A Trip to Toffee Town

All around the world there is one tin of treats that is a sure favourite. Whether its opened after dinner on Christmas day, given as a gift for a special occasion, or waiting in the cupboard for someone to fancy something sweet, there is nothing better than a colourful tin of Quality Street.

The famous selection of toffees and chocolates was the creation of Mackintosh, a Halifax based company which became a global sensation for their famous toffee recipe. Founded in 1890, the company grew from strength to strength over the twentieth century and put Halifax on the map as the undisputed ‘Toffee Town’.

Although the factory is now run by Nestle, Quality Street is still made to this day in the centre of Halifax, and the legacy of Mackintosh lives on in Toffee Town. Come with us on a trip through the sweet story of Mackintosh and Quality Street.

John & Violet Mackintosh

John Mackintosh was born on 7th July 1868 in Dunkinfield, Cheshire. His father Joseph was a cotton spinner and moved the family to Halifax to take up the position of foreman at Bowman Brothers cotton mill, which was managed by his brother John. His mother, Mary Jane was a teacher and began her new position at the Methodist New Connexion Sunday School on Queen’s Road in the town.

By the age of 10, Mackintosh was working as a ‘half-timer’ at the Bowman Brother’s mill alongside his father and uncle. By 1881, at the age of only 13, the young Mackintosh was employed full time in the mill, working on doubling machines twisting yarn into thread for use in the textile industry that was booming in Halifax.

The Mackintosh family were very active in the Queen’s Road Methodist congregation and it was here in 1890 that John met Violet Taylor and the two were married.

Violet was born in Halifax in April 1865 and was the daughter of John Taylor, a carpet weaver, and his wife Betsy. Violet had three sisters, Emily, Sarah and Louisa and the family lived at no 28 Alabama Street, Halifax before moving to nearby Aspinall Street. Both of these houses were located just off Queen’s Road and near to the Methodist Chapel where Violet would later meet John Mackintosh.

At the age of 15 Violet was working as a worsted spinner alongside her sisters Emily and Sarah, although it is likely she would have already been working for a few years at this point. Soon after this, she became a confectioners assistant and developed many skills in the making and selling of sweet treats for the people of Halifax.

Image: Photograph of John and Violet Mackintosh on their wedding day.

After their marriage, John and Violet combined their hard-earned savings of £100 to open a pastry shop at 53 King Cross Lane, Halifax. Violet used her skills and experience to run the business while John continued in his position at Bowman Brothers. Violet would prepare cakes, pastries and tarts fresh each day to sell to local customers and the couple enjoyed a respectable income from the trade.

The Mackintosh’s knew that the bulk of their trade came from local workers on a Saturday afternoon, after they had finished their half day of work. To capitalise on this they wanted to develop a product that could last all week, so Violet got to work on a brand new recipe.

In order to create a speciality that would set them apart from other confectioners, the Mackintosh’s wanted to create a unique product that workers could buy after their shift on a Saturday afternoon, and enjoy all week.

Soon after opening their shop on King Cross Lane in 1890, Violet developed a game-changing toffee recipe. She combined traditional, brittle English butterscotch with the newly imported soft caramel from the USA. The result was a softer, chewy sweet that they named ‘Mackintosh’s Celebrated Toffee’. Up until this point, a ‘toffee’ had referred to any boiled or sugar sweet and it was due to the runaway success of Mackintosh toffee that the word became synonymous with this new sweet treat. Violet's hand-written toffee recipe from 1890 can be seen on our Toffee Town Activities page.

The toffees came in a variety of flavours and packaged in coloured wrappers to distinguish which flavour was inside. They came sold in a mixed bag for workers to purchase and take away for enjoyment throughout the week. There was coconut in a pink wrapper, egg & cream in an orange wrapper, Harrogate in a yellow wrapper, malt in a blue wrapper, mint in a green wrapper and original toffee in a red wrapper. Any fans of Quality Street will see the origins of its packaging in this early mixed bag of Mackintosh’s Celebrated Toffee.

Image: Photograph of the couple’s original shop on King Cross Lane, Halifax.

Mackintosh's Celebrated Toffee

The success of the new toffee meant that John was finally able to leave his job at Bowman Brothers to join Violet in the running of the business. But it was at this point that tragedy struck. John’s father died suddenly at the age of 48 in 1891, leaving john now responsible for the upkeep of not only himself and his wife, but his mother, five sisters and brother. It was at this time too, that a change to the bus routes in Halifax meant that workers were no longer brought to the Mackintosh shop. They decided to open a stall on Halifax Market to counter this and John would travel into town and run the stall each day while Violet continued to run the shop on King Cross Lane.

