Sweets, their Golden Age, and Roald Dahl | #Dahl100

As part of our celebration of Roald Dahl’s centenary year, in partnership with the Roald Dahl Conference at Cardiff University, Professor Keiko Tanaka explores the dominant role played by chocolate and sweets in Dahl’s work.

In 2009 a historical blue plaque was set into the wall of the former sweetshop near the school Roald Dahl once attended. The old shop, now a Chinese takeaway, is in the Cardiff suburb of Llandaff, where the author spent his early years in the 1920s. The organiser believed a plaque celebrating the sweet shop would be a fitting tribute to the famous author. The sweetshop was considered an important place to commemorate Dahl’s life and work considering the great influence sweets and chocolate had on Dahl personally and how his great love of confectioneries influenced, or one could even say, dominated the themes of his great literary works.

Dahl’s theme in his literary works is children’s pursuit of a very simple and pure pleasure and their fulfilment of a dream. A gentleman is supposed to grow out of his fondness of sweets, as sweets are usually regarded as effeminate and childish. Most adults forget about the taste and excitement of sweets in their childhood; but not Dahl. While keeping his childlike sense he wrote about the desire for sweets vividly from the viewpoint of children. He also created the extraordinary character, Willy Wonka, an adult, who like Dahl, never lost the thrill of eating sweets.

Dahl was a contemporary of Dylan Thomas and he loved reading Thomas’ poetry. He also built a den for writing after the model of Thomas in the garden of his house at Great Missenden. One of the peculiar items found in Dahl’s writing hut was a thing that looks like a cannonball. This fist-sized ball looks as if it would be quite heavy but it is actually made of many chocolate foil wrappers. This queer habit started when he was a businessman. When Dahl was working for Shell Oil in London, he kept the wrappers of the chocolate bars he ate at lunchtime and added them one by one to the ball to make it grow. Now you can see the foil ball at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden. We can see he didn’t feel shame in his childish taste as a grown-up.

In one year it had become very nearly as big as a tennis ball and just as round. It was extraordinarily heavy. When I picked it up it felt like a lump of lead and I think this was because in those days, some fifty years ago, the silver paper they used to wrap chocolate in was much thicker than it is today and very much superior all round. I never lost my chocolate-silver paper ball and today it sits, as it has done ever since I started to write, on the old pine table beside my writing chair. — My Year (1992)

In Dahl’s autobiography, Boy, we can see that one of the biggest pleasures for children was dropping into the local sweetshop clutching six pence or so on their way home from school. These visits to buy sweets were lasting memories for the young Dahl between the ages of seven to nine when he attended Llandaff Cathedral School. As illustrated in his writing, the shopkeeper, although the provider of sweets, was not an angel but a witch. It is believed the owner of the sweetshop, called Mrs. Pratchett in the story, was a woman named Catherine Morgan, who would have been in her 70s at the time of Dahl’s visits. Disappointingly, her image was tinged with uncleanliness. The odious owner wore a greasy apron, filthy clothes and her hands were black with dirt and grime — there were obviously no food hygiene regulations at that time. Not only was her appearance undesirable but she was a mean businesswoman often trying to make stingy deals with the school children. Dahl describes in ‘The Great Mouse Plot,’ how his gang put a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers in the shop to teach the unscrupulous old shopkeeper a lesson – an experience which backfired on the young Dahl causing his expulsion from school. After this his mother made up her mind to change her son’s school because she firmly opposed the corporal punishment of her son even though he was to blame.

When the commercialisation of the boiled sweet business re-started in the 1920s, children were attracted by their novelty and variety. Indeed, Dahl and his greatest works are connected with sweets. In the first half of the 20th century sweets seemed to be of even greater interest to children than they are now. With no cinema, TV or electronic games, the purchase and consumption of sweets was a major preoccupation in the lives of children in the 1920s. Since the variety and availability of chocolate was limited at the time, children bought boiled sweets which were less expensive. Through the experience of shopping for sweets, children, as new consumers, learned how to manage well with a limited budget. Dahl spent his pocket money on such sweets as Humbugs, Strawberry Bonbons, Acid Drops and Pear Drops. His favourites were Sherbet Suckers and Liquorice Bootlaces because they were economical for bringing double pleasures. ‘At two for a penny they were the best value in the shop.’ Sherbet Suckers were made of sherbet with a stick of liquorice to dip into the sherbet so that one could enjoy a double taste and flavour. Liquorice, originally medicinal, came in a form similar to today’s long strips, sticks and spirals. Children not only enjoyed eating it but had the pleasure of playing with the long strings. Gobstoppers, still enjoyed today, are very hard round balls of layered candy. Each layer is a different colour and sometimes a different flavour. Although the traditional gobstopper is usually one inch across, giant versions were also available that might have taken days to dissolve in the mouth. One of Dahl`s friends, Thwaites, who was a doctor’s son could have explained the scientific phenomena around the changing colours of gobstoppers. This sweet was a favourite among British schoolboys in the interwar years. Roald Dahl invented ‘Everlasting Gobstoppers’ in his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to help fulfil children’s dreams. ‘Pear Drops were exciting because they had a dangerous taste. They smelled of nail-varnish and they froze the back of your throat.’ The Pear Drop probably dates back to the Victorian era, as do other boiled sweets like sherbet lemons, and aniseed twists. There’s usually no pear involved: that distinctive taste comes from the artificial flavouring which might appeal more to adults’ palate than that of children.

