A short history of British chocolate

On international chocolate day, we look at the history of Britain’s affection with confection

Imagine a world without chocolate. An unwelcome thought, isn’t it? But that was the dire reality for Brits until 1657, when chocolate was mercifully introduced.

But how did the UK chocolate industry evolve from its humble beginnings to an industry worth £4 billion?

A rich man’s drink

In 1657 the first UK chocolate house opened in London; a Public Advertiser statement reading:

“In Bishopsgate Street, in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West India drink called chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade, at reasonable rates.”

‘Chocolate Houses’ were born, but they weren’t as quaint as they sound. They were often populated by boorish gentry, with atmosphere comparable to a modern rowdy pub on match day.

They were, however, hugely popular; in the Tatler’s first ever issue, ‘White’s Chocolate House’ – the most famous of the houses situated on St. James’s Street in London – received a note of recommendation (“All accounts of gallantry, pleasure and entertainment shall be undertaken at White’s chocolate house”).

As demand for drinking chocolate among Britain’s high society increased in the late 17th century, plantations in the West Indian colonies sprung up to satisfy their hunger for cocoa and chocolate.

Back in Britain, grocers began selling the brown gold. One of those grocers was John Cadbury, who opened up his Birmingham shop in 1824, selling cocoa which he ground himself using a pestle and mortar.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Solid Innovations

In 1847 magnificently-named Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten created the cocoa press. This allowed for a cheaper method of extracting cocoa butter from the cocoa bean, which could be turned into a “cake” and ground down to a cocoa powder. This would become the basis of all chocolate products.

The Dutchman’s innovation allowed Fry’s of Bristol to invent the “chocolate delicieux a manger”, the first known example of the chocolate bar. For the first time in its history, chocolate was being eaten rather than drank.

Cadbury – now a fully fledged chocolate manufacturing company owned by John Cadbury’s sons Richard and George – manufactured the first boxes of chocolates shaped like a love heart for St. Valentine’s day in 1868, and 7 years later they manufactured the first chocolate Easter Egg.

These were the first examples of the Cadburys demonstrating their considerable flair for marketing.

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19: In this photograph illustration a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate is seen on January 19, 2010 in Bristol, England. The US food giant Kraft has today agreed a takeover of Dairy Milk maker Cadbury in a deal worth 11 billion GBP, however many Cadbury workers remained concerned over the longterm future of their jobs. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)


A new kind of factory

By the late 19th century The Cadbury brothers had rapidly expanded their father’s empire. The brothers questioned whether a factory need be so depressing for its worker inhabitants, and were now looking to turn their dreams of a ‘factory in a garden’ into a reality.

In 1879 the factory village of Bournville was created, initially made up of 16 houses for the company’s foremen and senior employees.

As Cadbury’s success increased, the village of Bournville expanded, adding 120 acres in 1893 and an extra 143 cottages two years later.

The village embraced contemporary garden-city ideals and the workers of Bournville enjoyed ample room to partake in after-work activities such as football and cricket. Conditions such as these were rare in Victorian-era Britain.

A street in Bournville Village near Birmingham, a new town founded by Chocolate manufacturer and social reformer George Cadbury, July 1909. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Shrewd Marketing

As the 20th century began, Cadbury and Fry’s began releasing increasingly diverse varieties of chocolate. Cadbury released their now world famous Dairy Milk in 1905 and in 1914 Fry’s released their sumptuous Turkish Delight bar.

Cadbury purchased Fry’s in 1919 – leaving it as the undisputed giant of chocolate manufacturing in the UK.

A series of marketing manoeuvres would cement its place as Britain’s favourite chocolate producer. First of all the dairy milk was changed to the eye-catching and now instantly recognisable purple in 1920, and in 1928 the iconic ‘glass and a half logo’ was launched.

An increasing variety of chocolate bars were now being made available to the British public: the Flake bar in 1920, the Fruit and Nut bar in 1921 and Roses in 1938 – all from Cadbury.

American company Mars’s products were also arriving on British shelf’s: First of all the Milky Bar in 1923, the Mars bar in 1932 and M&M’s in 1941.

The arrival of Mars’ products put a further emphasis on Cadbury’s marketing strategy and in 1955 the organisation released its first television advert.

Mars and Cadbury, along with Swiss company Nestlé, would become masters of television marketing – with each of them releasing a string of memorable adverts: from Cadbury’s drumming gorilla, to Nestle’s Milkybar Kid.

Cadbury’s growth and contraction

In 1969 Cadbury merged with soft drink giant Schweppes, creating Cadbury Schweppes: one of the largest confectionery companies in the world.

Cadbury Schweppes continued to grow, in 1990 opening Cadbury World, which quickly became every student’s favourite school trip destination.

By 2003 the company was at its peak, merging with gum manufacturer Adam’s and thus becoming the biggest confectionery manufacturer in the world.

However, the organisation didn’t remain at the top of the confectionery industry for long, demerging with Schweppes in 2008 in order to allow both companies to focus on their respective industries.

And in 2010 Cadbury became a part of the American multinational company Kraft – now Mondelez International – resulting in outcry following the closure of factories and the introduction of controversial tax measures.

Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars are pictured in front of the Cadbury World tourist attraction at the Cadbury chocolate factory in Birmingham, central England, on September 7, 2009. US giant Kraft Foods on Monday launched a 10.2 billion pound (16.7 billion dollar, 11.7 billion euro) takeover bid for Cadbury but the British confectionery maker rejected the offer, saying it was too low. Kraft said it hoped Cadbury, whose share price surged more than a third in value following the bid announcement, would eventually come round as the US company looks to increase annual revenues to 50 billion dollars a year. AFP PHOTO/PAUL ELLIS (Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)


British chocolatiers continue to innovate

While UK-based Cadbury no longer holds the title of biggest confectionery manufacturer in the world, British chocolatiers continue to innovate, like Fry’s did in 1847 when they created the first chocolate bar.

There are a growing number of chocolate fans turned manufacturers – such as Lincolnshire based chocolatier Duffy Sheardown – producing their own chocolate creations to a world renowned standard, rivalling the likes of Lindt and Green and Black’s.

If more proof was needed that the British chocolate industry is alive and well today, then it was delivered earlier this year when husband and wife teams Stephanie and Simon Mills opened the country’s first chocolate kebab shop.

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