Made in Hull: boiled sweets for the people

From the Brandy Snaps at Hull Fair to seaside rock at Bridlington, the people of Hull and East Yorkshire have a bit of a sweet tooth.

It all starts with Needler’s, a Hull-based confectionary company that grew from humble origins to become a giant in sweet manufacturing. Founded in the 1860s by Frederick Needler, the company started with just two members of staff (and a horse), producing sweets for the people of Hull from their premises on Anne Street. They were pretty limited though – only delivering as many sweets as their horse could pull on its cart before it needed a bit of a rest. And probably a sugar lump.

Even when Needler’s trusty steed could make it to their street, the sweets could be expensive for a lot of people in the 19th century. Importing sugar and other ingredients (plus generating the intense heat needed to melt sugar and create sweets) meant that for plenty of ordinary people, sweets were just too pricey. But as the Industrial Revolution transformed UK manufacturing, things began to change in the world of sweets too.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition in London included a confectionary display, showing off the talents of British sweet-makers to the whole world. Mr Needler took these techniques (like the ones used to create humbugs and other Victorian boiled sweets) and began to experiment with them up in Hull.

Needler's Hull

Over the next 50 years Needler’s grew into a household name for sweets, and as sugar prices around the world began to fall, sweets became much more affordable for ordinary families. Thanks to their success, by the turn of the century Needler’s had moved into a large factory on Sculcoats Lane in Hull and were producing tons of boiled sweets and chocolates every year.

Then in 1938, Needler’s chemists made a huge discovery. While experimenting with ways of producing boiled sweets, they found a way to successfully produce a perfectly clear, hard sweet using a new chemical process. Needler’s own Scientific Department (which sounds like the greatest place to work ever) found a way to introduce lactic acid into the sweet-making process, creating beautifully clear and delicious fruit drops, or Glace Fruits. The Needler’s discovery meant that the Hull-based company could be the first to make these sweets on a large scale, becoming the biggest producers of these fruity boiled sweets in the world for several decades. This cheaper way of producing confectionary arrived as global sugar prices began to fall, meaning that sweets were finally a treat that everyone could enjoy.

As well as bringing sweets to the masses, Needler’s was a business that kept its workers happy too. Following in the footsteps of other great (sweet-toothed) industrialists like Joseph Rowntree, the Needler family knew that a happy workforce is a productive one. So to keep their workers happy and healthy, Needler’s introduced plenty of activities for their employees when they weren’t making sweets. These included a profit share scheme in the company, team sports and a hugely popular Music Society too, who gave regular performances around Hull.

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