Pontefract’s Liquorice and Confectionery Industry
Pontefract may well be home to a once Royal castle, one of the best equipped racecourses in the country and three railway stations, but it is the component part of a small circular black lozenge or sweet which has been synonymous with the town for centuries and for which the town of Pontefract has become renowned throughout the modern world. Who would have envisaged that a once medicinal based lozenge could transform the ancient market town into one of the liquorice centers of the world and establish it as a market leader in confectionery products.
Liquorice is a herbaceous perennial from the genus glycyrrhiza and native to areas of Southern Europe and Asia. The meaning of the Greek word glycyrrhiza is ‘sweet root’ and it is the roots of the plant that gives liquorice its characteristic flavour, being some fifty times sweeter than sugar.
It is believed that the first liquorice plants were brought to Pontefract by Cluniac Monks who came to Pontefract to establish a new monastery. The Priory of St. John stood on an area that we now know as Monkhill and it was here that recent excavations revealed the remains of a medieval pharmacy where liquorice was extracted from the roots of the plant and used in the preparation of medicines. Despite our cooler climate, the liquorice plants thrived in the deep loamy soil, which is an essential requirement for their cultivation as the roots can extend to some four or five feet in depth.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, Pontefract farmers continued to cultivate liquorice and a thriving cottage industry was established to process and refine the liquorice extract especially for medicinal purposes. As far back as 1614 it is recorded that a round liquorice lozenge was being produced to ease stomach disorders and then in the mid 1700s an enterprising chemist by the name of George Dunhill developed the ancient recipes further by adding sugar to produce a circular liquorice sweet. The 1800s saw a boom in the confectionery business in Pontefract producing the ‘Yorkshire Pennies’ which were later to become known as Pontefract Cakes.
“At the turn of the century.” … there were 17 liquorice works in the town, but after the Second World War there were just five and now only two remain. It was a very lucrative business. There was just one refinery in the town, located at the bottom of Broad Lane directly opposite what is now a kitchen showroom, and it was there where the roots were pressed and the juice allowed to solidify into lumps of hard black liquorice. We never sold our liquorice there though, we sold all ours to Boots the chemist in Nottingham where it was used in the pharmaceutical industry to produce cough and stomach remedies.
There were five main growers in Pontefract. The main growers were the Booths and then there were the Woods, the Depledges, the Carters, and my mother’s family, the Shays, whose house Tom lives in to this day. The last commercial crop was grown in the fields at the back of Tom’s house in about 1970. It takes between four and seven years to grow liquorice from setting the bud.
In the warmer climates of the world they can grow liquorice from seeds but we had to grow from ‘buds’, similar to cuttings, because in our climate, liquorice never seeds – or at least it never did up until last year when every bush I had seeded, which must say something for global warming. This meant that in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, where it is possible to grow plants in two years, they were producing four or five crops to our one. The liquorice industry in Pontefract was becoming un-commercial and with the increasing popularity of chocolate amongst children there was a gradual decline in the liquorice market.
However, liquorice has many uses, not just in the confectionery business. A doctor at Pontefract Infirmary and also a doctor at the Cromwell Hospital in London discovered that they could use the little shreads that come off the root, thin little pieces just like cotton, for stitching the guts up and they also used it for ulcer operations and cancer operations because they found it stimulates the guts and it melts away leaving no sign of it, so they used it at Pontefract Infirmary, which is quite unique and a lot of people don’t realise that. I believe that doctors in London still use it to this day so it has a lot of use within the medical world.
During the war, while many of our troops were dying of thirst out in the deserts and jungles of the world, the Japanese were able to adapt to the conditions and our commanding officers couldn’t understand why. The opposing armies had the same amount of water, endured the same conditions, but they could keep going seemingly for ever, until it was discovered that when Hannibal took his elephants over the alps, they gave them liquorice to chew and also the Arabs on the camel trains across the desert gave all the camels liquorice to chew as it quenched their thirst and stopped them becoming thirsty. Our government cottoned on to this and began issuing liquorice to our troops.
When they were carrying out renovation work on Hadrian’s Wall they found a lot of decayed liquorice which it is believed had been brought across by the Romans so whether they used it for medicinal purposes or whether they used it to stop their troops becoming over-thirsty we don’t know. But that is a known fact about liquorice.
The first man to use liquorice in Pontefract to make the actual Pontefract Cakes was George Dunhill who was a chemist in the town. He took the raw liquorice, boiled it, added sugar to it, mollassess, flour, made it into a dough, made a paste, rolled it into little round balls and then he sold it in his chemist shop to the miners going to work because it stimulated the guts, stopped them being thirsty – which they didn’t realize it did at the time, but it did, and it also cured any chest ailments they had.
All the confectionery made in the local factories was produced by hand and each factory had its own unique style. The girls at Wilkinson’s used to roll theirs out and nip pieces off onto a tray. Each tray held 240 cakes and each girl was required to complete fifteen trays per hour, so from start to finish they never stopped. The girls acquired the nickname of ‘Spanish Thumpers’.
Not many people are aware that the town of Pontefract received acclaim in the film industry. I don’t know if it was Robinson and Wordsworth, who had their factory in Ferrybridge Road, or Hillaby’s that was burned down in around 1947, but most people will have seen Charlie Chaplin in the 1925 film The Gold Rush. In that film Charlie Chaplin is seen eating his boots and laces, and the boots were specially made from liquorice produced in Pontefract but we’re not quite sure which factory actually made them.
At a later date, the 1979 Bond film Moonraker with Roger Moore, featured a character called Jaws who in one particular scene is seen biting through a thick electric cable while on one of those ski-lifts or whatever you want to call them. As he bites through the cable, sparks begin flying all over the place but the cable was actually made out of liquorice produced in Pontefract and sent down to Pinewood Studios.
Also, Spencer Tracy and Kathleen Hepburn appeared in a 1949 film called Adams Rib, which also featured an infamous liquorice gun scene. The gun used in the film was also made out of liquorice produced in Pontefract.
Introduced by Bruce Forsyth, Acker Bilk was filmed playing Stranger on The Shore on a clarinet on London Weekend’s ‘Beat the Clock’ during the 1950s. The clarinet was made from liquorice and made at W.R. Wilkinson’s, Pontefract, but unfortunately due to the the heat from the studio lights it began to melt and dropped onto the floor.
All the liquorice factories in Pontefract were originally family owned, every factory borne by a family; there were no big corporations like there is today. Wilkinson’s present factory on Monkhill was established by a gentleman named Mr. W.H. Marshall who came to Pontefract from Somerset to work for W.R. Wilkinson who at that time had a factory down Skinner Lane opposite the cemetery at the back of the old workhouse. Mr. Marshall was a dynamic businessman who ended up becoming the sole proprietor of the company.
As far as Pontefract goes, liquorice is part of our Heritage. Wakefield go on about rhubarb, but you can grow rhubarb almost anywhere. You can’t grow liquorice just anywhere!
Tom Shay Dixon