The ultimate historic guide to British sweets

We Brits have always had a sweet tooth. From honey in prehistoric times to preserved fruits, jelly and dried fruit from the Middle ages.

For those who haven’t had the dubious pleasure of guzzling sweets from other nations – you simply have no idea just how fortunate you are to have been born and raised in the United Kingdom. This is why we decided to bring you our very own Ultimate Guide to British Sweets through the ages.

Victorian era – The Victorian era not only best known for the Industrial Revolution, political reform and social change, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, the railway boom and many inventions – it also produced many classic sweets which we all remember today.

Historically sweets and confectionaries were handmade luxury items available only to Kings, Queens and the upper classes. The industrial revolution brought about many technological advances; lowering prices for refined sugar and allowing for factory-produced sweets and confectionary. Owing to these changes, sweets were no longer luxurious items for the rich. Pear Drops, Sherbet Lemons, Cough Candy, Rhubarb and Custard, Aniseed Twists, Marshmallows, Candy Floss, Fruit Pastilles and Fruit Gums – all originated from the Victorian period.

The Victorian sweets with the most interesting back story are Liquorice Allsorts ‘created’ in 1899. According to legend, a travelling salesman dropped his tray of samples. The salesman may have thought that he’s blown the pitch but his customer so loved the assortment of shapes and colours arrayed on the floor that he asked if these sweets could be made intentionally!

1900’s – This decade saw the introduction of the first lollipops! The most famous sweet released during the first decade of the 20th century is the Wine Gums. Unusually this sweet was aimed at adults, not children – hence the alcohol inspired name. Although the name might suggest otherwise, there is no wine involved in the making of these delicious sweets – so gladly children eat these as well.

1910’s – Peace Babies were all the rage when they were launched in 1918 to celebrate the end of the Great War which had devastated Europe. These soft sugar candies are still made today although you’ll probably recognise (and enjoy) them under the name they now go by – Jelly Babies.

1920’s – With Britain struggling to recover from the devastation of world war one, sweet production was not top of the national priority list. Even so, this decade produced one of the UK’s favourite sweet creations – the Blackjack. The wrapper of this iconic aniseed-flavoured chew was originally emblazoned with the image of a golliwog. This was later rightfully considered to be a racist depiction and replaced by a pirate. The contents of the wrapper remain unchanged and just as tasty!

1930’s – Coming hot on the heels of the Wall Street Crash and ending with the outbreak of WW2, you might think that the 1930s would be a decade to forget for the British sweet industry. However, the attraction of sweets is so powerful that even this dark decade has a few bright sparks. 1935 saw the launch of the popular Extra Strong Mint, a product still available today.

1940's – The global consequences of World War ll meant that the 1940s were scarred by war and the hardships of this decade, meant that there was rationing. The war delayed the introduction of the Polo. The ‘mint with a hole’ was scheduled for launch in late 1939, but the outbreak of war scuppered the manufacturer’s plans. The Polo mint was belatedly launched in 1948. Even the production of Peace Babies was suspended, however, there was some good news as the iconic sweet Parma Violets was launched during this period. 

1950’s – The 1950s saw the introduction of one of the most iconic sweets ever created – Love Hearts. These hard tablets of fruit-flavoured sugary goodness are stamped with messages such as “I’m Shy”, “Kiss Me”, “Its love” and “I Love You”.  

The same company also launched the world’s first chewable lolly in 1957 with the accidentally invented Drumstick.  According to the official story, the son of one the company’s owners was experimenting with a new machine and unintentionally learned that it was possible to make a sweet with two different flavours. Raspberry and milk were chosen the Drumstick was born!

1960’s – The swinging sixties saw the introduction of many famous sweets, not least the Dib Dab and its rival the Double Dip. These sherbet sensations were innovative in so much as they combined two already popular sweets – the lollypop and sherbet dust – into one irresistible package.   

A second hugely popular introduction in this decade was the humble fruit chew. These chewable fruit-flavoured sweets were sold under the Opal Fruits and Chewits labels. Both have survived to the present day although Opal Fruits are now sold under their global name – Starburst.

The final intergalactic addition to the confectionery universe was the now infamous flying saucer. The release of a sweet made from sherbet packaged in an edible paper in the shape of a flying saucer was bound to be a hit in an era where the space race had captured the popular imagination.

1970’s – The biggest innovation in the world of British sweets during the decade of flared trousers and polyester shirts was the introduction of Pacers. The delicately flavoured, mild minty chews were a relaunched version of the sweet originally known as the Opal Mint (yes, they were the sister of Opal Fruits) and the addition of three green stripes proved a huge hit. These were discontinued in the 1980s and are sorely missed.

1980’s – Growing up in the 1980’s Britain would expose you to wondrous inventions such as the leg-warmer and imported TV shows like Dallas and its rival which my dad named Dysentery because he thought it so awful (that’s Dynasty if you didn’t get it).

This decade also saw the start two enormously popular phenomena both with the same name – one a pop duo involving George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley and the second a fantastic chewy and fizzy bar of raspberry flavoured goodness.

The UK has a heritage in confectionary which stretches back over a hundred years and the British should be as proud of our sweets as the French is of their wine or the Italians of their shoes.

Tell us, what are your favourite British sweets from the era you grew up in?


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