Chocolate and the Quakers: Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry

The nineteenth century saw the rise of the three famous cocoa refining companies: Cadbury; J. S. Fry & Sons and Rowntree. What were unique about these companies were their Quaker roots. All three were run during this period by Quaker families although by the twentieth century these companies moved out of Quaker control. So why did Quakers come to dominate the British cocoa industry?

Quakers, as Protestant dissenters, were a marginalised group up until the early nineteenth century, including being barred from universities. This meant that a highly educated and motivated group in society were left to pursue business. While a number of famous British companies such as Clarks and Barclays Bank were set up by Quakers, in the nineteenth century Quakers like other Protestant groups such as Salvationists, were concerned about the effects of alcohol abuse. Quakers were a leading group in the temperance movement and saw drinking cocoa as an alternative for alcohol. Cocoa was seen as a good substitute, as not only was it cheap but the requirement to boil water to make the drink meant that it was safer than drinking just water, therefore it was suitable for consumption from those from all social classes.

Fry was the first of the companies beginning chocolate production in 1759. By 1822 the company was the largest commercial producer of chocolate in Britain and had introduced several factory techniques to improve chocolate production. Fry was followed by Cadbury in 1824. After initial success including a royal warrant the company went into decline in the 1850s until Richard and George Cadbury took over in 1861 who turned the company profitable within three years by moving the company’s focus solely onto cocoa products rather than tea and coffee. In 1862 Rowntree was founded and the three Quaker companies began to coexist.

So why were the three companies so successful? Their Quaker roots certainly were a major factor as Quaker businesses were widely seen by the public as reliable and fair who were not out to rip off consumers with unfair prices like non-Quaker businesses. They were also seen as good employers who were socially conscious, again due to being Quakers. They provided decent working conditions, housing, healthcare and education for both staff and their families. Cadbury and Rowntree in particular pioneered socially conscious working conditions such as the five-day week, sick pay and pensions. These two companies are also particularly famous for their model villages built for their workers. Cadbury designed the famous Bournville village in Birmingham for their workers, with superior housing stock and facilities for their workers. Rowntree produced a similar village known as New Earswick in York. As Quakers the signature community pub however was missing in conjunction with Quaker views on alcohol.

However while these may seem morally enlightened, some aspects were outdated, such as the fact women were not allowed to continue working after marriage. Fry who did practise fair practices towards their workers were let down by their refusal to move from their cramped premises which meant that Fry’s employees worked and lived in worse conditions than their Cadbury and Rowntree counterparts.

By the early twentieth century Cadbury began to dominate. During the nineteenth century the three companies had managed to coexist in the market. For example Fry had produced the first chocolate Easter egg in 1873, which Cadbury followed in 1875. These Easter eggs were different from those produced today made out of a much more bitter dark chocolate and were hand decorated, which meant they were seen as a luxury item. However the creation and popularity of the brand’s staple Dairy Milk in 1905 propelled Cadbury to become the leader in the market while Fry’s and Rowntree’s attempts could not match up to the quality of Dairy Milk. Rowntree was let down by the belief of its owner Joseph Rowntree who mistakenly branded milk chocolate as a fad. Fry on the other hand was let down by its premises once again, which did not allow the transportation of fresh milk in the quantities needed for quality production, instead they used dried milk which led to an inferior product.
While Rowntree managed to maintain some level of competition with Cadbury, Fry was plagued by problems. They failed in advertising, which meant that Cadbury and Rowntree managed to gain more of their market share. The final blow was upon the death of Joseph Storrs Fry when the company fell into the hands of squabbling family members who would only communicate via letter. As a result Fry merged with Cadbury in 1919.

By the second half of the twentieth century both Cadbury and Rowntree had both moved on from their Quaker roots and were run in a more typically capitalist fashion, with Cadbury merging with Schweppes in 1969 and Rowntree taken over by Nestlé in 1988.
For British readers, especially, Cadbury and Rowntree are part of our daily life. We recognise and have purchased products bearing these brand names since childhood. In some respects they are a fundamental part and symbol of British life. While in their current capitalist itineration it is easy to forget their impact on British history. Firstly their impact on chocolate becoming such a valued and popular food in Britain and secondly how as companies they helped revolutionise working conditions in Britain, helping make their historical impact twofold.

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