The Liquorice Fields of Pontefract

With apologies to Sir John Betjeman

It’s 1969; I’ve just finished my ‘A’ Levels, I’ve finally left school and I need a summer job to fund my social activities and save for my new life at college.  What I’d like is a well-paid position in a pleasant office; nothing too taxing, with plenty of free time for shopping and gossip. What I get is three months hard labour in a local liquorice factory.

During my early childhood there were four liquorice factories still in production in Pontefract, but by the late 1960s there were only two left. The sickly smell of the sweet production hung over the area like a miasma. The factory girls with turbans covering their hair were a familiar sight around the town; at the end of the working day they would pour out onto the streets like flocks of birds, white heads bobbing. I had little inclination to join them.

My first day has an inauspicious start.

‘Here, looks like you could do with some help with that.’ The short, dumpy woman squints through a haze of cigarette smoke and beckons me across the locker room. ‘Sit down. Let’s have a look at you. I’m Beryl, by the way.’

I perch obediently on a bench as my saviour takes the troublesome length of white fabric and wraps it expertly round my head, pulling, twisting and tucking until she’s constructed a passing resemblance to a turban, balanced precariously on my head.

She stands back to scrutinize her handiwork. ‘Not very pretty, but I think it’ll stay put,’ she says, stubbing out the cigarette. ‘Have a practise tonight when you get home.’

‘I have been practising,’ I protest. ‘In my bedroom.’ With a sudden flash of clarity, I understand why all the women arrive at the factory gates with their headgear already in place. There are no mirrors in the locker room.

Eventually the turban would be replaced by those nice little net hats that slip easily over one’s hair, but today, that’s still a long way in the future.

‘You’ll get the hang of it,’ Beryl says. ‘Now get a wriggle on, or we’ll have our money docked.’

We hurry to the door, pass our cards through the clocking in machine and walk out onto the vast, noisy factory floor where the familiar, overwhelmingly sickly smell hits me like warm, sweet fog. It clings to my clothes and hair, but surprisingly, I never notice it again after this first day.

There are several production lines in operation, chugging along noisily with varying degrees of automation and manned by squadrons of women and the occasional, male, supervisor. Between them, towering stacks of trays filled with all manner of cooling and drying liquorice allsorts are huddled together like teenagers round lampposts.

I’m told to report to the cream rock section. As production lines go, this one is quite small, manned by only six women. The only automated process on this line is the wrapping of the liquorice around the white fondant cream. Asking how the cream gets its liquorice coat is like asking how the boiled eggs get into gala pies – it’s a mystery. The rest of the operation is pure physical labour.

The warm black liquorice and stiff white fondant are fed into the machine at the same time. This is a job I am never called upon to perform, it being reserved for the more experienced women on our line.

‘Why do we always get the useless ones?’  Connie, the formidable woman heading up the production line has every right to moan. She’s been doing this job for twenty five years. A career allsort maker who’s seen, literally, all sorts. And she’s right; it seems I am useless, slowing the whole process down with my inability to translate simple instructions into actions.

‘No, not that way,’ Connie says yet again, wearily slamming a handful of rapidly cooling fondant cream back onto the zinc-topped work table. ‘Turn it- no, not like that. Sandra, can you have a word?’  She wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. ‘Show her what to do again, we’re getting nowhere fast here.’

Sandra, Connie’s lieutenant, is much more patient. She demonstrates again how to guide the unwieldy metal trays onto the constantly moving conveyor belt. ‘See,’ she says, making a minute adjustment, ‘make sure this bit fits in here, then the belt will catch it.’ The large, greased tray glides smoothly forward. ‘There you go.’

Ah. Now I get it.

The repetitive nature of each task should make the job tedious, but there’s no time to get bored. After our mid morning tea break it’s all change.  Connie sends Nora, a much younger woman, off to collect more supplies. She points at me. ‘Take her with you, show her how it’s done.’ I think she’s glad to see the back of me for a while.

We trundle our wheelie bin round the factory floor looking for a large container, or hopper, of freshly made fondant cream. Pink, orange, yellow or brown won’t do for our cream rock. It has to be white and today it smells vaguely minty.

‘Blimey, it’s hot this morning.’ Nora pulls her hands briskly out of the hopper and shakes them around. ‘Let it cool down a bit,’ she advises. A queue soon forms and we hang around chatting until the foreman notices the knot of women and comes to investigate.

‘What’s going on ‘ere, then?’

‘It’s still too hot to handle at the moment,’ Nora explains, tilting her head towards the steaming hopper.  ‘We’re just waiting for it to cool off a bit.’

