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Sweet Thoughts: Stories

Posted on 22 November 2012 | Narrative, Audio

It’s a hard job but someone has to do it… York Stories 2012 asked Telling Arts to collect people’s stories related to chocolate.

With such a rich heritage of chocolate industry in York and a selection of independent chocolatiers continuing to put York very firmly on the chocolate map, it would seem remiss not to collect the memories of those who have made a living from the sticky stuff.

During National Chocolate Week, I was hosted (and fed!) by the lovely people at York Cocoa House and I met some fascinating people with a range of stories to tell.

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Eddie Johnson has worked at York Cocoa House for only four weeks, but has a wealth of knowledge having worked for several years at Terry’s.

He worked in many different departments, but says that it was more sociable working on the packing lines. He recalls that there were workers of various different cultural backgrounds and he found it interesting getting to know more about them and their cultures.

Eddie couldn’t help but take his work home with him. He recalls trying to get his child to sleep and being told that they couldn’t possibly sleep because he smelt too much of chocolate! He also remembers closing his eyes one night and seeing chocolate dripping from one of the machines. Sure enough, the next morning there had been a chocolate leak at the factory.

For more of Eddie’s memories, listen to his interview.

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One gentleman told of how, as a child, he had been the first person to take a Terry’s Chocolate Orange into his prep school. The excitement that followed is still vividly clear for him; he was followed into the form room and all his school pals crowded round as he dished out segments of the chocolate orange. He said that he had never been so popular!

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Tony and Yvonne had tales galore of high jinks within the factories of both Rowntree’s and Terry’s.

Tony recalled tales of workers being put head first into large containers of ingredients and of a particular colleague you avoided when passing the fountain as he had a tendency to push you into it.

Yvonne recalled when she first went to Terry’s; she had been working in admin at Rowntrees but now found herself on the factory floor. Unable to keep up with the pace as a new member of the team she had been shouted at one too many times by the supervisor. She calmly walked over and emptied the sweets over her head.

They also told me of a fellow worker at Terry’s who used to keep a book of all things that were done and said within the factory. He had a particular knack of turning everything into a joke and the book was readily available for fellow workers to read and enjoy. However there were some managers with less of a sense of humour from whom the book was kept hidden. Apparently the book vanished the day its author left the factory.

Finally, they told me of Charlie, the ghost of Terrys factory. Machines would suddenly be found to have moved or switched on with nobody around. They would speak warmly with Charlie in the hope that he would leave them alone. They wondered whether Charlie would remain when the old factory finally gets the go-ahead for development.

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“Everything stopped for a party.”

Marguerita was keen to show me photos of the wonderful social community that existed – from Christmas fancy dress parties to Holidays in Scarborough to Cinema viewings at lunchtime.

Her daughter Chris was keen to tell me about the medical centre at the factory and a particular Doctor who worked there that they all loved called Dr Underwood. He had delivered Chris and he would always ask her mother at work “How’s my little baby?”

Grand-daughter Lynne is proud to be the third generation of her family working with chocolate in York as she now works at York Cocoa House. Does she like chocolate? Well, apparently she had no interest in chocolate before working here but she likes it now – “proper chocolate”, she is keen to emphasise!

Will there be a fourth generation of chocolate employment? Son Jenson is keen to run his own chocolate shop, but at the age of 6 he can be forgiven for being more interested in the eating at the moment.

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The theme of healthcare was echoed by Mike Grimes, who seemed to inadvertently become archivist at Terry’s while he worked there and who continues to assist research into York’s chocolate heritage. He pointed out that before the advent of the NHS healthcare had to be paid for and so the offer of medical care for the workers of Rowntree’s and Terry’s was of great benefit. Mike was keen to direct anybody else wishing to discover more about memories of chocolate in York to Van Wilson’s book “The Terry’s Story”.

Listen to his interview for a thorough overview of the chocolate industry and its evolution in York and beyond.

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Zilla Acaster worked at Rowntree’s for over 40 years. Her own memories and stories make compulsive listening but she also recalled tales that she had heard from a lady who had been at the factory before her. She told of how there had once been a violinist employed to entertain the workers on the factory floor and that, apparently, at one time a parrot was kept in the factory.

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One gentleman who spoke to me was eager to point out that not everything that is written and reported about the history of chocolate in York is factually accurate. It soon became apparent as to why this mattered to him; he was Jonathan Rowntree, great-grandson of Joseph Rowntree. While he has never been involved in the factory itself, he is proud to carry the family name and he recalls being shown around the factory by his father, Peter Rowntree, who was the last director of the company to be appointed by patrimony.

While obviously proud of his family’s legacy in York he sees it as a greater legacy on the country as a whole by the Quakers. The Quaker philosophy, he tells me, is that your life’s work should be beneficial to everybody; and away from chocolate, he has aimed to fulfil this philosophy through his own work with young people with special needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Asked whether the impact of Quakerism is still as strong today, he acknowledges that much was achieved by individuals within his family, but that these days, it would be more difficult for individuals to make such a difference with the way that companies have become more international with larger boards of directors.

Jonathan’s York story included a recollection of his Grandfather’s strong belief that you shouldn’t ask anyone to make a financial decision that involves more than ten times their own wealth, as such figures become incomprehensible.

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Overriding themes from the interviews included a real sense of pride and community that came from working for Rowntree’s and Terry’s and a definite mischievous streak that accompanied the hard work. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly was a continued love of chocolate, despite being surrounded by it day-in-day-out.

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On my second day at York Cocoa House, I met the Huntington school Link group; a group of sixth form students who regularly meet socially with elderly members of the local community, many of whom had direct experience of working at Rowntree’s.

The students helped me to pick up snippets of stories which included more information about how the workers were looked after and the range of facilities. There was a cinema that showed films at lunchtime, a gym, library, tennis courts, fitness classes, woodwork, music played in the factory, dances at De Grey Rooms, doctor, dentist, even holidays offered at Dunollie in Scarborough.

Transport was another theme, with memories of a horse and cart making deliveries around the factory and Rowntrees having its own train line.

Other recollections included hockey and netball teams that would play on Saturdays. They would travel to matches in the back of a Rowntree van, sat on benches with no van doors so they would wave to the passing lorry drivers. The overriding memory of transport though was that of bikes.

The whistle would blow at the end of a shift and a “white wave” of ladies in turbans and overalls would pour out of the factory and up Gillygate on their bikes, stopping all other traffic.

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Sisters Edna and Elsie are self-proclaimed chocoholics. Edna recalled how she would do anything to beg or buy extra chocolate coupons when it was rationed and when asked what chocolate she liked best Elsie viewed me with disdain. “All of it,” she replied.

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As a younger generation of chocolate lover student, Cat works at York Cocoa House and reflected that chocolate making is still based here in York but that it is now more independent and smaller-scale. Her enthusiasm for chocolate was very apparent and she gave the older ladies a lesson in how best to drink a hot chocolate.

For more chocolate memories, take a moment to listen to the interviews. Then go and treat yourself to some of York’s finest chocolate!

- Richard Kay