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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Norwich Christmas Cracker industry

The Christmas Cracker Industry in Norwich


Over the years, there have been numerous Christmas cracker manufacturers but none has been more famous or had more influence on the cracker industry since its early beginnings than Tom Smith's during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  For many, Tom Smith was the Christmas cracker and the Christmas cracker was Tom Smith with many newspapers and publications of the day around the country attesting to this. Its London roots however, at 65-69 Wilson St. Finsbury Square  were well and truly left behind when it relocated to Norwich in 1953 to merge with Caley Crackers who were based at the "FLEUR DE LYS" works in the city  -  now sadly converted to a shopping mall.

Sir Alfred Munnings

In the early days of Caley cracker production, many box designs featured graphics produced by a young Alfred J. Munnings (later Sir Alfred) - an East Anglian artist A (1878 - 1959) - who at the beginning of his career, worked as a designer for the Norwich printers of Page Bros and went on to become so internationally celebrated in later years. Munnings had been apprenticed to Page Bros. in 1891-2 with his father paying a £40 premium. He worked his way up among the six artists in the "Artists Room"- who helped him learn his trade including of course all that was involved in the preparation of the chromolithographic process which was capable of producing such superb printing. The basic hours were pretty long - 9a.m. - 7p.m. - and his talents meant Munnings was often overloaded with work. One of his designs won him a gold medal in a London poster competition and he produced brilliant design ideas for many different types of products including lemonade, chocolates, Colman's mustard, whisky, pills and of course Caley Christmas crackers.

There were times when he had extra special successes and one in particular was a poster for Caley crackers featuring - 'Elizabethan 'prentice boys in red running up a street in the snow.' This early twentieth century piece of his work finished up on many hoardings all over London. G He recalled 'How happy I was when I had a new batch of cracker boxes to do,' and his enthusiasm was well reflected in one truly beautiful design that was featured on a poster and depicted goblins, pixies and a spider with a web. Other fine pieces of work by the great man which still survive today are the wonderful  and well known "Queen of Hearts," "Friar of Orders Grey," "Jack and the Giant Killer," "Young and Old," and Caley's "Christmas Pudding" crackers featuring, as the name suggests, an enormous Christmas pudding! Indeed, it is still possible to see proofs of his work at the Norwich Castle museum on which he had pencilled such critical remarks as 'Not my lettering' and 'Not my colours.'

At an early stage his work came to the attention of Mr John Shaw Hopkins, a director of Caley's who greatly encouraged him, became a regular patron and took him on many trips to the Continent. On his first visit abroad at the age of eighteen he was taken to the 1900 Leipzig Fair (via The Hague, Amsterdam and Berlin) where A. J. Caley had a trade stand and where he was required to paint and design posters on the spot, some of which could well have been to advertise and promote the company's products including possibly crackers? 

The Origins of Caley's

Caley's itself had originally been formed by Alfred Jarman  Caley - a chemist who came to Norwich in 1857 and operated from premises in London Street.  By 1863, he was producing his mineral waters as a profitable side line.  His business expanded greatly with the addition of chocolate and ice-cream to his product range, necessitating a move to Bedford Street close by.  The year 1890 saw the company starting to operate from an ever-expanding factory at Chapel Field, which became known for some reason as the Fleur De Lys works. I

Around 1898, some three years after A J Caley's death, (Caley himself having retired from the business in 1894) his son Edward and nephew Frederick, both directors of the company, added Christmas crackers to the company's product range; a product which became a more than useful part of the business. Caley's, although not on a par with Tom Smith's, were no mean operators in the industry and regularly supplied crackers to such far flung markets as France, Africa, Egypt, Australia, Canada, India, China, Japan and even, if surprisingly, to Iceland!

In 1904, the Caley company was employing some 700 people to produce all its various products (including crackers) and carried on in the family's hands until 1918 when it was sold to the African and Eastern Trading Corporation. But the company was over capitalised and the new owners spent nearly a decade trying to off load it, which they finally managed in 1932 when Harold Mackintosh (subsequently in 1935 - Lord Mackintosh) acquired the company for the sum (it is said) of £138,000. Despite this further change of ownership, the company's cracker making arm continued to trade under the Caley name until the merger with Tom Smith's in 1953, when the cracker side of the business ceased to be known by that name. C, D, E, F.

The Tom Smith Company

Tom Smith's, prior to that merger with Caleys, (themselves now owned by Mackintosh), were wholly owned by Clarke Nickolls & Coombs better known as 'CLARNICO' of confectionery fame, who had acquired the company in around 1921 at which point it seems that the Smith family severed any of its remaining links with the company Tom had founded seventy four years before. Today, any connection with the original Smith family is purely in the use of the brand name by its present owners.

