Was there once opium in London sweets?
During the First World War, Londoners started eating sweets called Army & Navy Paregoric Tablets. These were made by Forest Gate firm Robertson & Woodcock, which later became known as Trebor.
The word ‘paregoric’ referred to a camphorated tincture of opium, famed for its soothing qualities. This became popular among soldiers at the front, just like benzedrine during the Second World War and cannabis during the Vietnam War. And remember, the early Coca Cola – which first arrived in Britain in 1900 – contained actual cocaine. However, Londoners weren’t actually eating opium in these sweets – if you look carefully at the label you’ll see the words ‘So Called’, implying there wasn’t any real opium within it!
At the same time, Londoners started seeing motorised delivery vans for the first time. In 1915, Robertson & Woodcock sold its horses and carts and bought an Overland Car ‘The Pathfinder’ for £400. This was quite a novelty and helped promote the firm’s sweets. However, at the outbreak of war the London County Council was exhorting citizens to be patriotic and curb their desires. DON’T GO TO PICTURE PALACES was one commandment. So was DON’T RIDE IN TRAMS UNNECESSARILY and, worst of all, DON’T EAT SWEETS.
Despite some sugar rationing, London sweet firms still busily served the nation’s sweet tooth. Clarnico in Hackney Wick had long been one of the country’s largest confectioners and it was said that one room in their factory could process 10,000 coconuts in a day. These pages from their accounts give an insight into how they made Crystallized Ginger Squares and Cream Caramels at the height of the war.
And finally, a myth. It was claimed that German aviators dropped poisoned sweets onto the streets of London, where they would be found by children. This was the first time death had come to the capital from the air – there were 2,300 casualties from air raids during WW1 – so some readily believed stories like this despite the lack of evidence found to support it.
Matthew Crampton is the author The Trebor Story, a history of the iconic sweet factory. Join him on Saturday 5th April for the Cityread London family day at Museum of London Docklands, where he’ll be talking to children about wartime humbugs and peace babies (rather than opium and benzedrine)…