Maxons’ delightfully-named ‘Headsplitters’ prove that boiled sweets aren’t all about nostalgia.
The historic firm makes a sweet so sour children love to dare their parents to eat one.
Revolting, or delicious, they may be - but there’s no doubt they’re popular.
Headsplitters were in a huge order from Home Bargains at the beginning of the year, which handed Maxons a 20 per cent leap in turnover.
They are just one of a string of innovations creating a sugar rush at the company.
It has resurrected 1920s brand Charles Butler as high-end sweets in fancy packaging, using recipes from 1848. They are going well, particularly in Germany.
And Sweets Peaks are new energy drops and gels for athletes and hikers, which sponsor the Cycling Sheffield team and Sheffield Hallam Triathlon Club.
But nostalgia is still the firm’s sweet spot, according to director Richard Pitchfork.
Yorkshire Mixture, sherbert lemons, acid drops, cola cubes, pineapple chunks, humbugs - for people of a certain age they conjure a jarful of enjoyable memories. And as long as people like sugar it’s likely Maxons will be around to make them.
Richard said: “I really enjoy taking people round the factory, I love the look on their faces. It reminds them we do quite a nice job here.
“The Charles Butler archive of drawings and writing is full of Victorian slang, it’s so authentic. There is a lot of nostalgia in some of our products. Looking back: we have got that in spades.”
For example, who knew fruit drops originally had jam in the middle? The ingredient was dropped during the Second World War and by the time rationing was over people had forgotten about it, Richard says. The Charles Butler range has brought it back.
Maxons has been tucked away between terraced houses on Bradbury Street, Meersbrook, since before the ‘brook’ was culverted. Indeed, it runs underneath the ‘new’ part of the factory today.
Inside, Peter Frost and John Burton are kneading yellow ‘pillows’ of boiled up sugar and glucose before a ladle of sherbert is placed on top. It is quickly folded in and the mixture placed in machine that rolls it into a rope. Machine knives cut it into drops. Elsewhere, stainless steel and copper pans steam gently and a giant tank of glucose has clear ‘icicles’ hanging from a tap.
The firm can trace its roots back to 1885 when Henry Dixon began making sweets and toffees. In 1927 the MacDonald family started making sweets in Bents Green under the name Maxons (Mac and sons). Ralph Pitchfork was a wholesale confectioner. All three came together in the 1950s.
Maxons is still run by the Pitchforks and has a reputation for longstanding employees whose partners, sisters and brothers work there too.
It is such a tight-knit team that the firm switched to a four-day week some years ago, so people were less likely to have time off. The result was 60 per cent less downtime, Richard said.
Yorkshire Mixture is the firm’s best selling product and one worth fighting for. Last year bosses spent thousands on a legal fight over the name after a Leeds rival lodged an exclusivity claim.
Richard said: “It could have threatened the company, it would certainly have cost jobs.”
As for the future - surely these days sugar is bad?
“People know what they are getting with our sweets, there’s nothing hidden. It’s not the big evil for our customers.”
TRADITIONAL SWEETS SOLD AROUND THE WORLD TO “ANYWHERE WITH A BIT OF HISTORY”
“Made in Sheffield is about pride in your city. Sheffield is a great, innovative, manufacturing hub.”
That’s according to Maxons’ boss Richard Pitchfork, proudly continuing a sweetmaking tradition started in 1885.
He added: “Being a licence holder helps us get our name out there. For a little bit of membership we get a lot out of it, it’s very powerful.
“Businesses can be insular, it gives us the chance to speak to people in a similar situation but in a different industry to get ideas.”
The firm sells around the world, “anywhere with a bit of history” such as Bath, York, Australia, New Zealand and Harry Potter World, Orlando, which sells Fizzy Wizzies, naturally.