Their success continued, and by 1892 the Mackintosh’s were now selling their toffee as wholesalers to be sold in other confectioners shops. By 1894 they had established trade outside of the town, and people beyond Halifax began to enjoy Mackintosh toffee. In fact, the demand for Mackintosh toffee was so great that the business needed a warehouse, and the couple began to rent a small warehouse in Bond Street in 1894. In just one year they had outgrown this warehouse too and moved to a larger premises on Hope Street where they could produce even more of their Celebrated Toffee to meet demand.

Image: An early advertisement for Mackintosh’s Toffee.

The Power of Publicity

As the success of their toffee grew, the Mackintosh’s set out in their work to advertise their product as far and wide as possible. One of Mackintosh’s most successful campaigns were full-page adverts in the top newspapers of the day. These had cartoons of their toffee production and had titles such as ‘Half an Hour in Toffee Town’ and were seen across the nation. These campaigns made sure that the nickname stuck, and Halifax became known as Toffee Town.

John Mackintosh said that ‘six years were taken up in establishing business in the north of England and the Midlands. Our method was to work a county at a time and do it thoroughly. No town was missed, but each was worked methodically’.

In the Mackintosh office, there was a map on the wall that John compared to one which marks the advance for war, and different coloured pins were placed on each town depending on if it had been ‘worked’ or ‘unworked’. Representatives from Mackintosh would visit each town and village regularly to continue to strengthen their relationship with sellers of their product. ‘We do nothing slovenly or half-heartedly’, said John Mackintosh, ‘We have a system, and no one is allowed to upset it.’

Through their efforts Mackintosh soon found themselves in the position that barely any towns or villages across the north that their product could not be found. To keep up with this demand, the toffee which had been made exclusively by Violet in a brass pan over the kitchen fire, was now being produced on a much larger scale. New steam pans in the Mackintosh warehouse could produce ten tons of toffee per hour, and much of the new machinery in the factory was designed by John Mackintosh himself.


Image: An early Mackintosh toffee tin c.1900.

By 1899 the company was exporting to Spain, Italy and China, and Mackintosh ‘missionaries’ were frequently sent out to countries in Europe to dish out samples of their toffee to potential new customers. These missionaries would also distribute toffees to schoolchildren, with accounts of French and Dutch children being given free samples of ‘the good stuff of Halifax’

In 1904 Mackintosh opened a factory in New Jersey, USA and in 1906 another factory in Dusseldorf, Germany. The box pictured is an example of Mackintosh’s overseas marketing. This pencil box is a promotional product dating from around 1905 and shows the kind of publicity tools Mackintosh used to spread their name in the USA once they began to produce toffee there. By 1914 Mackintosh was also present in Australia and Canada and was firmly established as a global name. By this point the company employed over 1000 employees to help meet demand across the world.

Image: An advertisement for Mackintosh toffee from during the First World War.

The company began to run national competitions where lucky winners could win Mackintosh toffee and valuable prizes. One such promotion was a prize scheme where customers collected coupons from their Mackintosh toffee packets and then sent them to the company in order to win the prizes. There was a variety of things to win, which grew in value depending on how many coupons were collected and the top prize was a cottage worth £250! One competitor, an Irish lady had so many coupons she had enough prizes to even furnish to cottage too!

As well as material prizes, Mackintosh also held scholarship competitions for children. Over ten thousand children entered the competition by writing an essay on 'What Mackintosh toffee meant to them' and they were judged on their merit in composition, writing and general neatness. The prize was a £30 scholarship per year for three years for the winning boy and girl. The winners were a boy from Scotland and a girl from the north of England, who both kept in touch with the company to update them on their progress. The boy went on to gain a degree in science and became a successful teacher, and the girl became secretary to a cabinet minister.

Image: Certificate awarded to P. Mellis for entering the Mackintosh children’s essay competition.

When the First World War began in 1914, Mackintosh lost 75% of its workforce to the war effort, bringing the number of employees down to only 250. Another loss to the company was the seizure of their German factory, so production was greatly reduced throughout the war. This didn't stop Mackintosh from using the situation for their own publicity, and many adverts were created by the company during the war. At the end of the war, Mackintosh regained full employment and increased their production to above pre-war levels. In 1919 the company held a Victory Ball for their returning employees at Victoria Hall, Halifax.

