Neither the chicken nor the egg (PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

April 7, 2023   6 mins

Britain’s first chocolate Easter egg was sold 150 years ago this year, by the chocolatier, Joseph Fry. It was hollow and filled with sweets. Whether Fry’s primary interest was in the egg as a Christian symbol, or whether the creation of a hollow egg was a means of showing off the new technique he had developed for moulding chocolate is, well, a chicken and egg question.

But Fry was undoubtedly a devout Christian of the Quaker variety, as were the other two of the big three British chocolatiers, the Cadburys and the Rowntrees, all of whom were directed towards manufacturing through being barred from most professions. They were drawn to chocolate in particular because they regarded it as a more moral treat, and that was how it was widely perceived: an innocent indulgence, supplied by men whose Quaker conscience dictated that they combine its manufacture with good works. In a wider sense, we might see that Fry’s egg as symbolising a strain of particularly moral — indeed, overtly Christian — capitalism, operating paternalistically both in its own workplaces and the surrounding community. The story of these eggs, and the companies that made them, therefore forms a simulacrum for the narrative of Britain since the Industrial Revolution, and the transition from local, civic-minded commerce toward globalised, faceless big business.   

I grew up in Seventies York, upon which the Rowntrees had been showering gifts for nearly a century. The primary benefactor had been Joseph Rowntree II, heir to the first Joseph Rowntree, who’d established the business in 1822. In 1893, JR II established Rowntree’s garden factory in York, whose 4,000 employees benefited from a female welfare worker, a doctor’s surgery, sick and provident funds, savings and pensions schemes. Nearby was — and is — New Earwsick, a model village for employees with pretty Arts and Crafts houses, each with a fruit tree in the front garden, and no two successive trees bore the same fruit, to promote crop-swapping and neighbourliness. There was a toytown air about the signs indicating “Butcher”, “Greengrocer”, ”Chemist”. No sign indicated “pub” of course.

Several members of my extended family worked for Rowntree’s, and they were entitled to heavily discounted chocolate, some of which came my way, and my mother always included a Kit-Kat in my packed lunch, a token of love from her, and (it seemed) the Rowntrees themselves. One could still almost believe that their primary concern was philanthropy and the creation of charitable trusts, while they left the chocolate making to secular subordinates.

I benefited in many ways from Rowntree largesse, playing tennis and swimming in Rowntree Park, acting in plays at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre and swotting for exams in York Library, which they’d funded. I never went inside the factory but did once visit its equivalent in the Midlands: Cadbury’s Bournville complex. This too is a garden factory, with a similarly relaxed spaciousness between the buildings, like pieces on a chess board towards the end of a game. I recall seeing, among many other tokens of paternalism, the factory dentist’s surgery, indicated by a sign in Cadbury’s purple. At the time (early 2000s) Cadbury’s seemed to have retained the “purity” (a word much employed in their advertising) we appeared to have lost in York.

Rowntree’s was acquired by NestlĂ© in 1988, and I remember being shocked at seeing the Swiss flag flying from the factory roof. NestlĂ© have since invested heavily in the York factory, but they admit that they don’t continue the Rowntree tradition of York benefactions, and the extent of their wider philanthropy is mysterious to me. A spokesperson for the firm said: “We don’t necessarily PR our charitable work.”

In 2010, Cadbury’s, which does still support the charitable Cadbury Foundation, was sold to the America-based multinational, Kraft, and is now owned by Mondelez, a company hived off from Kraft in 2012. In York, we knew all about Kraft. It had acquired the other York chocolatier, Terry’s, who were not Quakers, but whose factory — closed by Kraft in 1993 — nonetheless had a fishpond, bowling green and sports fields, and whose female hockey team played in the colours of one of their best-known brands: All Gold.

But even before British Big Chocolate entered a world you’d need a degree in business studies to comprehend, the companies had not been averse to capitalistic chess playing. In 1919, Cadbury’s had (gently and politely) acquired Fry’s, and in 1969, Cadbury’s merged with Schweppes, despite Schweppes mixers being used in alcoholic drinks. In his history of 20th-century confectionery, Sweet Talk, Nicholas Whittaker refutes the sentimental version of the Rowntree’s takeover, whereby NestlĂ© was seen as a bully spoiling for a fight: “Who should it be? Cadbury’s looked a bit too muscular, and that Mars was a Yankee smartarse. How about that Rowntree’s wimp in the corner, happily counting his Smarties? He’d do.” On the contrary, as Whittaker writes, it was “all about percentages, shareholdings and wheeler-dealing”.

The Quakers had also been worldly enough to embrace advertising even though, as Deborah Cadbury writes in her 2010 book, Chocolate Wars: “Advertising one’s goods was like advertising oneself; abhorrent to a man of God.” The heyday of chocolate advertising was in the Sixties and Seventies, and some of it was particularly un-Quaker like (the way those fashion models ate a Cadbury’s Flake, for instance). And whereas Cadbury and Rowntree’s benignity on the home front was unquestionable, they took their eye off the ball when it came to the cocoa-producing regions.

