The Bournville site

The history of Cadbury’s is a West Midlands success story with few rivals, writes Molly Forsyth. From its roots in Birmingham, the company has gone on to become one of the largest confectionery brands in the world.

In 1824, John Cadbury opened a grocer’s shop at 93 Bull Street, Birmingham. As a committed Quaker, Cadbury dedicated himself to selling cocoa and drinking chocolate. These, along with tea and coffee, were seen as health foods and offered as an alternative to alcohol, the consumption of which was against Cadbury’s strong beliefs. Moving on from the pestle and mortar, the Cadbury business expanded production to a commercial level in 1831 and Mr Cadbury relocated to a four-story warehouse close to Crooked Lane.

By 1842, Cadbury’s was selling 16 varieties of drinking chocolate and 11 different cocoas. As primitive versions of what we know and love today, drinking chocolate was sold as pressed cakes or powder, while strains of cocoa were sold as flakes, powder or nibs. Names included “Churchman’s Chocolate”, “Spanish Chocolate”, “Iceland Moss” and ‘Homeopathic’.

In 1847, as business grew exponentially at an incredible pace, Cadbury’s relocated to Bridge Street in central Birmingham. The new site boasted private canal links to the Birmingham Navigational Canal and all the major ports of Britain. Much like chain-making and steel work, chocolate also benefitted from the industrial revolution in the West Midlands.

The lifelike sets at Cadbury World, showing brothers Richard and George Cadbury pressing cocoa beans in their 1850s workshop, 1996

John Cadbury retired in 1861, handing the business over to his sons, Richard and George. The young brothers were aware of other cocoa manufacturers going out of business and they made hard sacrifices to keep Cadbury’s in production, working long hours and living below their means in order to invest more into the business when necessary.

A change in fortune began in 1866, thanks to a change in processing techniques. They launched Cadbury Cocoa Essence, the UK’s first pressed cocoa with reduced cocoa butter, compared to traditional cocoa formulations. The brothers gambled their money on a specialist press, which they had seen used by a Dutch manufacturer called Coenraad Johannes van Houten.

The press was installed in their factory in Bridge Street, ready for mass production, with no knowledge of whether the public would buy into their new cocoa or not. Advertised as ‘Absolutely Pure. Therefore Best.’, Cocoa Essence was a success and led the business to grow from a local business into a worldwide company.

From 1875 onwards, Cadbury had to fend off fierce competition from Swiss manufacturers, who used condensed milk to produce chocolate with a superior taste and texture. Swiss milk chocolate dominated the British market, leading the brothers to seek a solution. In 1879, the brothers decided to invest in the working conditions of their factory, in an effort to improve their chocolate production. They relocated one last time, to the area of Birmingham now known as Bournville.

‘Bournville’ was created near the Bourn stream as a village for the Cadbury workers, hence the name. It offered full transport links via road, canal and train, as well as a healthy water supply and better quality housing than the slums in central Birmingham.

Bournville Infant School pupils Oliver Dukes (left), Natalie Taylor and Liam Dolphin, after a VIP tour of Cadbury world, 1990.

Cadbury’s were producing solid Easter eggs by 1875, but were yet start production on a chocolate bar. From making Cocoa Essence, they used the extracted cocoa butter as a binder for bars of chocolate. Cadbury milk chocolate officially hit the shelves in 1897.

It was 1904 which saw the development of Cadbury’s most famous product and the centrepiece of its legacy, the Dairy Milk bar. With the company now in the hands of George Cadbury Jr., he was met with the challenge of creating the ‘milkiest’ chocolate bar to beat their Swiss rivals once and for all.

It went through a number of names, including Highland Milk and Dairy Maid, before Dairy Milk was suggested by a young customer. Dairy Milk was formally launched in 1905. It slowly grew in popularity, becoming the company’s biggest seller by the beginning of the First World War. Apart from a three-year production gap during the Second World War, it has never left the shelves since.

Exhibition assistants Lorraine Keely and Lisa O’Shaughnessy in the Cadbury World shop, 1990

In the same year as the Dairy Milk launch, the first Cadbury logo was created by George Auriol, the designer of signs for the Paris Metro. It incorporated the Bournville pear tree. This image is still used on merchandise for Cadbury World:

Hot on the heels of Dairy Milk, Bournville chocolate was launched in 1908. Named after the Bournville factory, it incorporated alkalised cocoa for improved taste while using no milk.

J.S. Fry & Sons – the creators of the first ever chocolate bar – merged with Cadbury in 1919. They are best known for their Turkish Delight confection, reaching the height of its popularity in the 1970s and 1980s through fondly remembered TV advertising.

At its launch in 1905, Cadbury Dairy Milk started out in pale mauve with red script, in a continental style parcel wrap. The full Dairy Milk range became purple and gold in 1920, which has been the standard colours of the Cadbury brand ever since. At the same time, the Cadbury script logo was first introduced, based on the signature of William Cadbury, but this wasn’t formally used by the brand until 1952. The glass and a half symbol debuted in 1928 in advertisements, first used with the Dairy Milk and then expanded across all press and posters. This is still the basis of the logo to this day.

Hilda Craig

As part of Cadbury’s commitment to giving the best to their workers, The Cadbury Foundation was set up in 1935, to focus on the welfare of employees which is still in practice today.

In 1992 Sir Richard Attenborough narrated a film, called the Cadbury Collection, about the life and times of employees during the 1950s. Former employees, such as Hilda Craig, were invited back to share memories of their working lives.

Further investment into marketing, a weakness for Cadbury’s, happened during this period, with the commissioning of local illustrator Cecil Aldin. He created posters and press advertisements with colourful and emphatic imagery, which were regularly featured in magazine campaigns and graced the walls of town centres across the country.

Cadbury’s legacy continues to grow, having offered a variety of much loved products throughout the decades with memorable marketing. From the Milk Tray Man and Old Jamaica, to the ‘Deliciously Ugly’ Picnic bar and thanking Crunchie that it was Friday, Cadbury’s impact can never be forgotten, and it all started with a pestle and mortar in Bull Street.

From 1990: Opening of new 5 1/2 million Cadbury World complex. Photograph shows staff from the demonstration production line Bob Walker, Colin Davis, Chris Benfield and Sue Pearsall.