My ancestor was a confectioner

By Sarah Orme, 26 July 2017 - 9:05am

The Sweet Makers, a new BBC series, explores the story of confectionery. The show’s historian, Annie Gray, examines the rise and fall of the trade

Confectioners shop
A confectioner's shop in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, circa 1905 (Credit: Getty Images)

The earliest records of sugar in the UK are from the 12th century, when it was an expensive luxury.

It remained so until the 17th century, and a strand of cookery grew up around it which became known as confectionery. Sweet confections, made by confectioners, were quite separate from the main business of dinner, so much so that in the late Tudor and early Stuart period, they were often served as an entirely separate course, the banquet. Served in a banqueting house, a small building in the grounds or up in the roof of a large country house, this was highly theatrical, with a faint whiff of something scurrilous: even then sugar was associated with a certain guilty pleasure.

The confectioners who prepared such delights weren’t always professionals, for confectionery was one of the few branches of cookery in which gentlewomen could participate, partly due to the association of sugar with medicine. Many of the early recipes involving sugar are very clearly both nice to eat, and good for you: candied eryngo roots, for example, were pleasant to chew, and supposed to be good for male virility.

However, the wealthiest of houses increasingly employed their own specialist confectioners, all men, and among the best-paid of cooking staff, earning on a par with the chief cooks themselves.

In the 18th century, the link between sugar and medicine was increasingly broken, and sugar decreased in price after Britain gained control of some of the West Indian sugar plantations in the 1650s, as well as planting sugar in its American colonies.

Large houses often had separate rooms – called simply ‘The Confectionery’ – in which to prepare sweet treats. Confectioners dealt with anything sugar-based, including jellies (from calves’ feet), ice creams (using ice and salt), sweet pastries, set creams, and French-style cakes, which would become known as patisserie. These were all seen as separate to savoury cooking, and required a specialist room which could be kept clean, and in which small, delicate items of equipment could be stored and easily located when needed.

French and English cooking styles were diverging rapidly, but the wealthy wanted French, and confectionery was seen as a French and Italian art above all else. Most confectioners were French or Italian too – or at least had suitably continental ancestry.

Confectioners roll sticks of rock candy into shape (Credit: Getty Images)

Refined tastes

By the late 18th century, the urban middle classes wanted to get in on the act. They couldn’t afford to employ their own confectioners, who had gone through many years of training in kitchens and were expensive, so enterprising individuals set up shops to sell them one-off items, or indeed, to cater whole banquets.

The banqueting course was now normally called dessert, but it was still seen as a separate part of the meal. Elizabeth Raffald, whose book The Experienced English Housekeeper contains many fabulous recipes for Georgian confectionery, was a Manchester-based cook-housekeeper-turned-entrepreneur who exemplified the new, often female, catering confectioner.

In social centres such as Bath, Tunbridge Wells, Edinburgh, Buxton and Harrogate Spa, confectioners’ shops, which often had tearooms attached, sprang up. Bath’s Milsom Street alone had five confectionery shops including Mollands, which features in Austen’s Persuasion.


A confectioner's shop circa 1898 (Credit: Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images)

Sugar rush

Mollands, listed as ‘Molland Mrs, Cook and Confectioner’ was typical of 18th and 19th century high street confectioners. Increasingly, confectioners combined general cookery and catering with specialist sweet confections requiring different skills.

Some bakeries also advertised themselves as confectioners, and there was a wide crossover in terms of skills and the kind of work carried out, and in the pattern of the working day. Baking was renowned as hard labour, while confectioners worked more reasonable hours. If a bakery could move itself upmarket by offering confectionery too, then it was a potential route out of the squalor of most urban bakery work.

Caterers, by contrast, were hands for hire: if they offered a service from a shop, they would normally prep most dishes from a kitchen attached to the shop, before finishing the delicate work on site.

Cooks had rented themselves by the night for many years, and there is a delightful, if catty, passage in the introduction to William Verral’s Cookery Book of 1759, which describes the experiences of a jobbing cook, complete with resentful existing cook, downgraded to helper for the night, and a batterie de cuisine which sends him screaming to order his own pans from home.

