“I have been with Maxons since the 1950s, when I was taken on to be the face of Maxons, and except for a brief kidnapping in the 1980s, I have been at the factory on Bradbury Street with my friends the Pitchforks, and all those who look after me at Maxons.”
These words taken from the Mint Rock King’s facebook page, a clever marketing ploy by Maxons, the Sheffield sweet firm, manufacturers of Dixons famous Mint Rock.
The story of Maxons is a steady if not low-key account.
We must go back to 1885 when Henry Dixon (1861-1949) started making sweets and toffees. His father was Fanshaw Dixon, a silversmith by trade and a mover in the cause for Liberalism in Sheffield. Henry started as a wholesale manufacturing confectioner, establishing the business at Britannia Confectionery Works on Love Street.
Henry was one of the founders and twice president of the Sheffield Confectioners’ Association, as well as being involved with the British Federation of Wholesale Confectioners, of which he was twice president also.
Like many Victorians, he was a man of religious means, being a member of Queen Street Congregational Church, a Sunday School worker, and lay preacher. He was also an ardent Band of Hope and temperance worker and became president of the Sheffield Congregational Association.
In 1896, Henry created Dixon’s Superior Mint Rock sold in tins, later adding Butter Scotch and Walnut Toffee. The business passed to his son, Henry Dixon Jr, who continued production at Love Street, and while their advertising was always low key, Dixon’s Mint Rock became a favourite with Sheffielders.
In 1927, W.E. and L. MacDonald, also started in the confectionery business, calling themselves Maxons (Mac and Son). The manufacture of their products, predominantly toffee, gave way to boiled sweets including Yorkshire Mixture, Pear Drops and Winter Mixture.
Production took place in the high altitude of Bents Green, at “Glengarry” (No. 52) on Muskoka Drive, the building standing in a garden, with products sold across the city as well as in its own shop, at 24 Ecclesall Road.
Ralph Pitchfork was born in 1913, the son of a Sheffield newsagent, who, on leaving school in 1931, when employment was scarce following the great depression, managed to gain employment with one of his father’s suppliers – Maxons.
He remained with them until 1950, when he purchased another local wholesale and manufacturing confectioner in Sheffield, trading as Ralph Pitchfork Ltd. with the manufacturing arm trading as Maxons Ltd.
Following the end of sweet rationing in 1953, both the wholesale and manufacturing companies began to expand and, in 1958, Ralph Pitchfork merged his two companies with those of Henry Dixon Ltd, after Henry Dixon Jr chose to sell because he had no male heir to take over from him.
The merger created a substantial wholesale company that traded under the name of Dixon Pitchfork Ltd. The enlarged Maxons included not only the Maxons branded range, but also added the Dixon’s range to its portfolio of products – these included the regional favourites; Mint Rock, Cherry Balsams and Buttermints.
In the 1960s the registered name of Jesmona Black Bullets was acquired from John W. Welch of Whitley Bay, and production moved to Sheffield.
Jesmona Old Fashioned Black Bullets, its name coming from the Jesmond district of Newcastle, were reputed to have originally been made using moulds for musket-balls. This dark-brown peppermint-flavoured sweet (made with sugar, glucose and peppermint oil), was as popular in the north-east, well-liked by miners and shipyard workers, as Dixon’s Mint Rock was to the steelworkers in Sheffield.
Interestingly, John Welch’s grand-daughter is Denise Welch, the actress, who says she was nicknamed Truly Scrumptious at school because of her sweet-making family.
The wholesale company of Dixon Pitchfork Ltd. was sold in the late 1960s and eventually, like many privately owned wholesale confectioners lost its identity to one of the national groups.
Maxons continued as a privately owned, independent, manufacturing company under the direction of Ralph’s son – Roger Pitchfork, and now by his grandsons – Chris and Richard Pitchfork.
Maxons is the main brand used to produce old fashioned sweet jars, retail bags, Sherpots, Headsplitters (responsible for a 20 per cent leap in turnover in 2018), Stupidly Sours and bulk products. All Dixons-branded sweets are traditionally made by hand using recipes handed down from 1885, its Mint Rock still made from cream of tartare rather than glucose.
The company has also re-introduced the Charles Butler brand, using recipes dating back to 1848, to create a hand crafted Victorian-style boiled sweet.
As well as Jesmona Black Bullets, the company is well-known for its traditional Yorkshire Mixture, consisting of fruit and mint flavoured sweets, thought to originate from the early 1800s in industrial cities. Sweet vendors went from factory to factory selling a small mixture of the sweet factory’s production from the previous day, whatever was left.
In 2017, Yorkshire Mixture was the subject of a fascinating court case, when Maxons and West Yorkshire based Joseph Dobson went head to head for the rights to the Yorkshire Mixture name. In a case costing £15,000 over eighteen months, eventually going to the European Intellectual Property Office, Maxons was given the go-ahead to continue producing the sweets under the Yorkshire Mixture brand – after Dobson’s tried to claim exclusive rights to use the name.