Rock: the secrets behind this seaside sweet
PUBLISHED: 10:50 22 August 2017 | UPDATED: 10:50 22 August 2017
Nothing says a day out at the seaside quite like a bright and cheery stick of rock - but what are the secrets behind this enduring symbol of happy holidays by the sea?
It is as much a part of Britain’s traditional seaside resorts as buckets and spades, fish and chips and stripy deckchairs.
The humble yet extraordinary stick of rock is a great feat of confectionery engineering which has delighted both children and adults for generations.
These brightly coloured sugary sticks of joy, with letters running all the way down the centre spelling out all manner of messages, are a souvenir of a happy day at the beach, albeit one which might not last too long once that cellophane is unwrapped and a first bite taken.
Great Yarmouth is still home to one of the few traditional rock makers in the country, where customers can come in to the shop on Regent Road and watch it being made before sampling a huge range of flavours for themselves.
Docwras has been at the heart of the town’s
tourism industry since Victorian times and production has changed little in the 119 years since William Dowcra first opened his rock and sweet factory there.
William’s grandson Stephen Docwra, the company’s salesman and fudgemaker, says that the rock making is a tourist attraction in itself. “People love to see the mystery of how rock is made, especially adding the message through the middle – a skill which can take years to master.
“The start of the summer, when the sun is shining, always feels incredibly special. Some people come back every year. They come in with their grandchildren, just like they would have been brought in by their grandparents generations before and treated to rock. They love the nostalgia; it is a fantastic part of the seaside tradition here in Yarmouth.”
“Rock’s enduring appeal is that is still a fun pocket money-priced treat and souvenir. People still say to holidaymakers ‘bring us back a stick of rock’.”
In its heyday of the 1950s and 60s, the factory employed 140 workers and was making 120,000 sticks of rock for not just Yarmouth and other Norfolk coastal towns, but for resorts around the UK.
“I was here during those real peak times when Great Yarmouth really boomed. There were thousands of people coming here every summer and the town was packed.”
Stephen grew up above the shop and still lives there today and has seen a huge transformation in both his business and the town’s tourism economy.
“I first started working in the shop in 1959, during school holidays as a kid and then as a 15-year-old while doing my ‘O’ levels. I worked in the factory with my brother and a load of friends. I had no intention really of going into it; I was keen to join the army. But my father became ill and I found myself having to step in. I had studied accounting so was very much on the office and management side while my brother looked after production. By the time I was 24 we were running the factory.”
Docwra is now owned by national company John Bull whose main factory is at Bridlington.
“I was determined that only a traditional confectionery maker should buy the business, one which respected those traditions. We are still very much involved; my wife Janet manages the shop and I still make the fudge.”
Docwra’s rock shop still makes 25,000 sticks a week, but – much like the resort itself – it is enjoying a longer season thanks to other year-round markets for which it produces special, personalised sticks, such as corporate events, charity promotions and weddings. Guests receive a stick as a reminder of the big day, the couple’s names and date of the nuptials carefully written with love through the centre.
“Ultimately tastes change, the economy changes and the tourism market is very different now, so we do a lot of personalised rock for special events and different organisations.
“It is a declining industry with challenges, but it is the few good traditional businesses which have remained. The largest confectionery retailer in the country was Woolworths and it had a huge impact when it disappeared, so we have very much had to adapt with the times.”
How is rock made?
A two-to-one mix of sugar and glucose is boiled to nearly 150 degrees (300 degrees F) before being poured on to water-cooled steel plates.
Coloured elements – including the outer casing and lettering – are created using food colouring.
The cooling mix forms a skin so it can be cut with shears.
Part of the mix is aerated by a ‘pulling machine’ with fixed and rotating arms to create a white centre from a creamy mix.
Lettering skills – cutting shapes spaced by white fill – take years to master. Round characters are made last because they lose their shape more easily.
The completed wording is rolled around a stiffened centre and the casing added before the thick stick is reduced in size using tapered rollers which are heated to keep the mix workable.
Once set, the rock is cut into short lengths and wrapped, with a landmark picture, inside clear plastic.
- The first sugar canes – in effect mini sticks of rock - were exactly that, little strips of raw sugar cane cut straight from the field and given to children to suck.
- There are conflicting theories about the invention of seaside rock. It was first offered at fairgrounds in the 19th century as a treat, though in a simpler form without lettering or flamboyant designs.
- It is believed then that either ex-minor Ben Bullock or a character known as Dynamite Dick first took the idea from the fairgrounds and embellished the sticks of rocks with lettering and bright colours at some time in the 1880s. Whoever came first, the idea took off instantly, initially in Blackpool, before spreading around the coast.
- It was an affordable seaside treat in resorts which were very much for the working classes and it still remains a cheap sweet treat today, with the price for a stick of rock in pence not pounds.
- In 1956 Docwra moved its rock and sweet factory from Middlegate to South Denes. The factory finally closed in 1985.
- The Regent Road factory shop opened in 1922.
- Great Yarmouth rock was once sold by Woolworth stores in coastal towns across the UK and was a corporate marketing “sweetener” for major clients including Birds Eye, BBC and the Electoral Commission.
- There used to be five rock factories in Great Yarmouth alone. Now there are just a handful across the country.
- Cheeky 1930s singer George Formby, who had a home on the Norfolk Broads, had a hit With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock.
- The recipe is not much different from that of a classic boiled sweet – just sugar and glucose. But after it has cooled slightly, the mixture is repeatedly worked until it takes on a white, cloudy appearance.