IF there is one thing guaranteed to bring a light to the eyes of older people today, it is the remembrance of standing on tiptoe at the counter of a sweetshop, handing over precious pennies for their favourite Saturday treat.
At first a penny bar, or a liquorice bootlace; later, if pocket money increased, perhaps a threepenny bar or a whole quarter of sticky delights weighed out carefully from a screw top jar.
Sixpenny chocolate bars were only for the well-off, while those incredible presentation caskets of confectionery were only to be hoped for at Christmas, or when a well-off relative came to stay.
Every corner shop in Cork — and there were so many of them, providing the daily needs of a cluster of households in each neighbourhood — had its supplies kept specially for the youngest customers.
Canny kids got to know who weighed out the sweets rather too accurately, and who could be relied upon to add an extra titbit after the scales had descended.
Remember the penny toffee bars? One was called the Giftie, another, with peanuts mixed into the rock-hard toffee, was Sailor’s Chew. You broke them in the time-honoured manner by cupping them in the palm of your hand, and knocking them against the corner of a table or, more often, the nearest brick wall.
They were virtually guaranteed to pull out any fillings you might have acquired in junior years, and if you didn’t have any such, the sugar content probably set you well on the way to getting them.
Some shops kept slabs of Cleeve’s toffee, which was definitely a step up from the basic, with a creamier taste. They would break up these slabs and sell you two pieces for a penny. The Peggy’s Leg was slightly softer, but still played havoc with your teeth.
It was a vital part of the commercial trading system that there should be sweets available for every income, whether you only had pennies to spare, or (just imagine it) sixpence.
Thus the prices went up from a penny bar through a twopenny one (there were some small chocolate bars at 2d, but they were not of good quality), threepence, and then the luxury of the Fry’s Cream Bar at 4d.
That Fry’s bar, which still sports its distinctive blue and white wrapper, although now priced at rather more than 4d, is actually the oldest in the history of sweets, being first produced back in 1866. And still going strong, as they say.
My brother Tom remembers being taken into the library by his grandfather when he was very small indeed and given one of these unthought-of luxuries all for himself, from a little locked cabinet on the wall. (Me, I was still in the perambulator and didn’t know what I was missing.)
And then came the considerable economic outlay of 6d, for which you could buy a slab of Cadbury’s chocolate. The price seems to have remained unchanged for generations; so much so, indeed, that a favourite prank of small ‘gurriers’ was to dash into a sweetshop and shout, ‘Hey missus, how much are the sixpenny bars?’ before dashing out again, convulsed with merriment at their own sharp wit.
It wouldn’t do to compare those prices with today’s values — it would only frighten you — but the practice is now apparently rearing its head of keeping the price the same, while reducing the size and weight of the product. So if you think that chocolate bar you just consumed guiltily (well, blame the lockdown) was finished rather sooner than you expected, you weren’t imagining things.
What were those sweets weighed out from tins or jars so long ago? Bullseyes and clove rock. Pear drops, lemon drops, acid drops.
A quarter was the usual purchase, but sometimes the shop would allow two ounces to be bought by good customers. Asking for just an ounce of boiled sweets was asking for trouble.
Smaller amounts than a quarter were usually handed over in a twist of paper rather than wasting a good paper bag on them. (Do you remember ironing paper bags and handing them back to the corner shop? We did.)
Savoy Creams, little fruit-centred chocolates, were a comparatively expensive 7d a quarter. After a year or so, they got foil wrappings representing the specific flavour (green, pink, etc) and the price went up to 8d. That was much resented among the young customers, who felt that having to pay for wrapping which would only be discarded was not playing the game (we are still having to deal with that one, aren’t we?)
Up the scale came the products of Lemon and Co, Ireland’s first major confectionery business, founded in Dublin in the 1840s, and giving employment to thousands of men and women over a century and more. Even Queen Victoria was impressed when she visited in 1853 and they showed her how to make sweets using steam.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern recalls that, in his childhood, workers would sometimes throw broken sweets out the windows to eagerly expectant kids loitering outside.
Lemon’s products were sent all over the country, and they had an advertising campaign which reminded you ‘It’s Saturday. Don’t Forget Your Lemon’s Pure Sweets’.
