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date: 11 November 2019

Thornton, Normanfree

(1896–1984)
  • Anne Pimlott Baker

Thornton, Norman (1896–1984), confectionery manufacturer, was born on 6 November 1896 in Sheffield, the eldest son in the family of four sons and one daughter of Joseph William Thornton (1870–1919), commercial traveller, and his wife, Kate Elizabeth, née Hinsby (b. 1873). He left Sheffield grammar school in 1911 when his father opened a sweet shop at 159 Norfolk Street, Sheffield, leaving Norman, then aged fourteen, to run it, while he continued to work as a travelling salesman for the Don Confectionery Company. This shop brought in £20 a week, enabling him to open a second shop in 1913, on The Moor, and the family moved to live over the shop, hand-rolling sweets, boiling mint rock over a gas fire in the basement, and hand-dipping violet creams, although most of the confectionery sold in the early days was bought in. Norman took over the business on his father's death in 1919, opened two more sweet shops—Chocolate Kabins—and took over a fruit business. In 1921 he was joined by his brother Stanley [see below], forming a private limited company, J. W. Thornton Ltd, with Norman as chairman. He married Muriel, daughter of Joseph Illingworth, engraver of silver and Sheffield plate, in 1928: they had three sons and one daughter.

Norman concentrated on the retailing side of the business, opening the first Thorntons shop outside Sheffield, in Rotherham, in 1928, and increasing the number of shops to thirty-five by 1939. As the business grew, it was no longer possible to make all the confectionery, including the handmade luxury chocolates, on the premises, and in 1927 the brothers moved production to a small factory in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield. It was at this time that Norman Thornton had the idea of icing customers' names on to Easter eggs, an idea which proved very successful. They moved to a bigger plant in 1931, and again in 1935, to a purpose-built factory in the Millhouses area of Sheffield, which was to be their headquarters until the 1980s.

Expansion stopped with the outbreak of the Second World War, and although the Thorntons factory was not bombed, toffee production was transferred to a small factory in Bury, and continued throughout the war. Refused permission to extend the factory after the war, because of the shortage of building materials, Thorntons bought Castle Factory, near Belper, in Derbyshire, an old mill which had been used by Rolls-Royce to store aircraft engines during the war, and before that had been a music-hall, and in 1947 began to manufacture boiled sweets there. With the end of sweet rationing in 1952, the firm began to expand again: in 1954 the Swiss confiseur Walter Willen joined the company to develop Swiss chocolates known as the Continental range, and the sons of Norman and Stanley Thornton joined the business during the 1950s. Following rapid expansion in the 1960s, with Thorntons winning many international awards, Norman Thornton retired in 1971. He died on 3 November 1984 at his home in Sheffield. His funeral was held on 9 November at Ecclesall church.

(Joseph) Stanley Thornton (1903–1992), the second son of Joseph William Thornton, was born on 5 September 1903 in Sheffield, and educated at Sheffield grammar school. He won a scholarship to Sheffield University, but decided to work in the family business during the day, and study food technology, in particular confectionery making, in the evenings. While Norman Thornton ran the shops, Stanley concentrated on the production side of the business. In 1925, after a year of experimenting on his kitchen stove with different combinations of butter, milk, and sugar, he created the recipe for Thorntons' Special Toffee, which for a long time was their most famous and successful product. He married Jeanetta (d. 1982), daughter of George Jamieson, boot and shoe retailer, in 1932: they had six children, including one son, Michael, who joined the company in 1956 and later became deputy chairman.

After working closely with Norman Thornton from the beginning, Stanley Thornton became chairman of the company in 1971, and company president in 1982. Despite problems in the chocolate confectionery industry in the 1970s, with wild swings in the price of cocoa beans, Thorntons continued to open new shops, including two in Scotland, and to develop new lines—ice cream was introduced in 1983. A large new plant, Thornton Park, on a 65 acre site at Swanwick, near Alfreton, in Derbyshire, was opened in 1985, to enable the business, for so long concentrated in the north, to expand into the south of England. An attempt to open a chain of shops in the United States in the 1980s, starting in 1982 with two shops in Chicago, was unsuccessful, but in France the company owned over fifty shops, and there was a large international mail order service. By 1988 Thorntons had over 1500 employees in the United Kingdom, over 200 shops, and 92 franchises, and increasing sales to corporate customers: 8½ per cent of sales in 1988 were to Marks and Spencer. The annual turnover in 1988 was £46 million. They no longer made the raw chocolate themselves—this was made to Thorntons' specifications by Cadburys in Birmingham, and by a Belgian supplier.

In 1988, when the company was floated on the stock exchange, valued at £78.6 million, the shares were eight times oversubscribed. 73 per cent of the shares were retained by members of the family, to avoid take-over, as had happened to Rowntree Mackintosh, taken over by Nestlé in 1988. Stanley Thornton became life president of the new company, Thorntons plc. After seventy-seven years, the link with Sheffield was broken, when the Millhouses factory was closed, concentrating chocolate production at Thornton Park, and toffee and ice cream at Belper. Thorntons remained a family business. Its share of the chocolate and confectionery markets was tiny compared with that of firms such as Cadburys and Frys—even in the Christmas chocolate sector Thorntons had only 6 per cent of the market in 1988—but it had built up a reputation for high-quality, luxury chocolates, sweets, and toffee, made to traditional recipes. Thorntons was unusual in operating as both manufacturer and retailer, selling as well as making its own confectionery. By the time of Stanley Thornton's death, on 27 February 1992, at the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, Derby, the company was embarking on a new expansion drive. Stanley Thornton's ashes were interred at Winster church, Derbyshire, on 5 March, after a funeral in Derby Cathedral.

Sources

  • J. W. Thornton Ltd, Thorntons, 1911–1981: the history of a family firm (1981)
  • T. Potter, The British confectionery industry (1980)
  • D. Edwards, Confectionery in the UK (1989)
  • D. Whyatt, ‘Derbyshire enterprises: Thorntons’, Derbyshire Life and Countryside (1982)
  • S. Allen, ‘Sweet success’, The Spectator [Sheffield] (Feb 1980)
  • Sheffield Star (5 Oct 1982)
  • Sheffield Star (4 Nov 1982)
  • Sheffield Star (9 Nov 1982)
  • Sheffield Star (5 Nov 1984)
  • Sheffield Star (9 May 1988)
  • Sheffield Star (10 May 1988)
  • Sheffield Star (27 May 1988)
  • Sheffield Star (28 May 1988)
  • Sheffield Star (6 June 1990)
  • Morning Telegraph [Sheffield] (16 Sept 1983)
  • Morning Telegraph [Sheffield] (10 March 1982)
  • Morning Telegraph [Sheffield] (6 Oct 1982)
  • Morning Telegraph [Sheffield] (10 Nov 1982)
  • The Times (6 May 1988)
  • ‘The sweet taste of success’, Derbyshire County Magazine (Nov 1980)
  • The Times (10 Nov 1984)
  • The Times (2 March 1992) [Stanley Thornton]
  • Ashbourne News Telegraph (5 March 1992) [Stanley Thornton]
  • private information (2004) [John Thornton and Michael Thornton]

Likenesses

  • photograph (Joseph Stanley Thornton), repro. in The Times (2 March 1992)
  • portrait, Thorntons plc, Thornton Park, Somercotes, Derby
  • portrait (Joseph Stanley Thornton), Thorntons plc, Thornton Park, Somercotes, Derby

Wealth at Death

£593,764: Sheffield Star 8 Feb 1985