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How Eating Too Many Sweets at the Fun Fair Became a British Tradition

The relationship between confectionary and the fair goes beyond throwing up on the waltzers. Traditional fairground sweets like Northern Ireland’s Yellowman honeycomb or Scottish mint Hawick Balls are intertwined with social history.
Photo via Flickr user Stéfan

What is it with sweets and the funfair? You'll see it unwind like clockwork at any of Britain's big wheel and dodgem car-hosting recreation grounds: a kid stuffs their face with candy floss, rides on the waltzers, disembarks, and promptly heaves their guts up. It's basically a British rite of passage.

But the relationship between confectionary and the late-night fun of the fair is about more than just vomit. Traditional fairground confectionary like Northern Ireland's Yellowman honeycomb or the mint Hawick Balls enjoyed in Scotland are intertwined with the nation's social and economic history.

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To find out more about Britain's twin loves of sugar and high-speed dizziness, MUNCHIES spoked to Tim Richardson, the world's first international confectionery historian and author of Sweets: The History of Temptation.

MUNCHIES: Hi Tim, so what's the relationship between sweets and the fairground? Tim Richardson: It's part of the wider history of sweets. In the 19th century, with the importation of sugar from the slaving islands as part of this horrible trade, the cost of sugar went down. Before this, sugar was a luxury and things made from sugar were either a kind of medicine (like the sweetmeats you'd buy from the apothecary or chemist), or glacé fruits and other high-class confections that were sold from shops in the middle of the big cities at a high price.

READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to British Food

The British had the idea that they would import sugar from their imperial holdings in the West Indies and re-export it into Europe, but that didn't really happen because the British ate all the sugar—that's where our sweets culture comes from. We developed a passion for sugar in the form of sweets, but also with granular sugar, which was paired with tea.

Tea and sugar, the twin products of the Empire.

A winning combination. Once the price of sugar had dropped, how did sweets find their way to the masses? The sugar imported, particularly in the port cities like London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Greenock, was bought by local people—women quite often—and they'd use it to make versions of high-class sweets: pineapple cubes, sherbet lemons, barley sugars, imitations of glacé fruit.

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To make them was relatively easy and cheap—you only needed a pan, a ladle, a source of heat, water, sugar, and some sort of flavouring. And this really grew and grew through the 19th century.

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Yellowman honeycomb from Northern Ireland. Photo via Flickr user philip hay

They were sold on the streets alongside coffee, dog food, and ice cream. In Scotland, these sellers were called "the sweetie wives." In fact, the borders of Scotland are some of the best places for these wonderful sweets, like Berwick cockles and Hawick Balls. Incredibly beautiful sweets, and still sold there as delicacies of the area.

How do fairgrounds fit into all this? If you look at a graph of the cost of sugar and what it would cost to buy through the early to the mid to late 19th century, the cost plummets. Then look at consumption and that rockets, so you have this incredible insatiable desire for sweetness.

This meant that places like fairs, which were celebratory and fun, made perfect places to sell sweets. The people running the fairs were able to get their hands on sugar very cheaply, boil up the sweets, and make a profit. And fairs had a particular role to play [in the popularisation of sweets] because they're very festive occasions.

Candyfloss that we associate with fairs is a performance as well. You put the stick in the barrel and it comes out covered in this pink stuff. I think it's magic, actually.

Seeing candyfloss magically appear, the brightness of something like Yellowman, the theatre element of sweets—was that part of the pull of the fair in the 19th century? Of course, the form of sweets is arguably as important as the taste of them. They're very pliable substances and traditionally they're made in different forms. Boiled sweets aren't entirely the same, they come in cubes usually, but a lot of other sweets such as chocolate toolboxes or spiders, are all part of sweets as "play." And that's why fairs and sweets go together so well because they're playtime and children are able to participate, if you like, in the adult world through the medium of sweets.

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Of course, in South America, a lot of sweets are associated with the Day of the Dead and you're actually triumphing over death by eating sugar skulls and so on. They're quite cathartic in a sense.

It sounds as if sweets suit the transgressive vibe you get at fairs. Sweets are the anarchists of gastronomy—they exist in between and outside of normal cuisine. They aren't consumed at meal times, they're carried around on your person, and they're shared freely. Sweets are among the only things that are acceptable to put in your mouth and take out again and show other people. It's sort of disgusting really, but it's also alright.

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Photo via Flickr user byronv2

Children own sweets earlier than they own anything else, they buy and sell them before anything else. They become an important currency for children. Sweets are very important to children and fairs are too. Even in my childhood—I'm nearly 50—when the fair came to town, it was exciting. It was a bit dangerous, there were fights, the people running them were outsiders, and sweets are all part and parcel of that.

Do you have a favourite fairground sweet? There was a thing in the Victorian period called Conversation Lozenges [the precursor to Love Hearts], sweets with romantic messages on them. They started coming through in the 1850 and 60s, and they were little sweets you'd give to someone you were flirting with. Some of the messages could be quite bizarre. There was one of them that said, "Do you like sprats?" which is sort of like a surreal joke. Maybe it meant something in the 1860s that we don't know.

What's the future of sweets in the UK? Sugar is hedonistic and right now, we've got this awful attempt to ban sugar, which I'm obviously deadly opposed to. I think children should be given more sweets, not fewer sweets. I think it's terrible. Sweet things are very important for children. There's not very clear evidence that sugar gets transformed into fat tissue in the body, these are all public health scandals to do with politicians and their careers.

A lot of people, when they're asked in "surveys," think the ban is a good idea but on the side, they're secretly scoffing sweets. Go to a service station and it's a massive sweets emporium. Why is it there? Everyone is buying sweets, that's why. They're all just lying.

You've caught us all red-handed. Thanks for speaking with me, Tim!

Keep the sugar rush going on the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.