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The Rise and fall of a Chocolate Empire, was to tell for the first time the story of J.S. Fry & Sons from the firm’s origins way back in 1728 until the final bar of Double Decker rolled off the Somerdale’s condemned production lines in 2011.
And what a story it is! History is written by the victors, which in this case was Cadbury’s, so I wanted to find out and tell how and why J.S. Fry & Sons became the world’s largest maker of cocoa and chocolate, and also why it fell under the heel of Cadbury’s so soon after reaching its zenith.
It all comes down to people.
The founder, a Quaker apothecary named Joseph Fry, while being a maker of chocolate, never actually got past the corner shop stage. He was more of an investor, always on the lookout for a good idea, and one that came his way was the chocolate business of another West country man, Walter Churchman, who had built a nationwide demand for his cocoa by dint of inventing a better way of grinding cocoa beans.
Churchman’s big idea, which got him a Letters Patent from King George II, he described as "a large walking wheel of weight and draught for cattle".
So a business empire would be built on an extremely large hamster wheel.
Following Joseph’s death, his wife Anna Fry took the reins for a few years until their second son, Joseph Storrs Fry, was deemed ready for the top job.
While his father had been a serial investor in a range of businesses, Joseph Storrs fancied himself as an inventor – and a confident young tyke he was, putting in a claim in 1792 for a cash prize being offered by the Royal Society of Arts for an improved design for dock cranes.
When he turned his attention to the family business, he invented a cocoa bean roaster that would become the industry standard for a hundred years. He was also one of Boulton and Watt’s early customers for a steam engine which enabled him to industrialise the family firm.
However, his attention on the business wandered with sales suffering; after taking on and then dumping a partner whose cash stopped the company from going under, he was eventually succeeded by his three sons, Richard, Francis and Joseph Fry, who collectively set the company on the path to greatness.
This third generation of Frys were an interesting lot. Francis and Richard were among the special constables called upon to quell a great pro-Reform Bill riot in the centre of Bristol, a barney that resulted in 26 Bristolians being condemned to death for their part in, among other crimes, looting the mayor’s wine cellar, storming two gaols and burning Fry’s cocoa warehouse to the ground.
When not arresting the great unwashed, Francis had a keen interest in the new railway industry, at one point crossing swords with the great I.K. Brunel over the best locomotives to be used on the South Devon Railway, eventually being proved right by events.
Francis also played a key role in the Bristol Waterworks Company getting piped water into the city. In between these good works and amassing one of the world’s finest collections of early printed Bibles, Francis and his brothers developed a range of best-selling cocoa products and invented the world’s first chocolate bar before hitting on the best-selling Fry’s Chocolate Cream, now the oldest brand of chocolate bar in the world.
They also set about expanding their Union Street factory site with a series of new buildings which would stand until after the move to Somerdale half a century later.
By the time the brothers retired and handed over to two of their offspring, Joseph Storrs Fry II and Francis James Fry, business was booming, with Fry’s products dominating the market and available pretty much everywhere.
But while business was good, it seems the two cousins running the show – one a strictly teetotal, unmarried Quaker and the other a twice-married man-about-town – didn’t get on one little bit. In fact they only communicated by letter.
In addition to this lack of harmony, there was a startling degree of complacency in the company that included the use of quill pens well into the typewriter era, the company not possessing a telephone long after they had become common in the workplace and the habit of throwing any unfilled orders onto the office fire.
Such less-than-ideal management practices were at the root of the company’s undoing, even as it reached undreamed-of heights. Fry’s would lose every key race to get into breakthrough new products such as cocoa without fillers, alkalised cocoa and milk chocolate bars, the winners each time being Cadbury Bros. of Birmingham.
Interestingly, a key reason for Fry’s losing the race to develop a winning milk chocolate was the complete unsuitability of the city centre Union Street site for bringing in thousands of gallons of fresh milk a day, the company going with inferior dried milk instead.
Joseph Storrs Fry II and his uncommunicative cousin oversaw the rise of the firm from a few hundred to several thousand employees, but their legacy would not last for long.
Within six years of the death of Joseph Storrs II, J.S Fry & Sons would be under the sway of their great rivals, Cadbury Bros, as the two firms rushed into a complex amalgamation heavily weighted in favour of the Cadbury family.
The ink on the contract was barely dry before the fragile relationships broke down with both families seemingly trapped in a loveless marriage.
The plot thickened when George Cadbury’s son, Egbert, applied out of the blue for a job at Union Street, having found there was no job for him at Bournville. His pacifist Quaker relatives seem to have been unimpressed by Egbert’s shooting down of two Zeppelins in the First World War.
Egbert was soon put in charge, along with the last member of six generations of the Fry family to play a role, Cecil Fry, of the stupendous undertaking of moving the business to Somerdale.
As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Egbert and Cecil had to deal with a ruthless competitor who cut prices to the bone in order to drive others to the wall, that being Fry’s so-called sister company, Cadbury Bros. It all proved so much of a financial burden such that by the time the move to Somerdale was complete, J.S Fry & Sons was barely profitable, which prompted the Cadbury board to arbitrarily force Fry’s into liquidation and take over their junior partner.
Egbert and Cecil, who both seem splendid fellows, took the slings and arrows from Bournville with great dignity and, having fought tooth and nail for a measure of independence, plotted a turnaround for Fry’s which would be implemented after the Second World War.
Old favourites such as Fry’s Chocolate Cream, Turkish Delight, Crunchie, Sandwich bars and Tiffin were revitalised and joined by new lines such as Punch and Picnic. The result was that, during the 1950s, Fry’s was the fastest-growing chocolate firm in Britain.
But it couldn’t last. By the end of the 1960s Cadbury’s had completed a full merger with Fry’s which saw many Fry’s favourites either disappear, as was the case with Five Boys, or take on the Cadbury name, as happened with Crunchie, Picnic, Fry’s Crunch, Tiffin and Assorted Nuts. However, the Fry’s management did somewhat better, taking on many senior roles in the new organisation.
Somerdale was Cadbury-ised, from the changing of the famous illuminated sign to the factory becoming just one of many Cadbury factories in an increasingly complex and sprawling international organisation.
The closure of Somerdale was something that had been on the cards for far longer than most people realise and had very nearly happened almost twenty years prior and several times since.
My book also covers how Fry’s spread around the world, including yet another example of Cadbury’s sticking the boot in when they took over Fry’s large Canadian business in order to use it to propagate their Dairy Milk brand.
The one thing they couldn’t get rid of was the best-selling Fry’s cocoa, which is still market leader to this day in Canada – the last remaining country to sell the line.
Most importantly, I could not write this book without showcasing Fry’s marvelous legacy of advertising and packaging images. Fry’s was an early pioneer of colour printing for their labels and the use of famous contemporary artists for their advertising, over 200 of which are included. It is a fitting epitaph to one of Bristol’s best-known contributions to the world.
John Bradley worked for Cadbury’s from 1979 to 2003, moving to Cadbury Canada in 1996 to become Vice-President of Marketing. He now works in the advertising and marketing industry in Canada.
He has also written the first authorised full history of Cadbury’s, Cadbury’s Purple Reign (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), as well as co-authoring a business book, Store Wars: The Worldwide Battle for Mindspace and Shelfspace, Online and In-Store.
Fry’s Chocolate Dream: The Rise and fall of a Chocolate Empire is available from Amazon.co.uk and other online outlets and should soon be in most bookshops in Bristol and Bath.