Dahl also recollected tall stories concerning the mysterious ingredients of the sweets which were hearsay from his friend Thwaites. Young Thwaites thrilled boys with the suggestion that liquorice was made from boiled rats – and that you would be rat-poisoned by eating it. Chloroform was infused in Tonsil Ticker to keep children quiet. But these warnings couldn’t stop the boys from buying them. ‘We all enjoyed Thwaite’s story and we made him tell it to us many times on our walks to and from school.’ Thwaite’s narrative was an entertainment for boys. These wild stories are associated with the sense of magic described in James and the Giant Peach and George’s Marvellous Medicine. Maybe Dr. Thwaites or his son was just a joker or a great fabricator of stories. However, as Dahl lost his father when he was very young, this doctor was a father-figure to young Dahl and had great influence on him as a story teller later in his life.

The Cadbury factory near Repton Public School where Dahl later attended sent samples of products to the schools and asked the students to taste new products in trials. Dahl’s Charlie and Chocolate Factory is based on his experience as a sampler and his interest in the product development sector of the chocolate factory. During the times of chocolate and sweet testing, Dahl dreamt of inventing a wonderful new product which would be praised by Mr. Cadbury, himself. Though Dahl became neither the president nor the product developer of the chocolate company, he made his boyhood dream come to fruition by creating the immortal character of Willy Wonka 50 years later. The magical world of Willy Wonka and the young lad Charlie who is able to delve into the world of sweet-production could only have been created by an imaginative author who was so obviously influenced by the sweets. As Dahl grew to adulthood, he never lost his enthusiasm for chocolate, though it is rare for British men to retain a sweet tooth and especially love chocolate. He must have taken pride in his involvement in Cadbury’s business during his school days.

Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory reflects the secretiveness and closed nature of competitive chocolate companies at the time. Most of the founders of the chocolate industry were English Quakers. It was impossible for a Quaker to go to a university connected with the Church of England in the 19th century. Neither could a Quaker take up clerical or legal professions, nor join the army or become an artist. However, many Quakers achieved fame as industrialists. The Quaker entrepreneurs in the early period created a trademark involving Christ’s tangibility as the light of the world, and showing their philanthropic concern for the welfare of their employees, engaging in conscientious business diligently sometimes for lower returns. Chocolate was a health food in the early days but in time it changed from a liquid to a solid form and the food gradually became popularised as a classy favourite in Britain. York was also a major producer of chocolate and served as a base for both Rowntree’s and Terry’s.

Belgian chocolate also has a great tradition in Europe. Leonard and Virginia Woolf had a publishing company, Hogarth Press at Richmond, London where many Belgian refugees settled in when World War I broke out. A Belgian lady opened a delicatessen store and tearoom there. During the wartime the shop was running short of chocolate cream and eventually ran out at last. But one day after the end of war Leonard found some chocolate bars in the shop, and then he got a real feeling of the coming of peace. Unsatisfied with the Belgian chocolate, Leonard recalled the memory of English chocolate in his childhood. Until it merged with Cadbury’s Chocolate during the World War I, J. S. Fry & Son was the renowned company which produced the first solid chocolate bar in the world. According to Leonard Woolf, there were devotees of the Cadbury school and those of the Fry school among the consumers of milk chocolate bars in his childhood. He belonged to the Cadbury school all his life. Cadbury’s Chocolate, which had survived fierce sales competition, is very familiar to British people. However, the company grew and the multi-nationalisation, consolidation and take-over of the company were accompanied by the pursuit of profit, and the tradition of the household industry has been lost; the Quaker spirit disappeared with the brand name and has now almost been forgotten. And in 2010 Cadbury was bought out by Kraft Foods, now called Mondelez International, an American multinational food company.

In Memories with Food (1991), published posthumously, Dahl writes of his thoughts about chocolate. Dahl argues that the chocolate revolution took place from 1930 to 1937 and that this period could be compared in terms of significance to the age that produced great individuals such as Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens in the world of literature, or Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven in the world of classical music. When compared with the world of art, the chocolate revolution in the 1930`s could be compared to the Italian Renaissance or French Impressionism. First, Fry invented the Crunchie in 1930. On the other side of the Atlantic there was a man called Franklin C. Mars who invented “Milky Way”. Mars was the competitor of Milton Hershey in the American chocolate industry and achieved success by improving “Milky Way” in 1932. Mars’ son, Forrest, parting with his father, came to Slough near London and became very successful in the UK. In 1936, he gave a masterpiece, “Maltesers” to the world. Once Dahl paid a visit to his factory and met the owner himself. The time was unclear but Slough is not so far from Great Missenden. Old Forrest Mars was still alive then and had the eccentric image of Willy Wonka. The domestic atmosphere of the manufacturing company was like that of the Quakers in the early days. Milton Hersey was famous worldwide for his charitable attitude to his employees in Hersey Town, but the model for Willy Wonka was possibly the image of Forrest Mars.