Remember Lemon’s Luxuries, Romance Assortment, Minuet Selection, Rum & Butter Toffees, Orchard Jellies, and more?
There is an unusual side to the well-chronicled 1916 rebellion which isn’t often mentioned. Looting was inevitable, of course, but some of it was by slum children. The writer James Stephens remembered that sweetshops were a favourite target.
“There is something comical in this looting of sweet shops — something almost innocent and child-like,” he wrote. “Possibly most of the looters are children having the sole gorge of their lives.”
Naturally, Lemon’s shop and factory on O’Connell Street got a thorough going-over. They later received compensation of £630.
But Cork had its own manufacturers. The legend of Hadji Bey in McCurtain Street will live long. Mr Batmazian was a skilled chocolatier as well as creator of superb Turkish Delight, and offered good, thick bars, either coffee or orange flavour, that were supremely satisfying, and nothing like the wafer thin designer products you see in supermarkets today.
Nobody wants to nibble delicately on a bar so thin you can almost see through it. Big chunks are what the chocolate-lover wants.
And across the street, slightly to the west, O’Brien’s ice cream parlour sold the most wonderful range of their own home-made sweets which were made by hand in the factory upstairs.
Edinburgh rock, after-dinner mints, wonderful fudge. The best fudge was orange and chocolate, a layer of each.
My mother was an O’Brien and spent much of her spare time in the days before she married in that factory. She retained a very strong handshake which, she said, came from ‘pulling’ the Edinburgh Rock. This was the technique used to create the rock — you tossed a lump of the stiff gluey mixture over a large hook set in the wall, and pulled it towards you. When it was stretched a foot or two, you took it off, doubled it, and repeated the action. Eventually it reached the right stage for the next step, where it was laid on a cool marble slab in long strands, and cut into shorter lengths.
It might be sold in little boxes of chopped up pieces, or in packages of sticks about five inches in length, and came in pink, yellow, and green.
More friable than the tooth-breaking lettered rock which was available for tourists, it was a very sweet treat. On the shelves of that factory — the scent and magic of the place comes back as I write — they had lovely old rubber moulds once used for making fondant centres for chocolates. Special ‘chocolate forks’ were used for dipping the fondants.
The way the fork was twirled when the coated chocolate was placed on the drying slab denoted its filling. Caramel always had two diagonal lines, a hazelnut a twirl.
And oh, their Easter Eggs, which could be inscribed with an individual child’s name if booked well ahead!
Jim O’Brien would spend weeks up in that factory over the shop, carefully making the egg halves in a special blend of chocolate which would hold the shape firmly, and setting each completed half on one side to harden.
Finally, some sweets were placed inside, and two halves were fitted together, with coloured piped icing, before the child’s name was inscribed on top, all ready for Easter Sunday and the end of Lenten fasting.
Candy floss was something you read about in English storybooks, and didn’t appear here until much later, although it was actually invented, believe it or not, by a U.S. dentist and a confectioner back in 1904.
When it was finally tracked down at a UK seaside resort by this writer, it proved rather disappointing. Nothing to it — it lacked the satisfaction of a good toffee or caramel which could keep you occupied for ages.
Toffee apples appeared in October, coinciding with both the apple harvest and Hallow Een. They were a bit of a lucky dip, since the toffee might be a very thin layer or a thick one, and if it cracked off immediately, you might be left with a distinctly hard and sour apple. But that was part of the game.
Lucky Dips were tuppence and there was the excitement of what gift might be inside.
Sherbet dabs. Liquorice pipes, to match the Sweet Cigarettes which came in little packets, just like the real thing. (What habits were being developed in our young?)
Lucky Balls were lumps of fondant with a bright red coating, which just might contain a threepenny bit. I saw these once in the Outer Hebrides where they were known as Tobermory Tatties. The story there went that after a Spanish treasure ship was wrecked long ago (it was always a Spanish treasure ship), gold pieces would turn up in potato fields.
It is most likely that if any coins were in fact found, they had been brought in with the loads of seaweed used as manure.
What were your favourite sweetshop treats in childhood? Have you tried to find them since? Let us know! Email firstname.lastname@example.org