We’ve now lost sight that Thorntons, the British chocolate brand, was established in Sheffield. Now airbrushed from our history, its link with the city disappeared when the company moved its headquarters to Derbyshire in the 1980s.
Joseph William Thornton was a commercial traveller for the Don Confectionery Company in the early years of the twentieth century. With ambitions to set up on his own, he opened a small sweet shop at 159 Norfolk Street, in the centre of Sheffield, in October 1911.
It was run by his fourteen-year-old son, Norman, with intentions of becoming the ‘nicest’ sweet shop in the city. It was an attractive affair, with cream-coloured walls and mirrors from floor to ceiling, the shelves in front packed with ‘knob-stoppered’ jars full of sweets made by Joseph’s friends in Norwich.
Although he continued as a commercial traveller, he opened a second shop on The Moor where the family lived above. Although most of the stock was bought in, the family experimented by manufacturing hard-boiled sweets, but it was the production of violet creams that shaped its future.
Joseph William Thornton died in 1919, but Norman opened two more shops, later joined by his brother Stanley, and together formed J.W. Thornton Ltd.
During the 1920s, the brothers opened shops outside Sheffield, with boiled sweets made on The Moor and chocolate in nearby London Road premises.
With lots of quirky sweet treats like ‘Violet Cachous’, ‘Sweet Lips’ and ‘Phul-Nanas’, they sold the best confectionery around. But it wasn’t until now that the brothers were making their hand‐made chocolate truffles, crystallised fondants and, of course, their famous Thorntons special toffee. Production was later amalgamated in a small factory on Penistone Road where its first chocolate enrobing machine was introduced to boost chocolate sales even further.
In 1931, the company moved to Stalker Lees Road, paving the way to build a purpose-built factory on Archer Road in 1935, a facility that soon became too small for production.
By 1937, it had been extended, doubled in size, and would service 35 shops across the north and midlands.
During World War Two, Thorntons bought a smaller plant in Bury, to be used if the Archer Road factory was bombed. It never was, and production continued in Sheffield while Special Toffee was made in Lancashire.
Afterwards, the company was refused permission to expand its factory further and so the company bought Castle Factory, a former mill, at Belper in Derbyshire, where boiled sweets were produced.
By the 1970s, the company had more than 150 shops and expanded into the United States during the 1980s, opening shops in Chicago, Boston and Washington.
A brand new multi-million pound factory was built on a greenfield site at Swanwick, Derbyshire, in 1983, with the eventual closure of the Archer Road factory.
Rapid expansion at the start of this century, combined with an economic downturn, hit Thorntons’ profits hard and in 2011 it announced that it would close between 120 and 180 of its stores.
Four years later, in 2015, the business was sold to Italian chocolate maker Ferrero for £112 million, thus ending a long family connection.