Albert Scholick Wilkin -Cremona toffee

PUBLISHED: 14:58 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 11:42 28 February 2013

Staff wrap the toffee in the Cremona factory

Staff wrap the toffee in the Cremona factory

Albert Wilkin established one of the most famous confectionery brands in the world. His great-niece Jackie Wilkin takes up the story

The North East has two famous pictures: J W Carmichael and Henry Perlee Parkers William and Grace Darling Going to the Rescue and Sir Thomas Lawrences Master Charles William Lambton, known universally as The Red Boy.

It was this second picture, The Red Boy, which meant most in the life of a young Lake District grocers apprentice, the ambitious third son of a village policeman in Pooley Bridge.

Albert Scholick Wilkin arrived in Sunderland in 1904 to begin work in a backstreet grocers shop. Determined to make his fortune, he spent his spare time and wages boiling up butter and sugar in a quest to produce the perfect toffee.

Like any respectable young man, he attended church on Sundays, in this case the Methodist JL Thompson Memorial Hall, in Dundas Street, Sunderland, now demolished. It was here that he met T R Bloomer, the man who was to change his life forever.

History does not record whether, at this point, Mr Bloomer tasted the toffee but he was certainly impressed by Albert. He walked into the back street grocers one morning with an astonishing proposition. If Albert would open a small toffee business in a disused Sunderland chapel which he had found, he would provide the capital.

Albert jumped at the chance. The business opened in 1908 and Cremona toffee, made by hand from the purest ingredients and beautifully packaged, was an instant best-seller.

And its most famous and enduring brand was Wilkins Red Boy Toffee, featuring on the tin the famous Red Boy painting that had so captivated the young Albert.

He celebrated its success by marrying a Yorkshire lass, Nellie Wilson, in 1909 and was determined from the beginning to look beyond the North East. His gift for publicity, and the new lines which teemed from his recipe book, made Cremona a national brand by the end of the First World War.

Orders poured in from retailers and wholesalers alike. Cremona was walking off the shelves and Albert was looking for bigger premises. He searched for months before finding the old Royal Flying Corps site at Benton, Newcastle, now the Sainsburys Heaton store.

Cremona Park, the worlds first garden toffery went up at speed and opened in 1920. Albert celebrated with new brands, like the butterscotch studded with huge walnuts, and he housed them in ever more beautiful tins, like the oriental bird and the silhouettes of Harry Lawrence Oakley. Two years later, tragedy struck. Nellie, his first wife, died, leaving two sons of 11 and 12, Gordon and Frank, and a baby, Angus.

Albert remarried two years later and left Sunderland behind, moving to a villa in The Grove, Gosforth, one of Newcastles smartest addresses. There were stables at the back of the villa and the toffee king, beautifully dressed and mounted, became a familiar Gosforth sight as he rode off early each morning to the office.

His family were proud of him but his brothers kept his feet on the ground by nicknaming him Claggem, a reference to the famous toffees sticking power. Nor did he forget them. He wrote to his sister-in-law with characteristic energy, offering to pay a doctors bill for his eldest brother, Jack: Now Lily, about his getting away where it is really quiet, somewhere in the South Coast where the strain of getting there is not too great. I enclose a small cheque as part of the expense which please accept with my best wishes, & let me say, I want you, dear Brother & Sister, to accept it in the Brotherly spirit. Your affect Brother, Albert

Never one to let the grass grow, he began to plan for the future. The boys were already learning the business in the holidays. He would send Gordon, serious and hard-working, to study law at Cambridge. That would be an asset to the business. Frank, a typical second son, full of personality, would be the salesman, but first he would send him to Germany to look for new ideas, new machines.

Albert himself was becoming active in Livery Company circles in the City of London, and exhibiting widely at Trade Fairs up and down the country. Cremona and its signature toffee hammer was becoming an icon.

The year 1939 brought triumph and difficulty in equal measure. Albert received a knighthood for Services to Industry, setting the seal on his success, but at the outbreak of war, Gordon and Frank were immediately called up and the new Sir Albert had to work as hard as ever, struggling with wartime shortages and refusing to compromise either on quality or on the welfare of his workforce.

He was also doing his bit for the national war effort. He made frequent journeys to London to mingle with Pascalls and Barratts, Cadburys and Terrys, Rowntrees and Frys on the wartime committees which oversaw the regulation of the confectionery industry. Exports to Europe were now impossible but the Red Boy still travelled, becoming a Forces favourite in Naafi canteens at home and abroad.

The strain took its toll and Albert died of cancer in 1943 at the early age of 60. At his request, his body was returned to Sunderland, the scene of his happiest early years, and he was buried in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, only a mile away from the first beginnings of Trobe and Co, who originally made his toffee.

Back from the Forces, Gordon and Frank guided the company through the difficult post-war years. Export markets returned and the Red Boy was on his travels again to Hong Kong and Shanghai, Gibraltar and Syria, South Vietnam, Puerto Rico and the West Indies. In America, the famous gold casket, emblazoned with Master Charles William Lambton in all his glory, was re-christened as a Presentation Box, casket having unfortunate associations.

But the age of the big company was round the corner and, as the Sixties began, A S Wilkin became part of the Rowntree Mackintosh Group. Soon after, Cremona Park, the garden toffery closed its doors.

The story has two heroes, Albert himself, of course, whose exceptional qualities took him so far. At his death, his Whos Who entry showed him as a JP, a member of many confectionery boards, a Liveryman of the Feltmakers Company, an honorary freeman of the City of London, Chairman of the Newcastle Central Conservative Association and a governing member of Kings College, University of Durham, now the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Not bad for the son of a village policeman!

But the other hero, or rather heroines of the story, were the loyal Cremona workforce, who supported the company through thick and thin and took the Red Boy and his companions from the North East of England to the far-flung shop windows of the world.

Antidote to despair

While Albert Wilkin and his staff enjoyed prosperous times between the war years, for others, life was hard.

In the late 1920s, Newcastle was in the vice-like grip of the Great Depression. Factories, mines and shipyards stood idle, thousands of families sank to subsistence levels and the citys Victorian pre-eminence seemed lost forever. It was then that the Red Boy painting made its first appearance in Alberts life.

The Newcastle Chamber of Commerce, of which Albert was a leading light, proposed a great exhibition, the North East Coast Exhibition of 1929, which would catapult the city out of its torpor and despair.

Albert brought all his energy to bear. When the Chamber wavered, he made a speech which re-kindled their enthusiasm. When the City Council wobbled over the 8,000 shortfall in the exhibition fund guarantees, he, together with three other guarantors, rode to the rescue and guaranteed a further 2,000 each, a fortune in those days.

The Prince of Wales, not yet in thrall to Mrs Simpson, opened the Exhibition on May 14, 1929. It ran for six months. Four million visitors flocked to see the Palace of Engineering, the stunning lighting effects, the athletics and brass band concerts in the 30,000-person stadium and the massive closing fireworks display.

And the centrepiece of the whole exhibition, pre-eminent among hundreds of works of art, was the original portrait of the Red Boy.

What are your memories of Cremona toffee? Did you work in the Benton factory? Wed love to hear from you. Write to the Editors, North East Life, PO Box 199, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 9AG or leave a comment below

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