The town built on chocolate

One Sunday during the spring of 1878, two brothers walked through the English countryside four miles south of Birmingham. For weeks they had been looking for something. As they stood in a plot of rural land stretching 14½ acres, just west of the village of Stirchley, they realised they’d found it.

George and Richard Cadbury were two bearded, sharply-dressed young businessman (they wouldn’t look out of place in Surry Hills today); owners of a chocolate making business on Bridge Street in central Birmingham. They knew they were standing on the perfect site for a brand new factory.

The brothers inherited the business from their father, John Cadbury in 1861. John passed down a set of Quaker values to his sons that he had channelled into the company– trust, honesty, discipline and fair play. Crucially, his sale of tea, coffee and cocoa offered an alternative to alcohol (teetotalism being a key feature of the Quaker lifestyle).

Like their father, George and Richard sought a purer form of cocoa in a market where manufacturers used additives to mask the cocoa’s excess of natural fat. While some retailers of the age adulterated their goods to cut corners (bakers adding chalk and bone ashes to produce the whitest loaves of bread, and butchers dressing rotten meat with the fat of fresh meat), the Cadburys strove for excellence.

In 1866, the brothers launched Cocoa Essence– a new product that had much of the cocoa butter expelled, thanks to a revolutionary new press from the Netherlands. It was the UK’s purest cocoa, and a bigger site was needed to accommodate an increase in demand (the brothers would later be inspired by Swiss manufacturers mixing cocoa with milk; the iconic Dairy Milk chocolate bar arriving in 1905).

But George and Richard Cadbury had a unique vision. Not only did they want a suitable site to build a chocolate factory, but a model village to accommodate their employees. They dreamed of taking their valued workers away from Birmingham’s fug of dirt and smoke to enjoy the benefits of the countryside. As George declared, “It is unreasonable to expect a man to lead a holy, healthy life in a sunless slum.”

And so, as the two brothers stood in the spot of rural Worcestershire not far from Bournbrook Hall, they knew it would be perfect for their revolutionary vision. Not only did it have good transport links to the nearby railway line, but it was green, spacious and surrounded by clean, fresh air. They purchased the land at auction in June 1878, and construction of the factory and first 16 cottages was completed in autumn the following year. They christened their new village ‘Bournville’, after the local Bournbrook stream, adding ‘ville’ (French for ‘town’) for a suitably idyllic touch.

The new factory was a big step into a brighter future–full of large, airy rooms lit by skylights in the roof, with bigger windows for more natural light. There were rooms for roasting, grinding, moulding, storing and packing. Everything was to accommodate the manufacturing and distribution of their chocolate on a grander scale.

And the accompanying semi-detached cottages were a huge improvement on central Birmingham’s overcrowded streets, narrow passageways and back-to-back housing. Each one had front and back gardens with space to grow fruit and vegetables. Behind the houses was an orchard full of apple, plum and cherry trees. And next to the factory was the recreation ground on which Richard and George often partook in a round of cricket with their staff.

By 1895, another 143 cottages were built, each with surrounding gardens. And at the heart of their new town was a village green; a characteristic feature of the English country village, graced with trees, flower beds and winding paths.

The whole scheme represented a monumental shift towards privately purchased land being open to the public, away from exclusive rights gifted to wealthy owners. Richard and George wanted Bournville to stand out as a model village in the literal sense; a template of how to raise the living standards of the impoverished and sick. Today it’s a benchmark for ‘new’ English garden tows that town planners should aspire to emulate.

This is one history lesson that doesn’t tell of gruesome working conditions and corrupt business owners. It was the Cadburys’ fundamental Quaker beliefs that led them to challenge the Victorian era’s poor social welfare and harsh working conditions. These men were not only chocolate makers, but social reformers.

Today, little has changed in Bournville, except for the surrounding land. Bournville’s outskirts have been engulfed by Birmingham’s steady spread of housing estates and corporate buildings, but the town itself still exists as a beautiful country village; a must-visit if you’re ever in the UK. You can stroll down the quaint high street, and past the smart red brick and mock Tudor houses. At the centre of the village green is the charming Rest House and Visitor Centre, selling a range of gifts and local arts & crafts.

Better still is the original Cadbury World, where you can peruse the exhibits and learn about the company’s rich history. An impressive reconstruction of John Cadbury’s original shop is a highlight, along with the slightly bizarre ‘Cadabra’ ride which may remind you of the similarly freakish ride at Duff Gardens in an episode of The Simpsons.

Although Cadbury is now owned by an American company, the factory at Bournville is still active. As part of Cadbury World’s exhibition you can enjoy free samples at the packaging centre and sip on fresh, liquid chocolate at the demonstration area. It’s best to visit in the spring when the bewitching whiff of cocoa butter mingles with the scent of flora in the air as you flop on the recreation ground in a chocolate-induced coma.

What’s certain is that the brothers’ model village is a fairy tale fully realised; a literal representation of hard work, fairness and equality at a crucial turning point in social history. The Cadbury name will continue to echo through history as a name representative of quality, a result of the family’s admirable Quaker beliefs. Bournville’s Quaker meetinghouse in the village green is a fitting reminder of how the town came to be.


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