In 2021, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Barrow Cadbury Trust — created in 1920, and now an independent charitable trust “inspired by Quaker beliefs” — apologised for the fact that their endowment was “not free from labour exploitation”. In the early 19th Century, Cadbury’s had acquired cocoa from plantations where slave labour had been used. The company eventually organised a boycott of those plantations by British cocoa manufacturers, but they had benefited from slave labour for eight years. Also in 2021, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust — established in 1904, and now “an independent Quaker charitable trust” — apologised for the “Rowntree company having purchased cocoa and other goods produced by enslaved people”.

Cocoa production is still bedevilled by labour exploitation, which is one reason why the Fairtrade label (imprimatur of the Fairtrade movement) was established in 1997. It is applied to goods produced ethically, for which a fair price had been paid. Neither Mondelez nor NestlĂ© are currently signed up to Fairtrade, although both have their own schemes of certification: Cocoa Life and Rainforest Alliance respectively. Cocoa Life operates in partnership with Fairtrade but neither it nor Rainforest Alliance guarantees a minimum price to cocoa farmers, which Fairtrade does. In 2009, Nestle’s Kit-Kat did become Fairtrade-registered, a momentous event, given the scale of Kit-Kat sales, but in 2020, NestlĂ© moved Kit-Kat into its Rainforest Alliance scheme. (NestlĂ© insisted this was about unifying all their products under one umbrella and not a moneysaving measure. But Joanna Pollard, a co-ordinator of Fairtrade Yorkshire contended that cocoa farmers would lose out heavily, and she presented a petition of protest with 300,000 signatures at their York factory.)

It tends to be only the smaller players who can now claim the moral high ground, a reversal of the previous situation. Tony’s Chocolonely (“crazy about chocolate, serious about people”) was founded in 2005 by a Dutch TV producer, Tuen van de Keuken, whose chocolate bars have irregular divisions, like crazy paving, to reflect the inequalities of the chocolate industry. The “lonely” tag is because van de Keuken felt as if he alone were addressing exploitation in chocolate farming, but the company’s moral claims go only so far. Chocolonely has never claimed there is no child labour in its supply chain, which is just as well, since, in 2022, the company reported that 1,701 instances of it had been found in the previous year — a situation it has undertaken to correct.

So there remains a moral dimension to the chocolate industry, albeit now a globalised one, and there is a new moral fraughtness, concerning our view of both its past and its social effects today. To the question of modern slavery, we might add the British obesity crisis that has come along to embarrass the chocolatiers. And in the modern age, there is even an anxiety about the nomenclature of their seasonal eggs. In one sense the creation of the chocolate egg pushed Easter in the child-oriented, secularised direction that Christmas had already begun to take in the Victorian period. (Decorated hard-boiled eggs had previously been given to the local poor rather than one’s own offspring.) While the Easter chocolate can be viewed as a Christian symbol, it is increasingly not so perceived.

In 2010, David Marshall crowdfunded the launch of the Meaningful Chocolate Company, having been given an Easter egg whose packaging proclaimed, “Easter is the festival of chocolate and loveliness.” Surveying the 80 million eggs on sale, he concluded that not a single manufacturer mentioned the religious aspect of the festival, hence his “Real Easter Egg”, which comes with a copy of the Easter story, is Fairtrade certified, and from the profits of which a donation is made to charity. By Easter 2023, 1.8 million of these eggs will have been sold, and without the aid of the supermarkets, who won’t stock an explicitly religious egg. Having spoken to Mr Marshall, I visited my local Sainsbury’s. About half the chocolate eggs on display were described as “Easter eggs”, but the E-word tended to be on the back of the package in small print rather than blazoned the front.

The Quaker capitalism behind Fry’s Easter egg has become shareholder capitalism. In a globalised world, the chocolate industry grew too big for a connection to any one place or system of belief, unless it be the belief in profit. In decades past, guided tours of the Rowntree factory were regularly offered to the general public. But, a few years ago, when I applied to NestlĂ© for a tour, they turned me down on the grounds that if they let me in, they’d be overwhelmed with other applicants.

And Quakerism itself is a faith in decline. As Deborah Cadbury writes “there was a time when one in 10 people in Britain were Quakers”, but when she visited Quaker HQ, the Society of Friends on Euston Road, she discovered that membership was down to 15,000. As Quakerism and Christianity has faded from the world of British chocolate, a very familiar modern landscape has replaced it: a transition from the solidity and faith of the past towards a liquid, rootless, profit-maximising present.

Andrew Martin is a journalist and novelist. His latest book is Yorkshire: There and Back.