Friday, July 3, 2020

Pontefract Allsorts: How liquorice got its roots in Pontefract

Liquorice - whether you love or hate the taste, there's no denying the plant has long been synonymous with Pontefract. But how did a middle Eastern herb become embedded in our town's history? We've had a root through our liquorice collection and dug up some treasures. 

Liquorice was probably first brought to Pontefract either by medieval knights returning to the castle from the Crusades, or by the Dominican monks who settled at the neighbouring priory. Pontefract proved to be fertile ground for liquorice, the plant's long roots thriving in the deep loamy local soil. 

Liquorice fields in the Nevison area

Liquorice growing and harvesting in the Friarwood area

A spoonful of sugar

Prized at first for its medicinal properties, liquorice began to be grown across the area. The sap was extracted from the root and used to treat coughs and stomach complaints. By the 1700s, there were liquorice garths springing up all around and even the castle yard was being cultivated. Local chemists, the Dunhill family, rented the land there and used the castle cellars to store their harvested roots. 

It is George Dunhill who is credited with first adding sugar to liquorice to transform the medicine into the sweet delicacy we still know today. He is believed to have pioneered the production and marketing of the now iconic Pontefract Cake as a commercial confectionery.

Handstamp for marking Pontefract Cakes, Dunhills Ltd, early 20th century
A worker stamping Pontefract Cakes at W. R. Wilkinson & Co. Ltd, 1950s

And so Pontefract became inextricably linked with liquorice. By the 1900s, treats made in one of Pontefract's many factories were enjoyed by those with a sweet tooth all around the world. At the industry's height there were 13 factories in the town. The rival companies all produced a wide array of different liquorice variations: 


From 1887 Ewbanks' production was based at the Eagle Liquorice Works in Friarwood. The factory was surrounded by orchards. During the Second World War, Eagle Works suffered bad bomb damage and some production moved to other local companies.



John Hillaby established his Lion Liquorice Works, a four storey steam-powered factory, in 1850. The company grew its own crops and by 1893 had become the largest producer in the world. In 1925 they achieved a further claim to fame, producing the liquorice boot eaten by Charlie Chaplin in the film, Goldrush.

J. H. Addingley & Sons

Baghill Refinery was a three storey building boasting steam-powered machinery, offices, a warehouse and packing room, and mechanics and joinery shops.

W. R. Wilkinson & Co.

Originally started in 1884 at a malt kiln in Southgate, Wilkinson's expanded several times, first to the Britannia Works on Skinner Lane and then again in 1925 to a 'garden factory' in Monkhill, where employees enjoyed workers' housing, tennis courts and allotments, as well as outings to the seaside.

Robinson & Wordsworth

Founded in 1871, the company was based at Victoria Works. In 1893, the recently expanded factory welcomed the curator of Kew Museum, who visited to research liquorice cultivation. Robinson & Wordsworth also had a display at the Kew Botanic Gardens.


Eventually, Pontefract's prolific business began to exhaust the local crops. With supplies struggling to keep up with demand, the firms instead imported liquorice from Turkey and Spain. Liquorice is still affectionately known as Spanish by locals. By the end of the 19th century, most of Pontefract's liquorice fields were gone, although it continued to grow at Stump Cross until the mid 20th century. 

Liquorice growing near Stump Cross Lane in 1960s

Spade for harvesting liquorice root

Liquorice legacy

Over time, Pontefract's confectioners began to close, merge with one another, or be acquired by their larger rivals. Today, there are two producers remaining in the town. The German giant, Haribo, arrived in Pontefract in the 1970s when they first acquired a stake in Dunhills Ltd, the original pioneer of the Pontefract Cake. Tangerine Confectionery's roots in the town can be traced back to W. R. Wilkinson & Co.

Pontefract Museum's liquorice displays, including scales used by liquorice growers in the early 20th century

Wakefield Museums & Castles are very privileged to care for our large liquorice collection. We proudly display a selection of highlights at Pontefract Museum but there is even more to enjoy on our online catalogue - why not have a root around today yourself? Or get your teeth into our liquorice inspired jigsaw: 

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