When George Bassett died in May 1886, his death merited an obituary in local newspapers, largely because he was an ex-alderman and former Mayor of Sheffield.
In the last years of his life a stroke had partly paralysed him, providing plenty of time for him to reflect on his life and achievements.
However, when he finally passed away at his Endcliffe home, the result of a fourth stroke, he died not knowing his legacy would one day become world famous.
George Bassett was born at Ashover, Derbyshire, in 1818, where his father was a small farmer and landowner, and his ancestors had lived for generations.
As a young man, he was apprenticed to William Haslam, a Chesterfield confectioner in Low Pavement, and afterwards moved to Sheffield where he started his own confectionery business in Broad Street, Park, in 1842.
Described as a “Wholesale Confectioner, Lozenge Manufacturer and British Wine Merchant,” Bassett started selling to druggists and shopkeepers elsewhere, boasting that he was always “in stock of lozenges, comfits, pipes, acid drops, jams, juice, candied lemon, Carr’s Fancy Biscuits, American soda biscuits, nuts, pickles, fish sauces, Firkin Butter and lard.”
On reflection, it appears that although confectionery was a large part of George Bassett’s business, he was better known as a wholesale merchant, selling tea, coffee, sugar and general provisions to shops around the town.
He subsequently opened another shop in the New Market Hall, another in West Bar and additional premises at Snig Hill.
Although considered to be a retailer, Bassett ultimately became a manufacturing confectioner, and in 1859 opened a steam-powered factory in Portland Street, by the Royal Infirmary, considered to be the largest and most complete in the country. To achieve this, he had gone into partnership with William Lodge, renaming the company as Bassett and Lodge, and choosing to dispose of the retail business.
The partnership was dissolved in 1861 and a few years later, Bassett entered business with Samuel Meggitt Johnson (1837-1925), one of his former apprentices, a liaison that lasted until George Bassett’s death, after which Johnson assumed sole control of the firm.
By 1871, Bassett employed 150 people, and at the time of his death, the company was the largest confectionery manufacturer in the country.
Nevertheless, George Bassett was more famous locally as a public servant. He became a member of the Council in 1851, when elected as one of the representatives of the Park Ward. In 1873, Bassett was raised to the aldermanic bench, and in 1876, just twenty-five years after first entering the council, he was unanimously elected as the Mayor.
During his mayoralty, the former United States president General Ulysses S. Grant, paid a visit to Sheffield, and was a guest at both Bassett’s Endcliffe Crescent home and at a banquet given in his honour at the Cutler’s Hall.
Like many Victorians, Bassett was a religious man, a Wesleyan Methodist, fulfilling many roles for the church, and generously contributing to its funds.
As well as his own confectionery business, Bassett also took up directorship roles at the Union Banking Company as well as at Earle’s Shipbuilding Company.
He married twice, his first wife was Sarah Hodgson, daughter of Joseph Hodgson, iron merchant, who died in 1861, and with which he had six daughters. His second wife was Sarah Ann Hague, daughter of Mr Hague of Broad Street, who survived him and provided two sons.
The grave of George Bassett can still be seen today, amidst dense vegetation, at the Sheffield General Cemetery.
But what became of the business after his death?
Under Samuel Meggitt Johnson the company flourished, concentrating on lozenges, candied peel, and liquorice confectionery, enjoying nationwide distribution and developing a considerable export trade.
The birth of liquorice allsorts took place in 1899, and will always be associated with Charlie Thompson, of York, a representative of the firm for nearly 60 years. The various units which make up the selection known as liquorice allsorts had been sold separately for many years.
One day, Mr Thompson, when calling on a customer in Leicester, tripped over the doormat and spilled his tray of samples of these units on the floor. As he was gathering the sweets together into a heap with his foot, the customer was struck by the attractiveness of the resultant assortment, and forthwith placed an order – “for all sorts.”
The new line met with instant success and was eventually imitated by manufacturers throughout the world.
The rapid expansion of sales which followed the introduction of liquorice allsorts taxed the firm’s productive capacity, despite having opened the Don Works, on Bridge Street, in 1899. Accordingly, a new factory was built at Owlerton in 1900 to take over the manufacture of candied peel and glace cherries under the subsidiary company of Samuel M. Johnson & Sons.
Sales of confectionery continued to grow at such a rate, however, that soon the new Owlerton factory had to help the Portland Street factory by producing confectionery as well.
Samuel Meggitt Johnson died in 1925, and subsequently George Bassett was incorporated in 1926 with a capital of £350,000.
The Don Works closed in 1927, but manufacturing continued at Portland Street and Owlerton. In 1933, the directors gave up production of peel and cherries and concentrated on confectionery, at the same time centralising all manufacturing activities at the Owlerton premises.
Accordingly, a new four-storey factory was built to take over the whole of liquorice allsorts production and was in operation by 1934.
Business boomed, hindered only by the Second World War, producing liquorice allsorts, a wide range of gums, pastilles, jellies, mixtures, pan lines, mints, lozenges, and medicated confectionery.
In 1961, George Bassett acquired W.R. Wilkinson of Pontefract, followed by Barratt’s, a leading children’s confectionery manufacturer, in 1966.
However, by the 1980s Bassett’s had fallen to third place in the British sugar confectionery market, behind Trebor and Rowntrees, and was acquired by Cadbury for £91million in 1989, merging the businesses of Pascall-Murray and Lion into the larger Bassett concern.
Later that year, Cadbury-Schweppes bought Trebor for £110million, renaming its sugar confectionery subsidiary Trebor Bassett.
These days the company is a brand of Cadbury, owned by Mondelez International, the Owlerton factory making iconic brands like Liquorice Allsorts, Jelly Babies and Trebor Extra Strong Mints. In addition to this, the Sheffield site also produces Ritz Crisp & Thins, and has also been used to produce the company’s Oreo and Belvita biscuit lines.
Look in shops today and you’ll see a wide range of products under the Maynards Bassetts branding.