‘Ay, right.’ The foreman nods, tapping his wristwatch with a pencil. ‘Don’t wait too long, mind. Time’s money.’

‘Really?’ asks Nora smartly. ‘I’d never have guessed.’

Eventually she flours her hands and plunges them into the fondant, using a large, flat blade to slice it expertly into sections before transferring great armloads into our wheelie bin. We collect a supply of liquorice on our way back and roll our bin along to our line.

‘Thought you’d got lost,’ says Connie sarcastically when we arrive.  She winks at me. ‘Gave us a bit of a break, though,’ she adds. Nora gets to work, showing me how to roll and cut loaf-sized pieces of fondant cream and liquorice ready to feed into the constantly churning machine. Connie gets up from her stool and turns to the table. ‘Come on then girls,’ she says wearily, ‘we’ve had long enough. Pass me some of the black stuff.’

In the afternoon, I’m put on the end of the line. I get a short lesson in correct stacking procedure then Connie starts the belt and hot thick worms of cream rock come streaming out of the machine onto the metal trays. There are many opportunities for slip-ups and I take advantage of every one of them.

The weight of a fully laden tray takes me completely by surprise and sends me staggering backwards like a character in a cartoon.

‘Steady,’ shouts Connie, ‘don’t drop your first one!’

I recover my balance just in time and lay the tray carefully on a pallet. The next one sits on top, stubby legs fitting into little indentations in the metal. Then the next, and so on, until the tower I‘m building reaches a precarious height.

‘I can’t reach any higher,’ I tell Connie, who lets out a piercing whistle and a boy I recognise from school hurries up with a trolley and hauls the full pallet off to the drying area. The whole process is a continuous, backbreaking effort and I’m so tired by this time that my arms cease to respond. The next tray I attempt to lift hits the floor with a resounding clatter. A lukewarm cheer goes up around me, but at least, now, I’m properly initiated.

‘Have a break, ladies.’ Connie hits the Stop button and everyone perches on any available surface like so many birds. ‘Clear it up and chuck it in the bin,’ she says to me. ‘And take your time.’

Thus passes my first day in a liquorice allsort factory.

Pontefract has a rich and illustrious past. Situated conveniently on the Great North Road, half way between London and Edinburgh, great and often foolhardy men waged battles and fought bravely from its castle ramparts. Poor Richard II was starved and probably murdered within its confines in 1399, an event which merited a mention by Shakespeare.

The soil around the castle proved to be perfect for the cultivation of liquorice, which had been introduced by French monks in the 11th century. The monks used the juice extracted from the liquorice root as a medicine to treat coughs and stomach ailments. Much later came the small black cakes with their familiar circular shape and individual stamp and a whole new industry was born.

There are probably as many accounts of the birth of the peculiar confection and its acquired taste as there are allsorts themselves, But it was in the middle of the eighteenth century, so one version of the local folklore has it, that a Pontefract apothecary called Dunhill had the idea of mixing the liquorice root with wheat flour and sugar, thus transforming a medicinal product into a sweet confection whose popularity continues to this day.

But what about the famous Pontefract cakes, or Yorkshire Pennies, as they were also known?

Things have probably moved on since 1969, but at the time, in a small room off the main production floor a bunch of highly skilled women cut and stamped each cake individually from long sausages of warm fresh liquorice, working up a remarkable speed. Other teams of women sat around large tables dipping the ends of liquorice pipes into dishes of red nonpareils (which are tiny, sweet balls), tying liquorice laces or winding liquorice wheels and packing them in boxes.  The work was often numbingly boring but required a degree of attention and manual dexterity. Some of the women, like Connie, had worked in the factory all their adult lives and there was a great deal of camaraderie amongst them, with lots of laughter and flirting with the male supervisors. Newcomers were always teased and encouraged to “go and ask Joe for a long stand” or other equally useless tasks.

At the end of an exhausting first week I eagerly counted my wages. The size of my first real pay packet creates much amusement and disbelief these days – the princely sum of £7 and some shillings and pence didn’t seem worth all that effort. I stuck it out to the end and I look back on my first real experience of employment in the adult world with affection and respect.  But I couldn’t look a bag of liquorice allsorts in the face for a long time.

© 2012

8 thoughts on “The Liquorice Fields of Pontefract

  1. Hi, I’m trying to trace anyone who might know Sheila Adams who worked at dunhils in the mid 60’s she wasbater known as Sheila Clough. Any information or help would be very great fully received. Please contact nlg0512@hot mail.com

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