Memories of Sunderland’s Mayfair Confectionary factories

INSIDE VIEW: The Mayfair factory - with Jessie's mother, Jessie Oscarine Charlton, pictured second from left.
INSIDE VIEW: The Mayfair factory - with Jessie's mother, Jessie Oscarine Charlton, pictured second from left.
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Around a dozen photos featuring Mayfair Confectionary Company staff in the 1920s form the latest addition to the archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“The images were donated by Jessie Barnes, whose mother Jessie Charlton and other relatives used to work for the Mayfair firm,” said society member Bill Hawkins.

“The collection is a wonderful addition to our archives and absolutely fascinating too. It is rare to come across so many behind-the-scenes shots of factory life.”

Mayfair Confectionary Company – a firm beloved by generations of sweet-toothed Wearsiders – came into existence quite by accident in the early 20th century.

“It all started when South Shields man Harry Randall lost an eye while working in the shipyards – which unfortunately led to him losing his job as well,” said Bill.

“But he was still a young man at the time, and he used his £60 compensation to start a confectionery firm – opening two shops in Shields and another in Wallsend.”

Business was soon booming and, as the Great Depression gripped the rest of Britain, Harry opened two new factories in Sunderland – at Low Row and Durham Road.

“He became known to all as the Toffee King, and his sweets flew off the shelves of confectionary shops for more than three decades. Everyone loved them,” said Bill.

“My favourites were the toffees – the taste was unique. I often took a bag into school, even though it was against the rules. I’d get told off – but it was worth it!”

Indeed, such was the success of the Mayfair brand that the Echo devoted a full page to the company in May 1927, when the “fine new factory” in Low Row was opened.

“Everybody has a sweet tooth, and there is a great competition among manufacturers to supply demand. No firm has come to the front quicker than Mayfair,” it stated.

The new factory, which was designed by Empire Theatre architects W and TR Milburn, boasted high-tech ‘toffee trade equipment’ and employed 170 workers.

“It is recognised by experts in the toffee trade to be one of the most up-to-date factories in the country,” Mayfair’s unnamed managing director told the Echo.

The hard-working staff produced 50 tons of toffee a week back in 1927 – from which over seven million individually wrapped sweets were made.

Thousands of yards of specially prepared waxed paper, printed with the Mayfair name, were used each day – and the sweets were then shipped across the British Isles.

“Our motto is to ascertain what the public want and then provide it. Profit must be secondary to the perfection of the article,” added the managing director.

“There must be a ‘pair of smiling lips’ to every sweetmeat passed out to the public.”

Even the onset of the Second World War in 1939 failed to stop production – although Wearsiders found their access to the sweet treats severely restricted due to rationing.

And one of Hitler’s bombs even hit the Durham Road factory in 1943 – bringing a “moment of pure joy” for local youngsters, if not for the frightened factory workers.

“I still remember hordes of children picking up handfuls of sweets from the debris. What a treat for us!” said George Whittle, then a pupil at Chester Road School.

“We were told off by the teachers for being late for school – but bribed them with boiled sweets and toffees – which were still on ration at the time.

“I still recall one of the teachers, a Mr Hunter, saying we hadn’t stolen them, just borrowed them! I don’t think any of the sweets were ever given back, though.”

Sadly, a lack of profit finally saw Mayfair close its doors in July 1956. Around 250 workers lost their jobs when production was switched to Glasgow.

“Mayfair was one of the best-loved firms in Sunderland – especially by kids,” said Bill. “It is wonderful the name can once again be remembered through these photos.”