In 1909, the Halifax factory of Mackintosh — Britain’s world-famous chocolatiers and makers of the renowned Quality Street assortment — caught fire and was destroyed. It was rebuilt and, in 1912, expanded to begin full-scale chocolate manufacture.

Confectionary historian Penny Thorpe uses this historical incident — and King George VI’s actual visit to Halifax soon after his coronation in 1937 — as the backdrop of The Mothers of Quality Street, which is, in fact, a sequel to her first novel, The Quality Street Girls. One can firmly believe the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’, but it would be difficult to deny that the title of this book would have no influence on lovers of Quality Street chocolates in wanting to read.

Throughout the 20th century, the market town of Halifax had been dominated by the Mackintosh factory, and it was all but understood that the town’s young women aspired to work there upon coming of age. For much of the early 20th century, Mackintosh — like most major manufacturers in Britain — barred married women from being employed as permanent staff on the pretext that they couldn’t fulfil work commitments alongside raising a family. This, Thorpe uses as the subplot.

The Mothers of Quality Street begins when much of the automated manufacturing plant is destroyed following a fire at Christmas, when a car rams into a factory wall while skidding on black ice. This devastating incident, that brings the company to breaking point with little hope for survival, comes at a time when Mackintosh “had come tantalisingly close to running the fastest confectionary line in the world.” To compound matters, the growing anti-English sentiments and separatist movement in Ireland mean that, because of constant sabotage, supply from Mackintosh’s Irish factory is gravely reduced.

In order to keep up production of the Quality Street line, the old factory that made chocolates by hand is reopened and, as an exemption, women who had previously worked on the manual manufacturing lines but retired after they got married, are — much to their delight — brought back in: “These women love their jobs and have relished the chance to come back to work even if it’s only temporary.”

A confectionary historian spins an engaging tale of mystery and feminist progress revolving around a chocolate factory, in a sequel to her first novel

As the marriage bar was the only reason keeping them away, they gladly accept the opportunity to return: “When I’m on the line,” says one, “I’m more myself than I am anywhere else. There is something I’m good at.” Another adds, “It’s like witchcraft, turning sugar powder into toffee gold.” “It’s like being able to do magic,” adds a third.

But just when they’re thinking they will be let off because the Mackintosh company would not “want the King to see that they’re the type of business which employs married women”, to the women’s surprise and happiness, the king’s visit means they’re asked to stay on to work on a new line — the King’s Toffee — being produced to commemorate the royal event: “To celebrate this great occasion we have decided that we will add a new sweet to the Quality Street assortment; we will call it the King’s Toffee; and it will be the finest toffee we have ever made.” This special task needs the expertise of the experienced married ladies. “Help us make history for our town”, they are requested.

The factory is decked out in decorations fit to welcome the king. All the girls from the tour guide department are to dress up as Miss Sweetly, and all the gentlemen from the sales department as Major Quality — the lady and officer pictured on the top of the Quality Street tin.

But just when the development of the King’s Toffee line is in full force, a much-loved senior employee at the factory and a friend are found fighting for their lives, having eaten from a custom ornamental casket of chocolate. The chocolates, with “the king’s coat of arms emblazoned on them”, are found to have been varnished with rat poison.

The story begins with a gripping opening line. “The toffees for the window display had been carefully painted with strong poison.” Hence begins the book’s ‘dramatic irony’, where readers know what’s going on, but the characters don’t. The first chapter narrates how the casket comes to be poisoned, but it is only much later that we find the journey the casket took in reaching the victims.

Following the news of the poisoning, the factory goes into a frenzy trying to find out how and why the chocolates were poisoned, how this exclusive casket — which was thought to have been destroyed — came to be in the victims’ possession and who could have wanted to harm them. Mackintosh’s worries are compounded when, already on the verge of bankruptcy, it must issue a product recall. Moreover, the senior administration is on tenterhooks upon the realisation that the casket is supposed to have had a third tier, which is missing, and can harm whoever is in possession of it.

In the historical note at the end, Thorpe tells us how this is also loosely based on an incident from 1858 — the Bradford sweet poisoning case — when sweet seller William “Humbug Billy” Hardaker inadvertently poisoned 21 people and made himself and 200 customers gravely ill.

Mackintosh is dealing with these crises with the Second World War looming on the horizon and the ongoing trouble in Ireland. The Irish factory’s closure means more and more retired, married women must be brought in to the Halifax factory. Towards the story’s end, Thorpe takes a progressive stance, where she introduces the non-secret, albeit not widely known, solution of the setting up of a small crèche by a junior manager so that married women, whose children are too young to attend school, can return to work.

One such woman is Vicky Gealls, a retired, blind toffeemaker with a baby to look after. When a place for her baby to stay close to her within the factory premises is found, she’s able to return and supervise the development and production of the King’s Toffee for the casket being made to be presented to King George: “We are desperate for workers, and there are skilled workers who are willing to come back to work for us, the only obstacle being someone to care for their children.”

The Mothers of Quality Street has an array of subplots. Several characters with intertwining narratives are introduced at different times and, while their story arcs do not necessarily have a conclusion, Thorpe’s brilliance as a writer comes through in that, despite these loose ends, no arc seems incomplete or unnecessary. The characters are brought in briefly to spin the story ahead without the need to provide any continuity or conclusion. Having said that, one can be forgiven for assuming that some of these may be continued in the sequel that author is working on.

The reviewer is a former member of staff

The Mothers of Quality Street
By Penny Thorpe
HarperCollins, UK
ISBN: 978-0008307806
400pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 9th, 2021

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