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York and Chololate: Uncomfortable History and Global Connections

York's chocolate industry is central to the city's modern history and tourism. However, a critical look at the networks that shaped cocoa trade bring forward conversations about race, exploitation and colonialism.

This post was written on 12 April 2023 by Charlie Cayzer I’m Charlie Cayzer, a York-based researcher, and this new branch of our social enterprise (already established in Oxford and Cambridge) began with a chance encounter between myself and the Uncomfortable Cities directors at a London conference on ‘What is Public History Now?‘ Attending as part of a delegation from the University of York, I heard of their work through a mutual acquaintance. Upon discussing my dissertation on the public history of the city’s chocolate heritage with the Uncomfortable Cities team, we quickly realised that there was rich potential for a parallel heritage tour in York with these narratives as its central focus.

The city of York’s industrial heritage played a significant role in the development of the British cocoa industry, not only via its situation astride major waterborne and later railway routes, but also as a nexus for British confectionery companies including Tuke’s, Craven’s, Rowntree’s and Terry’s. In the UK at large, existing heritage narratives tend to portray the role of chocolate manufacturers in a somewhat hagiographical and paternalistic light, particularly the philanthropy of the Rowntree, Cadbury and Fry Quaker families. 

Chocolate is often referenced in academic and popular history to attract a broader readership, even in texts to which it bears tangential relation. Beyond its suitability for wordplay – puns involving ‘dark’, ‘rich’, ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ appear unsurprisingly often in the literature – its connotations of luxury and exotic sensuality render it a fertile topic through which to attract media and public attention. Simultaneously, as a product widely available across the world, chocolate holds a personal connection to each person. It is imbued with a domestic nostalgia, and consumers are often divided over which kind of chocolate is ‘best’, be it in terms of ingredients, brand or cocoa origin.

Nonetheless, Uncomfortable York (UnYork) seeks to assist in critically analysing our discourses surrounding cocoa and chocolate. To unpick York’s role here requires engagement with the discussions of race, class and gender at the heart of Uncomfortable Oxford’s mission. Chocolate is intrinsically an international commodity; whilst cocoa originates from Central America, over 70% of global cultivation today is based in West African countries, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The modern confectionery industry blends cocoa sourced from farms in locations as far flung as Papua New Guinea, Cameroon and Guatemala. The proliferation of cocoa across the equator bears significant ties to economic initiatives connected to European empire, primarily for Spanish, French, German, British and Belgian manufacture. To this day the production of cocoa reflects its colonial roots, as producers in the global South are often separated from the concentration of cocoa refinery in the global North, though companies such as Fire MountainYork Cocoa Works and One One Cacao seek to challenge this through endeavours to share expertise and equipment.

In many ways the York tour itself will reflect those other branches. Centring on York’s industrial heritage and global significance as ‘chocolate city’, we seek to provide a platform upon which York residents can address and discuss the colonial legacies inherent to the local built environment. Prominent stops will include previous manufactory premises, properties purchased and endowed via the cocoa industry, as well as the multitude of landmarks created and/or named after members of the families. In doing so, our guides can ask questions that provoke new ways of seeing the city landscape and its history, encouraging attendees to bring their personal experiences and views to the group discussion.

Check our York Uncovered Walking Tour and learn about the city's unheard stories.

UnYork is not alone in this project. Crucial work on uncovering the prevalence of unfree and indentured labour practices within historic Rowntree supply chains, entitled Rowntree Colonial Histories and Legacies, is being conducted by The Rowntree Society, a heritage arm of the family charitable trusts. Along with reparation and repatriation initiatives co-led by the Harewood Estate, these projects constituted foundational source materials for my dissertation, and it is within these discussions that we found an opportunity for Uncomfortable Cities to develop, through its York branch, a new walking tour which would provide an engaging public activity to collaboratively discuss these uncomfortable histories.


This heritage tour is also a work of collaboration and co-curation with prominent public history organisations. The first of these is the University of York’s Institute for Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP), our primary provider of access to grants and student internships. Another crucial partner is York Festival Of Ideas, who will host our launch within their 2023 Summer Events Programme. As well as the aforementioned Rowntree Society, other supporters include the York Civic Trust and the York St John Department of History. We are also in the process of consulting local community groups on the content and delivery of the tour itself, in order to assess the efficacy and appropriacy of our new branch.

Excitingly, student interns from IPUP will support the run-up to the June events. In assisting the construction of our first tour and creating a research base for our further tours, we hope that these postgraduates can broaden the scope of what UnYork can offer our city, as well as obtaining a chance to develop their professional skills within heritage projects.

The inaugural June tours will be free to the public, and we’re hoping to expand the project further after that. York has been a city at the heart of empires since the days of Constantine the Great, and there are many more stories to tell beyond those of the chocolate industry. With regard to our online presence and booking tickets, the UnYork website is currently under construction, and will be available by early May for public view, at which point you will be able to book your attendance for the initial York tours. We aim to run tours regularly throughout summer 2023, and other information and updates will be available via our social media, so check out the links below and watch this space.

written by Charlie Cayzer

This article was originally published on the research blog of Uncomfortable Oxford.

Plaque erected by The Rowntree Society commemorating Joseph Roundtree, the company’s most celebrated figure, who is discussed in our York walking tour.

Plaque erected by The Rowntree Society commemorating Joseph Roundtree, the company’s most celebrated figure, who is discussed in the York Uncovered walking tour.

Where to Find Us

Twitter: @UnYorkProject

Facebook: Uncomfortable York

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TripAdvisor: Uncomfortable York

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