An archive showing the history of Rowntree's chocolates is being collated in York ahead of the company's 150th anniversary next year. MATT CLARK takes a look.

IT WAS a dark, stormy February evening. The lights had failed and armed only with a head torch, Nestlé archivist Alex Hutchinson was working late to record the last of the day’s artefacts.

In the corner was her most treasured find, Rowntree’s long lost 1920s automaton, Mr York of York, Yorks. Alex had just brought him back home and there he was, tucked up for the night in his wooden travelling case.

Suddenly in the inky gloom, Alex saw Mr York lurch forward.

“I ran out screaming my head off,” she says. “I hadn’t realised his electrics had a trick to them; if you stop halfway through his routine, the springs continue to wind down. So all of a sudden Mr York decided to spin round, his eyebrows flicked up and his fingers brushed against my hair.

“I’ve never trusted him since and of all the things we have in the archive, he’s the one that gives me the creeps.”

York Press: Rowntree automaton, Mr York of York, Yorks

Automaton, Mr York of York, Yorks, in a less creepy mood at the Antiques Roadshow earlier this year.

Understandable, really. But for Alex, Mr York is still a favourite find. He starred in one of the first moving picture adverts in 1929 for Plain York, York Milk and York Motoring Chocolate.

And that made him a celebrity figure; one known the world over.

Another of Alex’s favourite items is Captain Scott’s tin of cocoa, which had been lost during Nestlé’s takeover.

Rowntree’s workers clubbed together to help buy equipment for Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole, which included tins of the company’s famous cocoa.

When a rescue party discovered the explorer’s remains, two tins were lying next to him.

They also found Scott’s diary, which said it was what his men most looked forward to.

One of those tins was presented to the factory, where it stayed in the archives for about 80 years.

Now, thanks to Alex’s diligence, it’s back.

For months she had scoured the archives looking for a picture of Scott’s tin before finding one in an old company magazine.

Then, during a visit to the firm’s Croydon head office, she spotted it.

“At first I couldn’t believe I had really found it,” says Alex. “I kept checking and double checking. But the picture showed very distinctive rust marks, so I knew it was the one.”

York Press: Captain Scott's tin of Rowntree cocoa

Captain Scott’s tin of cocoa.

Apart from the company’s two ‘holy grails’, Alex has accumulated hundreds of artefacts from the Rowntree days to create Nestlé UK’s new archive here in York.

It’s housed in temperature controlled vaults at ten degrees Celsius and 40 per cent humidity and contains priceless examples of York’s chocolate history. Things like 300 reels of advertising film, some dating back to the 1920s, glass negatives of employees at work and exquisite early 20th-century penny novelties.

The collection also boasts unopened chocolate boxes from the thirties and a complete set of company magazines from 1902.

Then there is Alex’s latest horde; the Rowntree’s Moor and Fell Club photo albums.

“It was a club for technical managers who would go out for a day’s potholing or rock climbing.

“But women in the factory were sometimes invited and this collection shows there was a genuine sense of community out of the workplace.”

As do the pictures of dancing clubs, night classes and sporting events. One even has an invited Olympic medallist being beaten by a factory employee during the annual athletics day.

“I think people saw the factory not as a place of work but as part of the extended family. It’s still like that today.”

Sometimes Alex snaffles items by hook and by crook. Like the 1950s Smarties Bagatelle machine she found gathering dust and ‘nicked’ for the archive as well as valuable portraits of the Rowntree family.

These days, though, staff are becoming more aware of how important it is to preserve this heritage collection and, increasingly, people approach Alex for help.

Like the employee who asked if she could shed light on one of her ancestors who worked at the factory in Victorian times.

“I asked who he was and she replied Claude Gaget,” says Alex. “I couldn’t believe it; he was one of the ‘Rowntree Royalty’ and saved the business when he invented their fruit pastille.”

During the 1870s the company was losing money and faced possible bankruptcy. But it wasn’t cocoa and chocolate that kept it alive.

Gaget approached Joseph Rowntree in 1879 with samples of his Crystallised Gum Pastilles and after a few modifications, Joseph decided to try his luck.

The new venture was an instant success.

Nestlé’s archive also offers a history lesson in our changing tastes. Rowntrees were always considered a premium maker, but in 1933 the company changed the way we viewed chocolate for ever.

Before Black Magic was introduced, men only gave chocolate to their fiancées as a symbol of betrothal. But almost overnight, a new advertising campaign taught people they could offer a box of chocolate as a mark of friendship.

It proved a revolutionary change and sales rocketed. So much that Black Magic transformed the company’s fortunes and the Haxby Road façade was built on the strength of its success.

Rowntree continued to boom when Kit Kat and Aero followed. But the Second World War sounded a death knell for the confectionery industry, as cocoa and sugar became rarer than hen’s teeth.

However, when rationing ended in 1955, chocolate again played its part in a new social revolution. Working teenagers had more money to spend on new-found leisure items such as records.

And, of course, Rowntree’s stepped in; this time with its new Dairy Box aimed squarely at teenagers to give their sweethearts.

Alex points out a photo of Una Stubbs, who was used as the cover girl for Dairy Box.

“She was dressed in leggings and jumping around at strange angles to imply she’s fun and gregarious, so just buy her some chocolates, because she’s fun – not because she’s your girlfriend.”

York Press: A Rowntree’s penny 
novelty on a royal theme

A Rowntree’s penny novelty on a royal theme

York Press: Unopened Rowntree’s chocolates from the 1930s

Unopened Rowntree’s chocolates from the 1930s

• Mr York of York, Yorks will feature in October’s Illuminating York festival and during an evening of rare advertising films to be shown at City Screen York on November 22.