How Australia's Willy Wonka Created Britain's Most Controversial Candy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because who knew Australian chocolate could make Brits go mad?
By James Watkins
An increase in the price of a chocolate bar doesn’t usually make headlines. But in the U.K., back in January, The Guardian broke the news that the Freddo, a small, frog-shaped chocolate bar produced by Cadbury, was rising in price by five whole pence — from 25p to 30p (40 cents) — and the country went mad. The BBC announced “outrage” among the British public; The Independent described the news as a “tragedy,” and, naturally, Twitter exploded. A protest in London’s Trafalgar Square in September against rising Freddo prices drew more than 1,000 attendees, according to the Facebook event, although video from the event suggests only around a dozen turned out in person.
The humble Freddo isn’t anywhere near Britain’s most popular chocolate bar — it is far more widely eaten in its native Australia, where 90 million Freddos are scarfed annually, according to Cadbury. But it’s the U.K. where its curiously oversize status in popular culture is somewhere between legendary and meme-worthy.
— Dan James (@dljames93) June 1, 2017
Comprising just 18 grams of Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate poured into a frog-shaped mold (caramel-filled versions are also available), the tiny snack began life in the U.K. in 1994 at just 10p. The price stuck around until 2007, when it jumped by half to 15p, the first in a series of hikes. Since 2006 the average consumer product in the U.K. has increased in price by less than 25 percent due to inflation. The Freddo? It’s tripled. And it hasn’t escaped the notice of young Brits who came of age in the 10p glory days. (Cadbury, and its parent company Mondelez International, did not respond to requests for comment.)
There’s a “childhood nostalgia” for Brits age 35 or so and younger of being able to buy a Coke, a comic and a chocolate bar for less than a pound, says Ben Harrow, who created a Freddo Index for money-saving brand Vouchercloud to rival The Economist’s famous Big Mac Index. “We weren’t at the age when increasing bills or house prices affected us, but we damn sure noticed the price of Freddos going up,” he says.
But the history of the Freddo stretches well beyond the memories of millennials, and to the other side of the world. In colonial Australia, sugar was an important commodity, and the British imported their sweet tooth to the land down under, writes confectionery historian Tim Richardson in Sweets: A History of Temptation. “The most famous old Australian candy company,” Richardson writes, was MacRobertson’s, founded in 1880 by a 19-year-old Scot named Macpherson Robertson who made novelty sweets in the bathroom of his family’s house.
As the business boomed and his factory in Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne, became the largest confectionery works in the Commonwealth, “Mr. Mac” was himself part of the Willy Wonka–esque branding of his company. He was habitually dressed in a pristine white suit, his employees clad in white uniforms and his factories painted white; the company’s delivery trucks were pulled by prize gray draft horses. His autobiography paints a romanticized story of his rags-to-riches tale, making Robertson Melbourne’s “equivalent of the Dick Whittington legend,” according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
In recent years the Australian Freddo has not only risen in price but also shrunk in size, by almost half.
But it wasn’t Robertson who came up with what became his company’s most iconic product. In 1930, as MacRobertson’s was designing a new mouse-shaped chocolate bar, a young employee piped up to say that he thought women and children would be scared of mice and that perhaps a frog would be a better idea. The legendary 71-year-old Robertson “just looked at me, this 18-year-old molder, and I thought I’d lost my job,” Harry Melbourne later remembered. But the idea stuck, and the Freddo was born. Macpherson Robertson was knighted in 1932 by George V and died in 1945. His company was sold to Cadbury a couple of decades later. Harry Melbourne, the true brains behind the Freddo, died in 2007 and was buried with a Freddo Frog flag draped over his coffin.
Now, Freddos have become the subject of one of the U.K.’s most enduring in-jokes. Last month, when the Daily Mirror reported a 490-billion-pound correction in Britain’s national accounts, the newspaper helpfully translated the giant sum into something more understandable for its audience — that’s 1.63 trillion Freddos. And on a recent episode of the BBC comedy panel show Mock the Week, 31-year-old comedian Ed Gamble suggested that the queen should command Cadbury to lower the price of Freddos back to 10p. Responded 45-year-old Dara O’Briain, “There’s a generational thing with the Freddos, let it go! … Everyone’s obsessed with the cost of Freddos.” To which Gamble retorted: “Just because you come from a time when you could buy a house for 10p …”
Of course, rising prices are not a uniquely British problem: In recent years the Australian Freddo has not only risen in price but also shrunk in size, by almost half. Although “shrinkflation” has hit several other popular chocolate bars on British shelves, especially since the value of the pound declined after the Brexit vote, the Freddo is actually one whole gram heavier today than it was in the ’90s. But it seems only the Brits are mad enough to base an entire nationwide in-joke on it.