Sadly, on 27th January 1920 John Mackintosh died of a heart attack at home. His wife Violet remarked that he never had a day in his life to enjoy the fruits of his labour, and worked hard even on the day he died. The company was taken over by John and Violet's son Harold Vincent Mackintosh and renamed John Mackintosh & Sons Ltd in 1921.

Once Harold assumed power over Mackintosh, he continued to build on his father’s work, and throughout the 1920s the company saw great success. The company began to expand rapidly, and Mackintosh began to develop their range beyond just its famous toffee.

Image: Mackintosh & Sons Ltd. prototype tin c.1921.

John Mackintosh & Sons Ltd.

In 1925 Mackintosh purchased the North Kerry Manufacturing Company and its 'NKM Irish Cream Toffee' which was brought under the banner of the Mackintosh brand. Later, in 1929, the company then founded Anglo-American Chewing Gum Limited, and started to produce chewing gum. This new product line was sold out of machines and was to become a lasting product in the Mackintosh repertoire.

But the biggest development that was to change Mackintosh forever was the takeover of A. J. Caley & Son Ltd in Norwich. The company had been founded at around the same time as Mackintosh but produced chocolate at their factory. Most famously, they produced 'Marcho' a chocolate product that was issued to soldiers in the First World War.

Once Mackintosh acquired Caley's and their Norwich factory they inherited their popular product 'Milk Tray' and gained the ability to make their own chocolate treats. Their new products included 'Mackintosh's Chocolate Toffee De Luxe' where their original toffee was coated in delicious milk chocolate.

Now Mackintosh had branched out into the production of chocolate and chocolate-covered products they began to develop a new line of sweet treats that would become a global favourite.

Image: Advertisement for Mackintosh’s Chocolate Toffee De Luxe c.1932.

Quality Street

Now that the company had the chocolate expertise of the A. J. Caley company, development began in 1935 for a game-changing selection of toffees, chocolates and confectionary treats to be sold in a tin from Mackintosh. This new line was to be called 'Quality Street'.

Harold Mackintosh himself was instrumental in the designs and plans for the new product line and sent explicit instructions of how the tins and sweets should look with detailed drawings and information set to his design team. On December 12th, 1935 he set out an eight-point plan for Quality street, which stated that the collection should be a ‘sensory feast’ with colourful, decadent wrappers and a decorative tin people would use even after their toffees were all eaten.

The plan stated that the now iconic Quality Street tin should be: “most carefully designed… First and foremost as a practical container – one which is easy to serve from, occupying a minimum of room – and which will keep its contents in the best of condition. Secondly, from the artistic standpoint, a design that had the hallmark of quality written all over it – a design that is distinctive – a bright clean design that is in itself inviting. Thirdly, a container that will be useful in the home and this will be a much sought after biscuit or cake tin.”

Image: An original Quality Street tin from 1936.

The name Quality Street came from a play written by J.M. Barrie, who would later go on to write children's classic Peter Pan. The design and branding of Quality Street was meant to evoke feelings of nostalgia for old fashioned ways and sentimental romantic imagery. To do this the Mackintosh team created the characters of Major Quality and Miss Sweetly. These characters were loosely based on Phoebe Throssel and Valentine Brown from Barrie's original play, but were changeable and in historically incorrect costumes. This meant that over the decades that followed, Mackintosh designers could adapt and alter the characters to suit new tin styles and marketing plans.

Most importantly of all, Mackintosh wanted to highlight the absolute quality of their product, and all of their marketing and advertising expertise went into stressing how high the excellence of this new line of product was. Their 1936 advertising sent to shopkeepers advises them that what the public wanted was “quality rather than cheapness” and warned then that stocking a cheaper alternative was a “short-sighted policy” which would reduce their profits and destroy the confidence of their customers.

Quality Street was a global success and was exported around the world. Tins being sent overseas would have small changes to their designs to suit local tastes and cultures. In these instances, Major Quality and Miss Sweetly would even have a makeover, with different hair colours, facial features and military uniforms to appeal to their overseas audiences.

Image: A Quality Street shop display c.1936.

