West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections




Pontefract may well be home to a once Royal castle, one of the best equipped racecourses in the country and three railway stations, but it is the component part of a small circular black lozenge or sweet which has been synonymous with the town for centuries and for which the town of Pontefract has become renowned throughout the modern world. Who would have envisaged that a once medicinal based lozenge could transform the ancient market town into one of the liquorice centres of the world and establish it as a market leader in confectionery products.

Coincidentally, the first issue of the new Digest Magazine makes its appearance at the start of the nine day festival of events celebrating the town’s liquorice heritage and if Pontefract can be considered synonymous with the cultivation of liquorice in Britain then the name of Tom Shay Dixon must similarly be applied to Pontefract liquorice itself.

It was with great pleasure that I was recently invited to visit Tom at his home, Beck House, on Knottingley Road, Pontefract, to hear his fascinating recollections of liquorice growing in Pontefract and his work as a boilerman at Wilkinson's liquorice factory.

Turning in to Tom's driveway you are immediately struck by the beauty and expanse of the impeccably maintained grounds to the rear of his home which quite surprisingly are not defaced by the imposing banking of the Swinton and Knottingley Railway which straddles the main road directly outside, courtesy of a quite uncomplimentary iron bridge.

Beck House is a three-storey building, two of which are visible from the main road with the upper floor almost on a level with the railway itself. The house was built by Tom's great grandfather, Tom Shay, back in 1810, preceding the construction of the railway by more than six decades. In spite of essential modernisation over the years, the original feel of the house has been carefully maintained and beneath a covering of emulsion, the interior of the attached stable block appears little changed from how it must have appeared all those years ago. Just off the stables are the specially constructed brick arched underground cellars where the harvested liquorice roots were stored until the price was deemed right to sell. Little do present day travellers utilising the main road outside Tom's home realise that they are actually driving over the top of his cellars.

The interior of the house is delightful, offering a light and airy outlook to the rear over the surrounding grounds and across distant fields. Two sets of solid stone steps forming a central staircase connect the three levels with rooms leading to left and right at each level, and not a creaking stair to be heard! It's not difficult to imagine being transformed back in time with only the sweet aroma of liquorice root missing.

Outside in the secluded courtyard to the rear of the house you are presented with a wonderful vista overlooking the historic liquorice fields which yielded their final crop of roots in 1970, while through a wrought iron gateway and into a small but carefully maintained planted area, Tom delights in showing me a selection of his thriving liquorice plants. By no means a plantation but a small piece of our history that he continues to tend and nurture for the enjoyment of others and as a constant reminder of his ancestral heritage.

Liquorice is a herbaceous perennial from the genus glycyrrhiza and native to areas of Southern Europe and Asia. The meaning of the Greek word glycyrrhiza is 'sweet root' and it is the roots of the plant that gives liquorice its characteristic flavour, being some fifty times sweeter than sugar.

It is believed that the first liquorice plants were brought to Pontefract by Cluniac Monks who came to Pontefract to establish a new monastery. The Priory of St. John stood on an area that we now know as Monkhill and it was here that recent excavations revealed the remains of a medieval pharmacy where liquorice was extracted from the roots of the plant and used in the preparation of medicines. Despite our cooler climate, the liquorice plants thrived in the deep loamy soil, which is an essential requirement for their cultivation as the roots can extend to some four or five feet in depth.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, Pontefract farmers continued to cultivate liquorice and a thriving cottage industry was established to process and refine the liquorice extract especially for medicinal purposes. As far back as 1614 it is recorded that a round liquorice lozenge was being produced to ease stomach disorders and then in the mid 1700s an enterprising chemist by the name of George Dunhill developed the ancient recipes further by adding sugar to produce a circular liquorice sweet. The 1800s saw a boom in the confectionery business in Pontefract producing the 'Yorkshire Pennies' which were later to become known as Pontefract Cakes.

Returning to Tom's kitchen we sit opposite each other at a table while he begins to relate some of the many stories and anecdotes he has accumulated over the years. His knowledge certainly equals his undoubted enthusiasm and he constantly taps the table to reiterate certain points, which is somewhat disconcerting as my voice recorder is placed on the same table and I am increasingly concerned that his tapping might drown out his narrative.

"At the turn of the century..", begins Tom, "...there were 17 liquorice works in the town, but after the Second World War there were just five and now only two remain. It was a very lucrative business. There was just one refinery in the town, located at the bottom of Broad Lane directly opposite what is now a kitchen showroom, and it was there where the roots were pressed and the juice allowed to solidify into lumps of hard black liquorice. We never sold our liquorice there though, we sold all ours to Boots the chemist in Nottingham where it was used in the pharmaceutical industry to produce cough and stomach remedies."