The business he and his family run is extraordinary. Although it is now enormous, it has remained a family-run concern, so that Mr Mars is not answerable to any stockholders. He is therefore free to run things as he likes, and the way he likes is to treat his employees as one great happy family. Everyone shares in the profits. The employees can actually get a rise in salary every four weeks provided sales have gone up over that period. — Memories with Food

What a simple and great business! Who does not want to be an employee in such a company? It was just like the chocolate factory of one’s dreams. But this was in a more innocent time before corporate greed began to take over the world. As is often the case of children’s literature writers, Dahl’s idea of happiness is often connected with money making. The happiness of becoming rich is easy to understand for children. Also there are many plots related to making a fortune and gambling included in Dahl’s works such as ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ and some stories included in Someone Like You. Money worship sounds uncultured but money is considered important to lead a happy life.

Coincidentally, while Dahl was a student in Repton, John Boynton Priestley visited Bourneville village and the factory of Cadbury in 1933. He was contracted by Victor Gollancz to research the contemporary condition of England. The fruit of his labour was published as English Journey in 1935. He chose Bourneville in Birmingham because he, too, enjoyed chocolate as a child and Cadbury had already become famous as the benevolent company of the welfare which cherished the workers at the biggest factory in England. ‘This is the age, among other things, of chocolate. Think of the number of chocolate shops you see in a day’s journey. A very large proportion of this chocolate is made in the Cadbury factory at Bournville.’ Unlike Wonka’s chocolate factory Cadbury opened the door to a factory tour and welcomed common visitors. Statistics show a notable effect on the residents’ health of the housing conditions in Bourneville village. Both staff and residents’ families were well provided with a range of facilities, from sporting activities to medical services, so they could lead a full life within the village. Retirees received an ample pension, and could enjoy the benefits of cultural amenities. However the environment of the community, just like the factory, was so meticulously controlled it resulted in an almost inhuman level of perfection. Priestley observed the planning boardroom and changed his view of chocolate. ‘I saw departments where solemn specialists sit in conference over a bit of cocoanut dipped in chocolate or whatever the trifle may be. Men with learned degrees, men with charts, engineers from all quarters of the world, have to be called in to decide the fate of that bit of chocoktty (sic) stuff. When you buy a box of these things, you have also bought the services of a whole army of people.’

However, Priestley felt uneasy to think of the fact that the employees were also managed by the company in their free time, even if they received the advantages of welfare benefits; the staff would lose the spirit of independence. When Cadbury built a branch office in Australia and suggested this policy and condition, the local workers refused them. It is ridiculous that the value of human existence was controlled by the company, for this means that the staff would live for the company rather than that the company existed for them. If the work occupied the centre of workers’ lives, their personalities and the true democracy would be lost. That is, a higher salary is much preferred by the staff to the socialistic philanthropy of the company.

In Dahl’s timeline of chocolate revolution, 1937 was notable as the year masterpieces such as Kit-Kat, Rolo and Smarties were born. In Dahl’s opinion, if children didn’t know when William I conquered England or William II came to the throne, it’s of little consequence in their lives, but the epoch-making years, 1932, 1936, 1937, should be drilled into the minds of all children in the United Kingdom due to their significance for their chocolate production and invention! The chocolate industry is the pride of England.

What is also peculiar and rather ironic is that Dahl didn’t like chocolate cake very much. ‘Curiously enough, I myself am not fond of chocolate-flavoured foods like chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream. I prefer my chocolate either straight or pure or in the form of lovely bars like Kit Kat, Aero and Crunchie.’ That is the reason why he used chocolate cake as a tool to punish the greedy boy in Matilda. The scene where Miss Trunchbull forced Bruce Bogtrotter to eat an enormous cake is disgusting but unforgettable. So you see how one man’s particular tastes shaped the images he used in his work.

It was fortunate that Dahl was born in the golden age of sweets and chocolate in Britain – fortunate to the British literary world, English speaking readers throughout the world and indeed every child with a sweet tooth!

You might also like…

In the anniversary month of Roald Dahl’s hundredth birthday, we take a look at Gary Raymond‘s review of Fantastic Mr Fox for our Greatest Welsh Novel series.

This piece is a part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Roald Dahl | A Retrospective.

Keiko Tanaka is associate professor at Shizuoka Sangyo University in Japan. She is now working on her doctoral research on Americanism of Teenagers’ culture in the post-war period. She is also engaged in interdisciplinary study of food culture and literature.