The sweet secret to Sheffield confectionery firm's success after century of trading
Ever present in chemists, service stations, garages and aiport shops, for many, the familiar sight of the gold, circular tin that houses Simpkins’ boiled travel sweets evokes thoughts and memories of long drives and air travel.
The Sheffield firm is set to mark its centenary this year, and has been based at the same site in Hillsborough throughout, quietly creating an enduring manufacturing legacy for the city to be proud of.
Simpkins has been producing throat lozenges, glucose products and sweets for the world since 1921, and are showing no signs of slowing down.
Brother and sister, Adrian and Karen, are the third generation of the Simpkin family to run the company, in parallel to several other Sheffield families – mostly those living in Hillsborough – who, over the years, have seen generation after generation clock in at the factory.
"Over the generations we’ve seen grandmother, daughter, granddaughters working here, so there’s been a real lineage here,” said Adrian.
Simpkins manufactures exactly the same products they did when the factory opened in 1921, even using some of the same machinery, as well as several same hand-made techniques.
The firm, which produces around five million sweets every week, has survived a world war, countless recessions, and now, a global pandemic, which has taken down numerous high street giants and titans of industry.
And the secret to their success?
Adrian says it is simply having a great product and a dedicated workforce.
"We come up with the ideas, but it’s only due to the quality of the workforce that we’re still here. From the boilers to the tinning lines, even down to the cleaners, it’s down to them that we keep going,” Adrian said.
Other than a short-lived manufacturing set-up in South Africa, every part of the Simpkins’ operation has proudly been carried out in Sheffield for the last century, and Adrian says they are “very much a Hillsborough company.”
He adds that the reason the South Africa operation failed is because the process to create their famous sweets, using sugar, glucose syrup and water, is a particularly “sensitive” one which can be “affected by water hardness and air temperature.”
As a result, the company’s attempt to recreate the Simpkins magic abroad just did not work.
So who knows, maybe Sheffield's renowned water supply has had a small part to play in the firm’s success.
The company was founded by Adrian’s grandfather, Albert Leslie Simpkin, after he returned from World War One.
Leslie, who went by his middle name like many men of his generation, was injured in the infamous battle for Serre on the Somme which saw hundreds of fellow Sheffield PALS killed.
Second Lieutenant Albert Leslie Simpkin returned to the trenches and was wounded again (and later awarded the Military Cross) while leading an attack on a machine gun post in 1918.
And the idea for the boiled sweets came to him while he was being treated for shrapnel wounds.
Adrian said: “He had various bits of shrapnel taken out of his body. They used to give out liquid glucose to the wounded, but it was liquid so it was going everywhere, and that’s when he came up with the idea to boil it instead.”
Leslie used some of his demob money from WW1 to buy a confectionary company based in Pitsmoor, and eventually ended up trading companies with another businessman operating from the same street who owned a boiling shop.
Concerns about how well his company would be able to compete with fellow Sheffield confectioner Bassett’s led to Leslie taking the decision to primarily manufacture sweets, as well as glucose and methol drops, for chemists, a strategy that continues to serve Simpkins well today.
“Bassett’s had told him ‘it’s not worth it, if you go up against us, you will lose’. So he decided to mainly stock chemists instead, and it grew massively from there.”
This growth led to Leslie buying the Hunter Road factory that Simpkins still operates from today. Adrian says the factory has been there for such a long time that the part of Hillsborough that surrounds it has been built around their premises.
And those living nearby are used to the sweet smell that eminates from the factory on boiling day.
"They can always tell which flavour of sweet we’re making,” joked Adrian.
All of Simpkins products contained barley sugar drops, which have been proven to alleviate the symptoms of travel sickness, and so, it became commonplace to have a tin of Simpkins in the glove compartment or in your carry-on for trips overseas.
The iconic travel tin evolved because of it being one of the only containers that was relatively air tight, and would stop the sweets from sticking together.
Another shrewd decision of Leslie’s that helped to secure the firm’s long-term future was to start exporting Simpkins products early on.
He began taking world cruises in a bid to find international customers for generations to come in countries including Australia, Japan, Cyprus, Canada, Sri Lanka, Malta, the United States and New Zealand.
Adrian says Simpkins still trades with some of the same companies and family businesses that Leslie began trading with during those early round-the-world business trips.
Simpkins’ products became very popular in Japan, and after Quality Street, their products became the most sought after English confectionary in the country.
Adrian says that because Simpkins’ products use natural flavours and colourings, it meant they did not fall foul of the strict food regulations in place in Japan, and were able to “fit in straight away.”
The distinctive gold tins that Simpkins sweets came in helped their travel sweets to become a bit of a status symbol, and would often be given as presents on White Day, the day on which men give gifts back to women in appreciation of what they received on Valentine's Day.
Today, Simpkins is still sold in 40 countries around the world.
During WW2, Simpkins provided high altitude pilots with fighter glucose.
Adrian explained: “A year before the war, my grandfather went to Nuremberg and got the recipe for “fighter glucose”. He brought that back and compressed it into a tablet which gives you instant energy because it the body absorbs it much more quickly.”
He added: “It was given to all the bomber pilots and anyone on a long mission.”
During the war, Simpkins continued to operate in a similar way due to chemists remaining open, but North/South trade zoning was introduced, due to sweets being rationed, which meant they were only able to sell in locations from Birmingham upwards.
Adrian says they sold more products in bulk in the north, and more travel sweets in tins in the south; and Simpkins adapted accordingly both during, and after, zoning.
He believes this strategy is what helped them to survive the tumultuous war years and its aftermath.
Following the war, Simpkins expanded its market and began manufacturing for businesses and organisations including Harrods, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution), English Heritage as well as Lexus and Jaguar.
They even became the official expedition supplier of glucose products for the first ascent of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953.
Legend has it that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher may have used Simpkins’ liquorice Nipits to help her with voice control.
"We were contacted by the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) saying we’ve found Nipits in Mrs Thatcher’s blue suit, which she famously wore for her “this lady’s not for turning speech...although we don’t have any records of her buying them,” said Adrian.
The firm is also set to produce commemorative sweets to be sold in the Royal Palace to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 95th birthday.
Simpkins has continued to evolve with the times, and recently collaborated with Sheffield’s True North Brew Co to bring out Old Tom gin, using flavours from their liquorice Nipits.
Adrian and Karen’s father John began working for Simpkins after completing national service in 1957, focusing on export sales.
"He was always away travelling,” said Adrian.
John became managing director in the late 1960s, and would eventually see his children join the company too – but that was not always the plan.
Adrian spent time as a Royal Marine, while Karen went to study food technology at Grimsby College and went to work in industry at firms including Smith Kline and Beechams.
“We were told to find our own paths and it wasn’t expected that we would necessarily come to work at Simpkins,” he said.
Adrian has a similar outlook when it comes to his own children. His 23-year-old son, Dominic, has just graduated from university with a first-class degree and is currently working as a landscape gardener due to a lack of jobs.
"They can go out and find themselves, and then they can come in [to the business] if they want to but they have to bring something to the party,” said Adrian.
"If he works a 9-5 job, he can go straight to the pub after he finishes and be off until Monday. But if he comes to work here, he’ll be working every hour God sends, every weekend,” revealed Adrian.