English people famously have a sweet tooth, and most of us have memories of our childhood favourite sweets. You might think that a love of sweets is common place around the world, but in fact, England is famous for its range of attractive confectionary, so much so that visitors from other countries, particularly the USA and Australia, often take plenty of them home when they return, while there is a thriving export trade in English sweets and confectionery.
More than £3000 million is spent every year in the UK on chocolates, toffees, sweets and other confectionary every year, from traditional seaside rock to the latest in artisanal chocolate. And the taste for English sweets has led to the growth of traditional-style sweet shops, complete with jars of the old favourites and bags in which to put your treasure!
We can trace the origins of sweets to around 2000 BC when the ancient Egyptians were known to create sweet products from fruits, nuts and honey. Liquorice juice, which is extracted from the root of a leguminous plant, was also used, though for medicinal purposes. In England, sweets and confectionaries were luxuries, available only to the aristocracy, but the industrial revolution changed all that, and a combination of mass production technology and a fall in the price of refined sugar led to the creation of a range of new sweet products.
Many of the most popular sweets to have hit the big time in England were created within the last 120 years or so, and have met the challenge of changing fashion to delight successive generations of English folk. Here are some of the most enduringly popular English sweets.
A soft sweet designed to look like babies, they are made by several companies, though they were originally launched by Bassett’s of Sheffield in 1918, when they were known as Peace Babies, to mark the end of the First World War. Production was suspended during the Second World War, but they were relaunched as Jelly Babies in 1953 and proved hugely popular.
Jelly Babies that are manufactured in England are dusted in starch left from the manufacturing process, which distinguishes them from other versions, such as Australian jelly babies, that lack the dusty coating. The sweet has become a popular part of English culture. The late Beatles guitarist George Harrison famously once revealed that he liked jelly babies and was subsequently pelted with them at gigs, while the sweet is a favourite of Doctor Who.
One of the strangest but most iconic of English sweets was created by accident. In 1899, Sheffield entrepreneur and confectioner George Bassett’s biggest claim to fame was the fact that he had baked a giant cake to commemorate the end of the Crimean War. But in 1899, one of his salesman, who was showing off some of Bassett’s sweets to a prospective buyer, knocked trays full of sample sweets onto the floor, resulting in a jumble of confectionary. The buyer was so delighted by the effect of the jumbled sweets that he asked for the mix to be made deliberately. This unusual mix of sugar and licorice has proven irresistible and Bassett’s now produces millions of boxes every year.
There are few more distinctive English sweets than the humble stick of rock. A long cylinder of sugar flavoured with a variety of tastes and featuring the name of the seaside town where it is sold through the centre of the sweet, this is a ubiquitous and distinctly English holiday gift. It is believed that the rock we know today was invented by a Yorkshire confectioner in the 1880s, following a trip to Blackpool. The skill involved in producing those original sticks of rock is not to be underestimated and the stick of rock remains the quintessential holiday sweet.
Although the name might suggest an adult-only sweet, there is no wine in the wine gum at all. The supposed creator of the wine gum, Charles Gordon Maynard, is alleged to have created the sweet to appeal to adults, giving them names such as port, sherry, champagne, burgundy, and claret, and matching the flavours of those drinks, if not the alcohol content. It is also believed that he had to work hard to convince the founder of the sweet company where he worked, who just happened to be his father, and a Methodist teetotaler, that there was no alcohol involved in their production.
Sherbet is these days sold in plastic tubes, although the original fountains were sold in paper packets. The fountain features a stick of licorice which supposedly can be bitten off to produce a straw through which the powdery sherbert can be sucked, though many prefer to dip the liquorice in the sherbet and lick it off. The sherbert in sherbert fountains is usually left without flavour, and features a more reactive chemical than traditional sherbert, which causes a fizzy foam to develop in your mouth.
Love Hearts are an eyecatching sweet manufactured by Swizzels Matlow, and first seen in the 1950s. These are had, fizzy, tablet-shaped sweets decorated with heart shapes. The front of the sweet is embossed with a motto, and there are a variety of colours. The result is a distinctive sweet that fizzes in the mouth and that has proven perennially popular with schoolchildren.