Big houses continued to employ their own confectioners, especially if they wanted to display moulded pastillage models on the table with any regularity. (The response to this lower down the social scale was simply to rent sugar models for the evening).

In the 19th century the definition of confectionery started to change. Sugar continued to drop in price, helped by the development of beet sugar as an alternative to cane. In 1874 the tax on sugar imports, which had been in place since 1764, was lifted, and within a few decades this once scarce substance became a staple part of the working-class diet, generally in the form of jam, condensed milk and boiled sweets.

Boiled sweets had their roots in 17th and 18th century lozenges, flavoured with herbs or extracts, and initially sold as cough cures and generic health aids. As the line between confectionery in terms of cakes, pastries and dessert dishes and more mainstream cookery became increasingly blurred, and open to anyone with skill and a bit of training, a new definition of confectionery began to take hold, which centred, like the original Tudor banquet, on pure sugarwork.

Now the confectioner had to learn to pull sugar, boil sugar to degrees with exciting names such as hard crack, soft ball and caramel, and to flavour and colour it with the new, synthetic flavours and colours which became available after 1850. It was hot, dangerous and physical work. Professional confectionery manuals, such as Skuse’s Complete Confectioner (1894) no longer included jellies and cakes, but concentrated on sweets and toffees, all made with new machinery, very much the province of the small-scale artisan, and definitely not replicable at home.

Boom-time for the high-street confectioner came in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. It was cheap to set up a workshop, buying or hiring machinery, and sweets were quick to produce. Milk chocolate came onto the market in the 1870s, and was an instant success, rapidly reaching high street confectioner’s shops as a mass-produced block which they could use to create products such soft-centre dipped chocolates and chocolate-covered nougat. Filled bars, known as combination bars, appeared from the 1920s.

It was also the period when many of the brands we still recognise today were expanding, innovating and gradually pushing out small-scale producers, who by the 1920s struggled to compete either on quality or price.

Confectioners still sold their own, workshop-produced versions of bullseyes, sherbet dips, striped rock, fruit pastilles and such like, but they also now sold Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk alongside their own produce. Consumers liked the bright advertising which promised joy through a foil-wrapped chocolate bar, and branded goods boomed – helped by canny marketing campaigns such as those around Christmas selection boxes, which included a ‘free’ carriage clock or painting set.

In the inter-war period high-street confectioners struggled. Consumption of confectionery – now purely seen as sweets and chocolate – went up by 50 per cent between 1924 and 1939, but expenditure went down as the big manufacturers competed ruthlessly on price.

High-street confectioners were now likely just to be on-sellers, not makers. With the outbreak of war in 1939, and the immediate rationing of sugar, the hey-day of the small-scale confectioner was over. 

Gunter's confectioners
Ruined tin mines at Botallack in Cornwall (Credit: Joe Daniel Price/Getty)

Case study - Gunter's

The leading confectioner’s shop in Britain from the late Georgian period to the mid-20th century was Gunter’s, on Berkley Square. It started life as the Pot and Pineapple, when it was owned by Domenico Negri, to whom James Gunter was apprenticed at some point in the late 1750s.

James became a partner in 1777, and sole trader from 1802, changing the name to Gunter’s in 1802. Previous apprentices of Negri had gone on to become leading lights in the confectionery world and one, Frederick Nutt, published a slender, yet comprehensive book called The Complete Confectioner (1789). This caused such a stir that he was reputedly offered £1,000 by his fellow confectioners not to publish and give away trade secrets.

In the 19th century, Windsor Castle, which was one of the few establishments still to employ confectioners privately, poached nearly all of its staff from Gunter’s.


Useful sources

Has a number of free e-books relating to confectionery, including Skuse’s Complete Confectioner

York Castle Museum
The museum is hosting an exhibition of food, fashion and body shape which includes a section on sugar. It also has an exhibition trail allowing you to explore York’s chocolate- making past. 

Harvest of the Cold Months Elizabeth David (1994, Michael Joseph) This book is excellent, not just on ices, but on London’s confectioners in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Chocolate Wars Deborah Cadbury (2010, publisher) A good guide to the early chocolate factories, and what life was like working in industrial sweet production.

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