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British food pioneers who put chocolate on the menu

Leicester historian discusses how chemists brought chocolate to the masses

Issued on 17 September

A University of Leicester historian lifted the lid on Britain’s forgotten chocolate pioneers at a talk for the British Science Festival.

Dr Sally Horrocks of the School of Historical Studies highlighted how developments in chocolate manufacture turned it from a luxury to a staple of the British diet in her lecture 'Pioneers of food science: chemists and chocolate in interwar Britain' on 16 September. She illustrated how the interwar years saw significant developments in food science thanks to chemists like those working in Britain’s chocolate factories.

Threats to food supplies during the First World War stimulated both the government and private industry to develop new organisations for scientific research into foodstuffs. Many firms hired their own in-house chemists to help cope with wartime restrictions on raw materials.

Dr Horrocks said, “The 1930s saw the development of new products, many of which are still for sale today. At Rowntree’s chemists were involved with things like the Aero, Yorkie, Kit-Kat, Rolos, etc.”

“In fact many of our most popular chocolate bars were launched during the 1930s - Roald Dahl claimed that the 1930s was to chocolate as the renaissance was to painting during a TV interview in the 1990s!”

Roald Dahl famously based his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on his childhood visits to the Cadbury’s factory in the 1920s. In it, Willy Wonka describes his inventing room as the most important room in the entire factory. The discoveries made in Britain’s factories were more mundane, but equally far-reaching.

Dr Horrocks explains: “Chemists were constantly involved in ensuring the changes in production processes or recipes did not change the taste and mouth feel of the product- innovation to stay the same as it were.

“Their efforts contributed significantly to a decline in the relative cost of chocolate that enabled them to extend the market to those on lower incomes. George Orwell listed cheap chocolate as one of the things that 'between them averted revolution' in The Road to Wigan Pier.”

“I always argue that when we talk about science and technology 'changing our world' we tend to think in terms of things like new communications technologies, etc. But actually, things much closer to home, such as food, have changed a lot as well. Indeed, it could be argued that a key way in which technology impacted on the lives of ordinary people was through their changing diets.”

Despite their impact on our lives, it seems that Willy Wonka may be the only food innovator that we are likely to remember.

Dr Horrocks said, “With a very few exceptions we know very little about the scientists working in industry who have helped to change the world around us. Scientists who worked in industry tend to be well known for other things. Margaret Thatcher, for example, worked on ice cream for Lyons for a short time.

“People like Norman Booth , who was key to the development of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, launched in 1905, or Mamie Olliver, whose work paved the way for Ribena, deserve to be better known.”

'Pioneers of food science: chemists and chocolate in interwar Britain' is part of the British Science Festival’s ‘Food in Our Lives’ event at Aston University, 1pm – 3.15pm on 16 September. Tickets are £5 and can be booked via the website: http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/BritishScienceFestival/

Notes to Editors:

For more information, please contact Dr Sally Horrocks at email smh4@le.ac.uk

Peter Thorley

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