A Cracking Merger

The story of the merger between Caley's and Tom Smith's is basically as follows. As we have touched on before, the Second World War had meant that both companies had to cease cracker production for the duration but a few years after hostilities had ended, Mr Eric Mackintosh of Mackintosh's (by now owners of Caley's and who themselves had started toffee production in Halifax in 1870) and Mr G.W. Morrison chairman of Smith's agreed in principal to merge. It was also agreed that the new joint company would operate under the name of Tom Smith's and likewise be based in Norwich. The site chosen for the new factory was at Salhouse Road and was purchased in around 1951 from the world renowned firm of Colman's (of mustard fame), during whose ownership it had been a mustard warehouse and prior to that, an aircraft hangar in the First World War.

As a confectionery trading name, Caley's had pretty much ceased in overall terms when the company had been taken over by another confectionery  maker, Mackintosh's of Halifax in 1932 although the Caley crackers brand continued. However, following subsequent takeovers by first, Rowntree, and then by Nestle (who finally completely closed the Norwich factory in the late 1990's with the loss of some 900 jobs in a city that could ill afford it) the Caley confectionery name was once again resurrected by several of the now to be redundant staff who, albeit on a smaller scale continued to produce fine chocolate in Norwich. Sadly, the current owners of the Caley brand name did not re-introduce the original and respected Caley crackers which is a pity in my book as, in marketing terms there is still a lasting recognition of the Caley name in Norwich and Norfolk.

Learning the Ropes

In the years leading up to the Second World War, Caley's, as far as cracker making was concerned, had never really done themselves any favours in that their brochures, which  were very poor efforts indeed, and although featuring much excellent design work of the period, were portrayed to a standard which did their cause no good whatsoever. They did, however, redeem themselves very slightly in 1930 with a catalogue that featured a harlequin and ballerina cover design and that offered fine products such as Quaint Dutch, Owl, Ice Carnival and Boy Blue crackers.  Similarly in 1939 there was a another cover which featured a jesters' stick with a smaller jester's head on the end, interwoven into the Caley logo, and which is a really superb piece of graphic design. The contents of this particular issue was, perhaps not unsurprisingly by this time, fairly similar to some of Smith's better efforts (Caley's were obviously learning!) and some of the product graphics that particularly stand out are Revelry, Zuyder Zee, Jolly Tar and with Starlight and Jewels.

The problem of poor quality sales catalogues was one that seemed to afflict most of Tom Smith's competitors, with just about all of them being rather poor affairs with little finesse.  Thus, in my opinion, the best and longest-standing cracker company had the best publicity material by far and in the particular area of sales brochures, Smith's knocked them all into a cocked hat!

The Storm Clouds Gather

During the mid 1980's the company was subject to a management buyout, from which point the storm clouds inexorably started to gather.

At that time and towards the latter part of that decade while I was with the company, Tom Smith's employed in the region of 500 staff (including outworkers) split between Norwich and its subsidiary in Stockport, which had been set up in the 1950s. Between them, they were responsible for the amazing annual production of some 50 million individual crackers year - roughly one per person across the entire nation!  While many of the more expensive crackers and table decorations were still made by hand, the company also possessed two automatic cracker-making machines (automatic tying machines - ATM's), commonly accepted to be the only ones of their type at the time that could each produce nearly forty crackers of modest quality per minute.

The End of the road in Norwich

Unfortunately, the company struggled for some years in the 1990s and in 1996 was taken over by Guinness Mahon & Co who installed a new management team.  A couple more years, which saw the loss of the large Danson order in Canada and the even more telling loss of the large annual Sainsbury's order in the UK, proved almost certainly to be one of the final nails in the corporate coffin.  Shortly thereafter, the company went into liquidation, with what was left, including the Tom Smith brand name, becoming part of the Napier Industries group of Rickmansworth, England. In December 2002, with funding by private equity firm Graphite Capital, a £25m management buyout was enabled.  (Sunday Times - December 2002).

In yet another twist of its commercial fate with the Tom Smith's brand name seemingly having undergone something of a metamorphosis in its fortunes for the better as part of Napier, it surprisingly changed hands yet again when Napier similarly also ceased to trade.

Happily today, following all the various upheavals of the last twenty years, the Tom Smith brand name continues to flourish under its new owners (International Greetings) although, for certain, the company is still greatly missed by many folk in the city of Norwich with whom it had a happy association for nearly fifty years.  

 © 2013 Peter Kimpton  - Peter has lived in Norwich since 1946 and is the world's only Christmas cracker historian.

September 2013