The original tins had 18 different types of treat to choose from which has been changed over the years, this was the original line up:

  • Chocolate Creme Toffee Brazils - Inside the moulded chocolate is a Brazil nut embedded in a lovely rich toffee which is as soft as a fondant.
  • Cafe Au Lait Carameline – Similar in character to the “Cup” but the Toffee centre is blended with milk and coffee.
  • Toffee Cup – A moulded chocolate with an “almost liquid” toffee centre
  • Noisette Pate – A layer of finely ground nuts in a chocolate paste and moulded with a layer of chocolate of exceptional smoothness.
  • Milk Chocolate Whirl – Made with a delicious milk chocolate paste.
  • Jaffa Chocolate Toffee – A unique combination of Sultanas mixed with toffee and covered with orange milk chocolate.
  • Quality Street Toffee – A plain toffee from a new recipe; very rich in cream.
  • Almond Toffee – The same delicious toffee combined with finely chopped almonds.
  • Chocolate Toffee Crispets – A combination of a crisp cereal and toffee coated with chocolate.
  • Valencia Cracknel – The choicest of almonds in Cracknel casing.
  • Quality Street Extra Butter Toffee – Mackintosh's famous toffee in a round penny shape.
  • Quality Street Almond Extra Butter Toffee – The same toffee with an almond on top.
  • Quality Street “Harrogate” Toffee – The new toffee recipe with distinctive lemon and ginger flavour.
  • Chocolate Butter Toffee – The same recipe as “Quality Street” Extra Butter Toffee chocolate coated.
  • Chocolate Butter Toffee Walnut – Again the same toffee but with a walnut added and the combination covered with superfine chocolate.
  • Quality Street Cream Caramel – A new, rich and creamy soft eating caramel.
  • Quality Street Vanilla Toffee – Another special toffee recipe with a delicate vanilla flavour.
  • Golden Ingots – Delicious toffee in the shape of a block of gold ingot, or a golden toffee finger.


Working for Mackintosh

Employees of Mackintosh throughout its history have remarked that it was a great company to work for. As one of the largest employers in Halifax, as well as having sites in Norwich, Ireland, Germany and the USA, Mackintosh made efforts to make their workers feel happy at work and valued as staff members.

From its early history, John Mackintosh himself applied his religious and personal beliefs to his treatment of his employees. In the early years of the twentieth century Mackintosh paid for some workers to start new lives in foreign lands, sending them to help establish and work in the new factories which opened in Europe and the USA.

After the end of the First World War the company put on a lavish reunion party at the Victoria Hall in Halifax. With over 1200 guests, the Mackintosh Victory Ball in 1919 was a huge celebration for the end of the war, with a group silence to remember those who had died, and three cheers made for those who had fought and returned. The company paid out over £10,000 to wives and families of men fighting throughout the war to support them.

Image: Photograph of workers at the Mackintosh factory packing Quality Street tins in 1949.

At the Victory Ball, John Mackintosh also gave an announcement about a new workers’ bonus scheme that had been devised. Every employee of the company, both men and women, were awarded a £1 bonus for each year they had worked for the company, and this amount was doubled for anyone who’s relatives had fallen during the fighting. This wasn’t the only time that Mackintosh repaid their employees’ hard work with a cash bonus. After the death of John Mackintosh in 1920 a similar bonus was handed out following instructions left in his will.

The workers of Mackintosh clearly felt a  deep respect and loyalty to their employer and made gifts in return to John and Violet Mackintosh. A volume of signatures of every employee of the company along with a message of gratitude was presented to John Mackintosh which read 'We remember always the kindly way you deal with anything that concerns our welfare, and we sincerely hope you may be spared for many years to lead the firm of John Mackintosh, Limited, to greater success.'

Image: Photograph of ‘The Tip Top Tappers’ in costume for a performance at a staff party.

Sadly, only six months later John Mackintosh had passed away, and the statement from his workers upon his death was equally as moving: 'The sudden death of a well-known local manufacturer, whose name is familiar through all the world, has removed from us one who ever had the welfare of all those associated with him at heart, and the loss is keenly felt by every individual employee. Mr Mackintosh was a man of great generosity in thought and deed. Deeply religious and sincere, he was one who did much for his fellow-men. His kindliness and good-will permeated every branch of the organisation of John Mackintosh, Limited, and his live leaves to us all a memory that will be sweet and lasting.'

The good relationship between the Mackintosh’s and their workers did not end with the death of John Mackintosh. The company set up a welfare department in 1923 and ran clubs and societies for its workers to get involved in to socialise and show off their talents. One of these groups was the Mackintosh Operatic Society, who performed the operetta Veronique at the Theatre Royal in Halifax for six nights in January 1926. Other benefits of working at Mackintosh were one week’s holiday after six months service, subsidised medical treatment at the works clinic, a savings scheme, pension scheme and a staff newsletter with contributions from employees. 

The Mackintosh family also had homes built for elderly ex-employees of the company in 1925. The Albert Promenade was a complex of 12 cottages, a matron’s cottage and an assembly hall purpose-built to house those over 60 with an income of between £1-2 a week. They later also built the Mackintosh Homes for pensioners in 1968 to provide more housing for the elderly of Halifax.

