The strange story of Britain’s oldest sweet

The strange story of Britain’s oldest sweet

First created as a medicine, liquorice cakes have been eaten throughout the centuries – and are an unlikely symbol of Yorkshire.

At 11:00 in Pateley Bridge, on a damp, soft-focused Yorkshire day, The Oldest Sweet Shop in England, as rated by Guinness World Records, was already in the midst of its regular midmorning rush. At the counter, all grins and punchy one-liners, owner Keith Tordoff was measuring out quarter-pound bags of sweets from 200-odd glass confectioner’s jars stacked high on the wall behind him.

His wife Gloria appeared to help with the demand, snapping lids closed with urgency, while his son Alexander made light work of refilling the jars for visitors from the US, Japan, Germany, Australia and all parts of the UK. Barley sugars changed hands; so too did sours, sugar-dusted bon bons, rainbow jelly beans, and perennial favourites rosie apples and rhubarb and custards (both retro boiled sweets).

Everyone loves them, including me

Mornings have been this way for nearly two centuries, and nothing changes at the confectioner but the day of the week. And yet a closer look at the vintage wooden counter, past the oil lamps, oak beams and the century-old cash register, revealed that many customers were queuing to buy the very same thing: a bag of curious, treacle-coloured coins, better known as Pontefract Cakes, and a sweet that local legend claims are among the oldest in the world.

“Everyone loves them, including me,” said Tordoff, who admits to eating around 450g (1lb) of sweets every day. “This building started life as an apothecary in the early 1600s and that’s where the story of Yorkshire liquorice – and the Pontefract Cake – really begins.”

The strange story of Britain’s oldest sweet
View image of Keith Tordoff is the owner of The Oldest Sweet Shop in England, which first started selling sweets nearly two centuries ago (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

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My curiosity about this unfamiliar Yorkshire sweet had initially been piqued a few weeks earlier. As I began reading about its storied history, I discovered a tale that moved from the Norman conquest in 1066 to The Wars of the Roses in the 15th Century to the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). There was even mention of castle sieges in the mid-17th Century. As I read on, it seemed as if the liquorice had become synonymous with Yorkshire itself.

Indeed, hidden in the pages of history, it turned out liquorice’s arrival dated to around the 11th Century, when monks or Crusaders first brought the medicinal Mediterranean root to the county, depending on who you ask. I was intruiged by the list of attractions related to the history of liquorice: a fairytale castle, a festival, a farm, a museum and sweet shops. In particular, one place name kept cropping up: Pontefract, a town with liquorice sprouting between the cracks, which was located just one hour to the south-east of Pateley Bridge. I was keen to find out more.

A visit to the ruined Pontefract Castle gave me some clues. Built from the 1070s onwards, and at the tail end of a £3.5m refurbishment, the medieval keep was the site of multiple royal seizures and as many civil wars. It was a stomping ground for historical figures such as the Grand Old Duke of York, defeated at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, and King Richard II, who was supposedly imprisoned and starved to death for treason on the site. Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, pops up in the story, too, having had an affair at the castle in 1541.

The strange story of Britain’s oldest sweet
View image of The Oldest Sweet Shop in England sells liquorice coins known as Pontefract Cakes, said to be among the world’s oldest sweets (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

But perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that by the early 18th Century, Yorkshire’s imposing fortress had an entirely different purpose. By 1720, as demand shaped the local economy for medicinal liquorice (at the time physicians used it as a cure-all for everything from stomach ulcers and heartburn to colic, bronchitis and tuberculosis), the castle was rented out and roots were stored in the castle dungeons instead of weapons, gunpowder and prisoners.

“You’re standing on what was once a massive liquorice field,” said Dave Evans, curator of Wakefield Museums and Castles, as he showed me around the castle remains. “You need deep trenches to grow liquorice properly – up to 6ft in depth – which is why the castle hillock and its elevated grounds were the perfect environment. Beneath you is what was once a gigantic liquorice store.” While England was hardly short of imposing castles, one overriding factor prevailed: Yorkshire’s climate and geography suited the liquorice’s temperament far better than it did the warmongers’.

It is around this point in the timeline, in 1760, that the most important dramatis personae in the story makes his entrance. George Dunhill was an apothecary chemist in the family trade in Pontefract, and by adding sugar to liquorice (then a dissolvable, medicinal pastel) he created a chewable non-medicinal lozenge, inventing the sweet as we know it today.

The strange story of Britain’s oldest sweet
View image of By the 18th Century, even Yorkshire’s storied Pontefract Castle was used to grow liquorice (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Over the years, a sweet empire boomed in the surrounding towns, and by the 19th Century, around 20 sweet companies had appeared. At the height of production, there were 10 enormous factories in Yorkshire, and inside each, teams of around 45 female workers processed a daily ration of 25,000 ‘cakes’ (as they were called at the time), individually stamping the candy medallions with a design to look like Pontefract Castle.

Still, nothing could save the confectioners from globalisation. Local brands such as Sheffield’s George Bassett and Co, which invented UK children’s favourite Liquorice Allsorts, was absorbed into Cadbury, while Dunhills, the original maker of Pontefract Cakes, was acquired by German confectionary giant Haribo in 1994. Yet one thing remains true: the embossed castle stamp still takes pride of place on each sweet.

It’s as if the stars aligned over Pontefract

“Looking back, it’s as if the stars aligned over Pontefract,” Evans said. “The heritage is tangible, and while most of our liquorice factories have now closed, you can build a whole day out of liquorice tourism in the area.” Today, that could take sweet lovers to the Pontefract Liquorice Festival in July, or to the art nouveau Pontefract Museum, which houses a special liquorice exhibit.

And yet there could be a new twist in the tale. Just outside Pontefract, at Farmer Copleys shop and dairy farm, Heather Copley and her husband Robert have recently become the only present-day farmers to grow liquorice root successfully in the UK. Complicating factors to achieve a fruitful crop include the right soil and climatic conditions, and since liquorice farming fell out of fashion, few farmers take up the challenge.

The strange story of Britain’s oldest sweet
View image of Pontefract Cakes are still stamped with an image of Pontefract Castle (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

But the Copleys are different. Their estate saw more than 100 plants flower for the first time last year, and plans are afoot to increase the crop year-on-year as an ingredient for ice cream, gin and, maybe, one day, sweets. Far from being unrealistic, the ultimate goal is to work towards obtaining a product of designated origin, or PDO.

Continuing this story can give people a real sense of local identity

“The stories here are incredible, so why can’t liquorice be treated with the same respect as Scotch whisky or Wensleydale cheese?” Heather said. “The whole of Pontefract once smelled of liquorice – subtle, yet strong – and it would be a terrible shame to lose our heritage. It flowered for the first time last year, and it’ll take us five to seven years to get something from the crop. But there’s a sense of it belonging here, and continuing this story can give people a real sense of local identity. It’s a social responsibility.”

Not only that, but it’s an enticing invitation to come face to face with one of the world’s greatest unknown sweet stories. And if that intrigues you, don’t tell your dentist you’re planning a visit.

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