Polo have been launched, some more successful than others. These include spearmint, sugar-free, strong mint, citrus, buttermint (mint flavoured butterscotch), and gummy versions. During the 1990s, they also sold “Polo holes”, i.e. the holes that had supposedly been punched out of the original Polo.

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Continuing along the mint theme, Rowntree’s launched After Eight Mint Chocolate Thins in 1962. These originally dairy-free mints are coated in dark chocolate and presented in individual paper sleeves in a dark green box. An estimated one billion After Eight chocolates are made each year. Since its launch, After Eight has become a family name for a selection of products, including biscuits, desserts and special editions.

The chocolate industry was and still is very competitive, therefore, it is not unusual for other companies to try and buy each other out or merge to create a bigger corporation. In 1969, Rowntree’s merged with John Mackintosh and Co to become Rowntree Mackintosh. Founded by John Mackintosh (1868-1920), Mackintosh’s was a confectionery company from Halifax, West Yorkshire, known particularly for their toffees. They are also famed for brands such as Quality Street, Rolo, Caramac, Munchies and Toffee Crisp.

Although Rowntree’s had been a successful company, they had failed to produce a solid milk chocolate bar to rival Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Under the merger of Rowntree Mackintosh, they were ready to make another attempt. The result was a chunky chocolate bar that was launched in 1976 under the title Yorkie, so named after the city of its birth. These chocolate bars were promoted as manlier versions of the Dairy Milk bar, therefore, advertisements often featured images of men doing “manly” work. As a result, the slogan “It’s Not For Girls!” developed, which was finally dropped in 2011. For some time, on arriving at York Railway Station, passengers were greeted with a billboard that stated: “Welcome to York where the men are hunky and the chocolate’s chunky”.

There was an attempt to make a female version of Yorkie, which was wrapped in pink packaging, however, it did not prove overly successful. Other variants of the chocolate bar include Yorkie biscuits, biscuit and raisin flavour, and honeycomb flavour.

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The same year, Rowntree Mackintosh released the Lion Bar. It was originally an experiment and consisted of wafers, caramel, puffed rice and peanuts covered in chocolate. After trialling the chocolate bar in Dorset, it was deemed a success and launched on a wider scale. Since 1988, the recipe has been changed to remove peanuts from the ingredients.

In the 1980s, Rowntree Mackintosh focused more on expanding the company than on producing new chocolates and confectionery. That decade, they spent almost £400 million upgrading their factories and a further £400 million on purchasing other companies. This included the American peanut company Tom’s Snacks, the Canadian company Laura Secord Chocolates, and the UK’s Gale’s honey.

There had been many attempts from competitors to purchase or merge with Rowntree Mackintosh, which the company had thus far avoided. By the 1980s, Rowntree Mackintosh was the fourth-largest chocolate manufacturer in the world, coming after Mars, Hershey and Cadbury.

By the 1980s, Nestlé, a Swiss food and drink company that dates back to the 1860s, was the largest company of its kind in the world and had expressed interest in Rowntree Mackintosh but had been rebuffed. On 13th April 1988, however, Rowntree Mackintosh found themselves in danger of a hostile take over by a German coffee brand Jacobs, who had purchased shares in the company, giving them a 14.9% stake.

Out of fear that Rowntree Mackintosh would fall into the hands of their competitors, Nestlé made contact with Kenneth Dixon, the chairman of Rowntree Mackintosh and offered to buy them out for £2.55 billion. Naturally, Dixon refused the offer, however, as the situation worsened he began to see the benefits of joining with Nestlé. Very soon they were operating under the name Nestlé Rowntree.

Before long, however, Nestlé dropped the name Rowntree from their branding except for Fruit Pastille and other fruit gum lines. The name Mackintosh was all but forgotten and was only mentioned on Mackintosh’s Toffee, for which they had initially gained fame.

The Nestlé takeover almost erased Rowntree’s history by removing its name from the majority of its products. Now only associated with fruit and gummy products, many people are surprised to hear Rowntree’s referred to as a chocolate company. Thankfully, the people of York refuse to let Rowntree’s history be forgotten and its story and chocolate are talked about several times a day at York’s Chocolate Story.

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s is the nations favourite fruity sweet brand. Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles are enjoyed by an estimated 15 million people per year and other favourites include Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, Jelly Tots, and Rowntree’s Randoms. Jelly Tots were launched in 1969 as a children’s alternative to Fruit Pastilles. Rowntree’s Randoms, however, is a Nestlé, product introduced in 2009. Being a fruit flavoured product, they respectfully kept the original manufacturer’s name.

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From a small Quaker family in the Victorian-era, Rowntree’s grew into a major corporation and, although it was eventually taken over, it is responsible for so many of the sweets and chocolate sold today. For that, every person with a sweet tooth is eternally grateful.

2 thoughts on “Rowntree’s® of York

  1. So good, so interesting so educational. The research, the way it is brought together And illustrations make this a perfect article. No need to take a break while reading it’s totally captivating. Memory lane of when I used to eat the sweets
    Kit Kat, black magic, after 8, fruit pastilles the company has touched so many people and all from a Quaker founder who focused on trading in the right way. Hazel, totally amazing, thank you for sharing.

  2. Absolutely brilliant Hazel. You have surpassed yourself. I was a child when so many of these sweets were introduced so it was good to be reminded of those times and some of the sweets my sister and I bought during the time of sweet rationing. Thank you once again for an amazing account.

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