"There were five main growers in Pontefract. The main growers were the Booths and then there were the Woods, the Depledges, the Carters, and my mother's family, the Shays, whose house I live in to this day. The last commercial crop was grown in the fields at the back of our house in about 1970. It takes between four and seven years to grow liquorice from setting the bud. In the warmer climates of the world they can grow liquorice from seeds but we had to grow from 'buds', similar to cuttings, because in our climate, liquorice never seeds - or at least it never did up until last year when every bush I had seeded, which must say something for global warming. This meant that in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, where it is possible to grow plants in two years, they were producing four or five crops to our one. The liquorice industry in Pontefract was becoming un-commercial and with the increasing popularity of chocolate amongst children there was a gradual decline in the liquorice market."

"However, liquorice has many uses, not just in the confectionery business. A doctor at Pontefract Infirmary and also a doctor at the Cromwell Hospital in London discovered that they could use the little shreads that come off the root, thin little pieces just like cotton, for stitching the guts up and they also used it for ulcer operations and cancer operations because they found it stimulates the guts and it melts away leaving no sign of it, so they used it at Pontefract Infirmary, which is quite unique and a lot of people don't realise that. I believe that doctors in London still use it to this day so it has a lot of use within the medical world."

"During the war, while many of our troops were dying of thirst out in the deserts and jungles of the world, the Japanese were able to adapt to the conditions and our commanding officers couldn't understand why. The opposing armies had the same amount of water, endured the same conditions, but they could keep going seemingly for ever, until it was discovered that when Hannibal took his elephants over the alps, they gave them liquorice to chew and also the Arabs on the camel trains across the desert gave all the camels liquorice to chew as it quenched their thirst and stopped them becoming thirsty. Our government cottoned on to this and began issuing liquorice to our troops."

"When they were carrying out renovation work on Hadrian's Wall they found a lot of decayed liquorice which it is believed had been brought across by the Romans so whether they used it for medicinal purposes or whether they used it to stop their troops becoming over-thirsty we don't know. But that is a known fact about liquorice."

"The first man to use liquorice in Pontefract to make the actual Pontefract Cakes was George Dunhill who was a chemist in the town. He took the raw liquorice, boiled it, added sugar to it, mollassess, flour, made it into a dough, made a paste, rolled it into little round balls and then he sold it in his chemist shop to the miners going to work because it stimulated the guts, stopped them being thirsty - which they didn't realise it did at the time, but it did, and it also cured any chest ailments they had.”

“All the confectionery made in the local factories was produced by hand and each factory had its own unique style. The girls at Wilkinson's used to roll theirs out and nip pieces off onto a tray. Each tray held 240 cakes and each girl was required to complete fifteen trays per hour, so from start to finish they never stopped. The girls acquired the nickname of 'Spanish Thumpers'.”

“It wasn't until a man named Roy Pringle came on the scene that the process of manufacture became automated. Roy, who lived just along the road from where I live now, was employed at Wilkinson's and he invented a machine to produce Pontefract Cakes using compressed air, after which time the 'Thumpers' went into decline. They were becoming obsolete because it was now possible to produce the sweets much quicker by machine.”

“In those days you had to serve an apprenticeship to become a liquorice boiler and I was apprenticed to a man called George Firth who was the senior boiler at Wilkinson's and lived in Northgate where he had a little corner shop. Every factory in its day had its own liquorice boiler, like a brewery had its own brewers, and each thought they had the best formulas and could make the best liquorice in the world. They probably hadn't, but they thought so.”

There were 750 women working at Wilkinson’s Liquorice Works and I couldn’t pull one of them!

“There were no machines or anything like that in those days; you had to put the flour into the boiling pan with the treacle and the molasses, and boil it. From start to finish each liquorice boiling took four and a half hours. We started at 6.00am in the morning and the first boiling came out at 10.00am. We then put another one on that came out at 2.00pm and another one that came out at 6.00pm at night. So you worked twelve hours a day. It was the lousiest job I've had in my life! Hot and sweaty, I was covered in acne as a young lad, and my face was covered in plasters due to the burns I received. There were 750 women working in Wilkinson's Liquorice works and I couldn't pull one of them with all those plasters on my face!”

“I left to do my National Service, came back home, and went back to Wilkinson’s where I met my future wife, but I decided there was no future in boiling liquorice - the industry was declining, machinery was coming in to replace the big boiling pans and I couldn't see any future so I bailed out.”

“Not many people are aware that the town of Pontefract received acclaim in the film industry. I don’t know if it was Robinson and Wordsworth, who had their factory in Ferrybridge Road, or Hillaby's that was burned down in around 1947, but most people will have seen Charlie Chaplin in the 1925 film The Gold Rush. In that film Charlie Chaplin is seen eating his boots and laces, and the boots were specially made from liquorice produced in Pontefract but we're not quite sure which factory actually made them. At a later date, the 1979 Bond film Moonraker with Roger Moore, featured a character called Jaws who in one particular scene is seen biting through a thick electric cable while on one of those ski-lifts or whatever you want to call them. As he bites through the cable, sparks begin flying all over the place but the cable was actually made out of liquorice produced in Pontefract and sent down to Pinewood Studios.”

