Family history meets business history in Deborah Cadbury’s latest piece of historical storytelling. Character-led ‘journeys’ are woven with social and economic context to chart the rise of what was England’s most enduring chocolate manufacturer from uncertain beginnings as John Cadbury’s early 19th-century health drink to competitive mass-manufacture.
Despite the author’s family connection and giddy introduction, she avoids an overly nostalgic narrative and delivers substantial detail and reflection.
Part one deals largely with the third generation of Birmingham Cadburys, George and Richard, steeped in Quakerism and crisis at the Bridge Street chocolate factory. Concerned with the race to refine cocoa and take it from health drink to serious product lines, they desperately innovated such delights as ‘Iceland Moss’ – a blend of cocoa and lichen!
We are then transported in part two to Bournville and the practical difficulties of having built a factory in a muddy field, miles from the workers’ homes. It also introduces Switzerland’s Nestlé and Lindt, America’s Hershey, the growing threat of Dutch cocoa and the hiring of chocolatier ‘Frederick the Frenchman’ to fight off this rising tide of foreign competition.
Part three appreciates the Bournville model village and philanthropic endeavours of George senior and his wife Elsie, while introducing an initially reluctant George junior to the business helm. Part four runs from the roaring Twenties to the disappearance of the pioneer British confectioners – Fry, Terry, Rowntree, Mackintosh, and finally Cadbury – absorbed into two giant corporations, Nestlé and Kraft.
There’s such a lot of detail that it’s quite a gallop.
Pointing out the occasional compromised values of rival Quaker entrepreneurs, Cadbury barely pauses to similarly consider the compromising and enormous significance of the company’s use, invention almost, of sentimental advertising.
This powerful tool of manipulation was used to great effect and in combination with the acquired Dutch refining machine was able to harness an audience terrified by the prevalence of food contamination.
Although advertising was ‘puffery’ to Quakers, it was pivotal to Cadbury’s success and elevated it from scant profit to chocolate dynasty and the family to the grand manor house – all hard to reconcile with Quakerism. Nonetheless, the author conveys the discipline of Quaker capitalism and the importance it placed on the idea of wealth creation being good for all.
Chocolate Wars is generously illustrated and manages to be both a family and business biography. It covers two centuries of business challenge, family tragedy and changing values, encased in a very palatable story-wrapper for historians and general readers alike.
Alison C Kay is the author of The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship (Routledge, 2009