Image: Photograph of the ‘Candy Queen’ and runners-up in 1958.

Later, the company also had the Merrymack showband, a group of employees who would put on variety shows. These shows would include singing, dancing, fancy dress and sketches as well as Merrymack members playing instruments for the entertainment of their colleagues and audiences, including at the Halifax Playhouse in 1958.

There was also the Tip Top Tappers, a group of tap dancers, the Mackintosh Miracles Football Team, The Toffee Men Cricket team and an annual pageant to crown a Candy Queen. The company also laid on day trips for workers and children’s events such as Christmas parties for the families of employees. On top of this there was also an annual staff dance. In 1955 the dance was held at the Alexandria Hall, Halifax and one guest said that 'The ladies looked most attractive and streamers, fancy hats and balloons enhanced the colourful scene.'

Image: Photograph of ‘The Merrymack Showband’ c.1955.

One set of objects from the collection here at Bankfield Museum shows how Mackintosh would express their gratitude to their employees. This retirement gift of a set with teapot, milk jug, sugar bowl and coffee pot was given to an employee as thanks for his long service with the company and reads:

‘Presented to Mr J. Hainsworth by the directors of John Mackintosh & Sons Ltd on his retirement as a token of appreciation and to mark the completion of thirty-eight years’ service. July 1940.’

Image: The silver teapot from the set gifted to Mr J. Hainsworth for his work at Mackintosh.


In May 1969, Mackintosh merged with the Rowntree company of York and became the largest confectionary business in the country. The two companies could boast an all-star line-up of the nation’s favourite treats, with Mackintosh bringing Quality Street, Rolos, Munchies, Caramac and many more to join Rowntrees’ Fruit Pastilles, Aero, Smarties, Kit Kat and others. The relationship between the two companies had already spanned 40 years, as they had owned a joint subsidiary in Ireland, but this merger cemented them as a global powerhouse, with 28,000 employees, 22 factories and exporting to 120 countries around the world. Mackintosh’s Chairman was very glad of the merger and stated it was a wonder it hadn’t happened sooner.

Rowntree-Mackintosh continued to expand, buying out other companies to add to their production capabilities. These include James Stedman Ltd of Australia and Chocolat-Menier SA of Paris in 1971 and Nuts Chocolade Fabriek BV of the Netherlands in 1973. The company also began allowing other companies to sell their products under license, including Hershey’s in the USA and the Fujiya Confectionary Company in Japan.

Image: Photograph of workers at the Rowntree-Mackintosh factory in the 1980s.

130 years of Toffee Town

In 1987 the Mackintosh name was dropped from the company name of Rowntree-Mackintosh, ending the use of the family name, which had been integral to the brand of the company for nearly a century. A year later in 1988, Rowntree was acquired by confectionary giant Nestle, and became the Nestle Rowntree Division of Nestle UK Limited.

Although the Mackintosh name is gone from the tins of Quality Street we tuck into at Christmas, the legacy of Mackintosh and their Celebrated Toffee lives on today in Halifax. If you stand at Halifax Train Station and gaze out from the platform, you’ll see huge images of the nation’s favourite favourites emblazoned on the side of the factory, which still produces Quality Street to this day. Seven million Quality Street sweets are produced every day in Halifax and transported to 70 countries to be loved by people around the world.

Bankfield Museum holds a vast collection of Mackintosh tins and advertisements, with over a thousand objects relating to the history, growth and change of the company, which changed not only the definition of the word ‘toffee’ forever, but also created the one and only Toffee Town.

Image: Photograph taken in 2018 from Halifax Train Station with a view of the Nestle Factory.

Find out more

An online exhibition all about Toffee Town created by Phoenix FM in Halifax. Includes a timeline, lots of product and advertising images and school resources. http://www.toffeetown.org.uk/

The Rowntree Society page including information on this history of Rowntree Mackintosh Ltd. https://www.rowntreesociety.org.uk/

Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale Companion – http://www.calderdalecompanion.co.uk/mmm1026.html

From Weaver to Web – https://www.calderdale.gov.uk/wtw/sources/themes/mackintosh.html

John Mackintosh: The Story of Great Endeavor by George W. Crutchley (out of print)

Markets, Management, and Merger: John Mackintosh & Sons, 1890-1969 by Robert Fitzgerald

John Mackintosh in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

A new fictional read about working at the Quality Street factory is the novel 'The Quality Street Girls' by Penny Thorpe, published in 2018 by Harper Collins.