“Also, Spencer Tracy and Kathleen Hepburn appeared in a 1949 film called Adams Rib, which also featured an infamous liquorice gun scene. The gun used in the film was also made out of liquorice produced in Pontefract.”

“Introduced by Bruce Forsyth, Acker Bilk was filmed playing Stranger on The Shore on a clarinet on London Weekend’s ‘Beat the Clock’ during the 1950s. The clarinet was made from liquorice and made at W.R. Wilkinson’s, Pontefract, but unfortunately due to the the heat from the studio lights it began to melt and dropped onto the floor.”

“I remember the liquorice works of Eubanks was bombed during the war, it was the only liquorice works to be hit and there was sugar and stuff running all down the street at Friarwood, where the hospital is now. I would have been about eight-years-old at the time and me and a group of other kids were picking lumps of sugar up off the floor and eating it.”

“All the liquorice factories in Pontefract were originally family owned, every factory borne by a family; there were no big corporations like there is today. Wilkinson's present factory on Monkhill was established by a gentleman named Mr. W.H. Marshall who came to Pontefract from Somerset to work for W.R. Wilkinson who at that time had a factory down Skinner Lane opposite the cemetery at the back of the old workhouse. Mr. Marshall was a dynamic businessman who ended up becoming the sole proprietor of the company. When I started at the Monkhill factory as a young lad, you could go back there on an evening, which we did on frequent occasions along with many of the girls, to play putting, bowls and tennis.”

“After the war, a former employee by the name of Norman Theodore Harrison was asked to take over the running of the factory which he agreed to do. Norman served at Wilkinson’s with great success and by this time the company were exporting all over the world. He employed around 500-600 women, many of whom were terrified of him. The girls gave him the nickname of ‘Buzzer’ because he was always buzzing all over the place and you could never catch up with him. ‘Buzzer’ was an absolute tyrant, working in the factory from 6.00am in the morning until 8.00pm at night, five days per week, but he certainly put W.R. Wilkinson’s on the map.”

“Wilkinson’s was a family run business but it was a sweat shop - in fact they were all sweat shops; it was extremely hard work and you hadn't a minute to spare. You were allowed to go to the canteen on a morning or afternoon and had two minutes to walk there and two minutes to walk back, so by the time you got to the canteen you had four minutes during which you could either have a cigarette, a cup of tea or a visit to the toilet but you hadn't time for all the lot. ‘Buzzer’ ruled with an iron rod and I suppose people hated his guts really but they admired him for his dynamism and effort. Yes, they were sweat shops and it was the worst years of my life working in those factories.”

“Sadly, the Marshall family died within a few years of each other and crippled with death duties they had little option but to sell out to Trebor Bassett of Sheffield. By this time Norman Harrison was 65 years old and he found it difficult to adapt to a big company coming on to the scene and so he retired from the position. However, you couldn’t help but admire his energy and enthusiasm.”

“I remember once, shortly after Norman had produced some new mints, he wanted a name for them and a competition was held with people being invited to submit their suggestions. I was the one who suggested they were called ‘Wilko Mints’ and he gave me a cash prize for coming up with the name. I used the prize money to purchase a Lambretta scooter.”

“As already mentioned, I met my wife while working at Wilkinson’s and there is a little story that goes with that. One day she came home and told me that she had accidentally packed her engagement ring in a packet of liquorice allsorts. Well I reckoned to blow my top but I weren't right bothered cos I didn't give a right lot for it but she doesn't know that to this day. We found out later that those liquorice allsorts had gone all the way to America so somebody in America would have opened a box of liquorice allsorts containing a lovely diamond ring. They had an x-ray machine at Wilkinson’s but I don't think they x-rayed all the products that went out in those days. It was just luck if they managed to catch something.”

“There was one lady working at Wilkinson’s called Nellie Murray. Now little Nellie lived up Willow Park and she lost her boyfriend on Armistice Day in 1918 and she never ever got over it. She never married and she became a figurehead at Wilkinson’s. It’s been estimated that over the years she must have made 22,000,000 liquorice pipes and in those days all the liquorice pipes were made by hand as well as the cakes and Nellie sat at a table making these pipes every day of her working life.”

“As far as Pontefract goes, liquorice is part of our Heritage. Wakefield go on about rhubarb, but you can grow rhubarb almost anywhere. You can’t grow liquorice just anywhere!”

Tom Shay Dixon was speaking with Michael Norfolk

Digest Magazine - Pontefract and Knottingley in West Yorkshire Roots of History with Tom Shay Dixon was published in the Digest Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 1, July 2007.


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