Lenton's Chocolate Factory
We now come to the era of Birch House that Lentonians are mostly likely to recall - the twenty or so years when it housed Mitson's chocolate factory.
Leonard Mitson had started making his own confectionery in 1924 and acquired premises at 227, Mansfield Road. Right from the outset he specialised in a range of high-grade chocolates that were well received both by the Nottingham populace and by judges at various trade competitions. As can be seen from the box lid, displayed on the right, his chocolates were awarded some thirty gold medals achieved at both National and International Exhibitions plus numerous diplomas of merit and in those days the medals awarded were real gold. Initially sales were via a shop on the ground floor of the Mansfield Road property but by 1932 a second shop had been opened, namely No.46 Friar Lane. By the time war broke out there were also shops at 58 Long Row, 19a Market Street, Beastmarket Hill and one in St. James Street over in Derby. In the war period the Friar Lane and Derby shops closed, as did Beastmarket Hill but after the war and for a number of years thereafter the public were able to buy Mr Mitson's chocolates from the remaining three shops.
The years of the Second World War and the immediate post-war period must have been difficult times for Mr Mitson while sugar and sweets remained on ration. As a manufacturer who was also a retailer he enthusiastically took up a government concession that permitted customers to purchase chocolates in exchange for their own sugar ration plus a cash adjustment. In this way he gained access to additional supplies of one of his raw materials. You might suppose this wasn't the most propitious time to be acquiring new premises but evidently this thought wasn't shared by Mr Mitson. Round about 1946 he transferred his chocolate factory from Mansfield Road to Birch House, a property he believed to have been built in the reign of Queen Anne. He told a near neighbour that Birch House had cost him £2,700, which sounds an absolute snip by today's prices but doubtless was a fair amount of money at the time.
The painting of Birch House and grounds that decorated the sides of
the Mitson chocolate box. Photograph courtesy of Nottinghamshire
County Library Service.
Mr Mitson's choice of Birch House as a base for his chocolate manufacture (*) might be deemed a little eccentric. Be that as it may the property undoubtedly gave him much pleasure and he was always eager to use it to promote the business. A painting of the house and grounds by Arthur Spooner RA was incorporated into the design on some of his packaging and at one time his publicity seems to have made much emphasis of the fact that the chocolates were 'Made in the Shadow of an Old World Garden'. No-one would suggest that the 'Old World Garden' had a decisive role to play in the manufacture of the chocolates; the statement was a simple reflection of Mr Mitson's pride in his surroundings.
It was the quality of ingredients and the actual formulation of the fillings that were the significant factors in the popularity achieved by Mitson's chocolates. Real fruit juices and purees were added to the fillings; synthetic materials and flavourings were never employed. Spirits and liqueurs such as Demerara rum (120% proof) or peach brandy might also be added to the sugar fondant mixture that provided the base for the creams. With the aid of the appropriate tool, impressions were made in the surface of a layer of cornflour and just the right amount of semi-liquid cream filling was dropped into the cavity. The surface of the filling would harden sufficiently on contact with the cornflour to permit the filling to be lifted out and then dipped into liquid chocolate. The more solid centres such as caramel or fudge were similarly coated in chocolate but it was all done by hand; there was no hint of automation at Birch House.
Leonard Mitson and employee in the packing section at Mansfield Road.
Photo, taken in the 1930s, courtesy of John Mitson.
Four or five people were more or less permanently employed by Mr Mitson at Birch House, though in the run up to Christmas and Easter, the two very busy periods of the year, extra bodies were drafted in to help out. The everyday production of chocolates Mr Mitson largely left to his staff but once the annual batch of Easter eggs began to appear he would sit down and personally decorate each one. The gold medals and diplomas all testified to the veracity of Mr Mitson's assertion that he was an 'artist in chocolate' and this was also borne out by the special commissions, best described as sculptures in chocolate, that he occasionally executed.
One reason Leonard Mitson often had to leave his staff to get on with it was that he was frequently called away on Council business; he was a City councillor for over thirty years. In 1954 he was chosen by the Labour Party to be Sheriff and the following year he became Lord Mayor. Interestingly Mr Mitson didn't start out as a Labour councillor; in 1935 he won Byron Ward for the Conservatives. Ten years later, while still a councillor, a change of political allegiance occurred and Leonard Mitson joined the Labour Party. He retained Byron Ward for Labour but then lost it in May 1950. Six months later Labour selected him as their candidate for a by-election in Manvers Ward, which Mr Mitson won, and he successfully defended the seat thereafter. He served on various committees, was a Traffic Commissioner, President of Nottingham City Labour Party and at one time was a director of Notts County F.C.
Mr Mitson held several Labour Party functions in the grounds of Birch House. Those who attended were able to enjoy a most attractive setting. A lot of time and effort was devoted on the garden, much of it by Mr Mitson himself. There were three large lawns, a fish pond, flower beds, glasshouses, an array of fruit trees, the two magnificent mulberry trees plus mature acacias that provided a welcome source of shade on sunny days. Added exotica included the asparagus bed, grape vine, peach tree, nectarines and a number of beehives. Mr Mitson's chocolates would feature in many a Labour Party tombola but he was equally willing to donate a box of chocolates as a raffle prize to any deserving cause that got in touch with him. The postman brought many other requests for Mr Mitson's products but these were financially more advantageous as Mitsons operated an extensive postal service and received orders from all over the country and even abroad.
Nottingham people continued to purchase Mitson chocolates but not in sufficient quantities to keep all three City centre outlets going. First to disappear was the Mansfield Road shop in the late 1950s, followed soon after by the Market Street premises. The Long Row shop was retained up until April 1968. Customers thereafter were asked to visit Birch House if they wanted to buy further supplies of Mitson chocolates. Clearly Mr Mitson was beginning to run the business down. He was 76 years old and had no obvious successor. His son-in-law, Eric Wilson, who had once worked at Birch House, was now in charge of the confectionery department at Harrods. His own son, John, was a solicitor in East Anglia. In all probability the business would not have continued for very much longer but as it was later that year Leonard Mitson suffered a heart attack from which he died on the 18th of October. Efforts were made to sell the business as a going concern but these were unsuccessful. It was a business whose success depended on the originality and on the high standards of its founder and with his death, the enterprise also died. Once the remaining stock had been sold the business ceased. This meant the end of Lenton's chocolate factory of which so many local people have such sweet memories!
(*) Only the business moved to Birch House, Mr Mitson's own home remained out at Carlton Hill.
We should like to thank Brian Whiley, Kathleen Fletcher and Sally Gregory (all former Mitson employees) plus John Mitson for helping with this article.
These two photographs were in a photo album belonging to the late Mr & Mrs J.E. Isgar who used to live in Jasmine Cottage, the property on Church Street that lay at the southern boundary of the grounds of Birch House. Both undated, they show a relatively young Leonard Mitson in his service uniform and one clearly taken some time later at the wedding of one of his daughters.
Photographs are reproduced courtesy of Peter Wasylko.
If any relatives of Leonard Mitson would like copies of either of these two photographs Peter can supply them with copies of the originals.