Retro: Sheffield sweet empire built by accident

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Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts were ‘born’ in 1899 after company rep Charlie Thompson, tripped over a doormat as he was calling on a customer.

At that time, the sweets, which make up today’s selection were sold separately and he spilled his tray of samples, neatly displayed in separate rows, on the floor.

While gathering them into a heap, the customer, attracted by the assortments, straightaway placed an order – ‘for all sorts’. Thus allsorts were literally ‘stumbled upon’ but were immediately successful and are still as popular today as they’ve ever been.

At the age of 25, in 1843, George Bassett, of Ashover, Derbyshire, acquired a small retail confectionery and wine business at 30 Broad Street, Sheffield. Sixteen years later, he took over further premises in the city and began manufacturing at the America Works near the Royal Infirmary.

Venturing into politics, he was Mayor of Sheffield in 1876 and had US President Ulysses S Grant as a house guest. George died in 1886, never knowing how famous his name would become.

Thereafter, the company was controlled by Samuel Meggitt Johnson who had started as an apprentice, aged 12, in 1851. He became a partner in the firm in 1863 and five years later married George Bassett’s eldest daughter.

Following Samuel’s death in 1925, Bassett’s became a public company and Samuel’s grandson William Johnson became chairman and managing director.

The popular company mascot Bertie Bassett, a figure made up of liquorice allsorts, was created in the 1920s and has been used for many years.

In a takeover move in 1933 Bassett’s acquired the Don Confectionery Company in Sheffield and in the same year concentrated all manufacturing at the Owlerton site, established in 1900.

This was expanded into a four-storey factory to take over the whole of the liquorice allsorts production.

Export markets were then developed until Bassett’s became one of the largest exporters of sweets in the country.

After 1945, expansion was phenomenal and included the completion of a large finished goods warehouse with space for 2,000 tons of confectionery.

Bassett’s used a staggering 10,000 tons of sugar a year, 1,700 tons of glucose, 1,500 tons of treacle and 1,500 tons of coconut. All ingredients were thoroughly tested for purity before use by the firm’s chemists working in a modern laboratory.

In the post-war years, Sheffield was the firm’s headquarters but there were also offices in London, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham plus a London factory.

There were 2,800 employees producing around 25 million sweets every day. The annual turnover was around £500,000.

Whilst Bassett’s were the originators of the world-famous Liquorice Allsorts, the medicinal properties of liquorice had been recognised for centuries. But many other types of confectionery were produced by the company. It was the leading manufacturer of Jelly Babies, Liquorice Comfits, Fruit Pastilles, Pontefract Cakes and a range of sweets made mainly for export.

Bassett’s factory in London specialised in the production of Liquorice Novelties.

By the late 1950s revolutionary changes had taken place at the firm in both the production and marketing of confectionery.

Production methods were no longer the sole prerogative of practical confectioners on the shop floor, they were worked out in detail by university-trained technologists in laboratories and pilot plants and by production study engineers with stop watches.

Control of quality was no longer just a matter of tasting samples but of measuring variances from a scientifically precise specification by mathematical and statistical techniques.

Behind the scenes, a team of research chemists and physicists constantly sought to develop new products and find better methods of making existing products, while a team of development engineers was at work on the mechanisation of production processes.

In 1967 Bassett’s won the Queen’s Award for Export Performance and at the same time acquired a confectionery manufacturing company at Bred in Holland.

The 1970s was a busy decade for the company. During June 1973 they announced record profits had been made over the previous year, passing the £2m mark for the first time.

The previous ten years had seen company absorb W R Wilkinson & Co Ltd, famous for Pontefract cakes, and Barratt & Co Ltd, the country’s biggest manufacturer of ‘kiddies’ own purchase lines’.

Appointed as US agent for the Bassett brand was the Quaker City Confectionery Co, manufacturer of liquorice products.

Bassett’s diversified massively into many other markets including distribution and TV games. Later in the decade, and for the first time ever, Bassett’s exhibited confectionery in the Eastern Bloc countries and came away with orders for 2¼ million cartons of sweets.

But in 1978 a decision was made to sell the wholesale and retailing businesses for £5.3m to Palmer and Harvery, the country’s largest confectionery and tobacco wholesaler.

The cash was to give Bassett’s greater financial strength, expanding its distribution business and confectionery manufacture at home and abroad.

The following decade witnessed struggle and opened with news of redundancies at the firm. This was blamed on a massive slump with exports due to the exchange rate with the dollar being so high.

It was also reported the company had suffered a pre-tax loss of £1.3m. Fortunately, a strong recovery was made two years later.

Throughout the 1980s Bassett’s took over companies, offloaded some and fought off several takeovers. The company sold its Paterson’s biscuit business to Argyll Foods, cutting its overdraft by £1.6m.

A toy distribution company, A A Hales, was also offloaded to Adam Imports. A takeover bid from Avana Food Group failed in 1984.

Jamesons Chocolates was absorbed during 1988 in a £9m deal and continued Bassett’s strategy of moving into niches within the chocolate market. In the same year pre-tax profits were up from £3.6m to £4.15m.

Another bid for Bassett’s by the Swedish government-owned company Procodia failed in early 1989 but the Cadbury-Schweppes group took control shortly afterwards with a £91m bid.

Bassett’s is presently used as a brand of Cadbury, owned by Mondelez International.