How sweet story of Sheffield-based family firm Thorntons turned sour

The sad news that Thorntons is to close all of its stores marks the end of a High Street presence that began in Yorkshire all the way back in 1911. Chris Burn reports.

Thorntons on Arundel Gate in Sheffield in December 1968

High Street stores up and down the country were already facing plenty of challenges before the pandemic hit - but the impact of Covid and lockdown measures has seen online purchases rocket and thousands of physical shops decide to call it a day.

More than 17,500 chain store outlets disappeared from high streets last year and the latest big name to announce its departure is chocolatier Thorntons.

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The retailer is to shut all of its 61 stores, putting more than 600 jobs at risk, but will retain an online presence and invest in its grocery supply business.

Thorntons on Fargate in Sheffield. Picture: Chris Etchells

Adam Goddard, retail director at Thorntons, said: “Changing dynamics of the high street, shifting customer behaviour to online, the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and the numerous lockdown restrictions over the last year – especially during our key trading periods at Easter and Christmas – has meant we have been trading in the most challenging circumstances.

“Unfortunately, like many others, the obstacles we have faced and will continue to face on the high street are too severe and despite our best efforts we have taken the difficult decision to permanently close our retail store estate.”

The news of the closures has left a particularly bitter taste in Sheffield, where the business was founded in 1911 and where four of its remaining stores currently reside.

Travelling confectioner Joseph William Thornton opened the company’s first shop on Norfolk Street in Sheffield after being impressed by the throngs of crowds and proliferation of businesses following a visit to the annual Sheffield Fair.

He promptly put his 14-year-old son Norman in charge of the business while he continued with his day job - leaving the young man with a mission to “make this the best sweet shop in town”; an ambition he quickly delivered on.

The company’s website explains: “Word was starting to spread about the Thorntons shop, so Norman brought on his brother, Stanley. With lots of quirky sweet treats like ‘Violet Cachous’, ‘Sweet Lips’ and ‘Phul-Nanas’, they sold the best confectionery around. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the brothers were making their hand‐made chocolate truffles, crystallised fondants and, of course, their famous Thorntons special toffee.

“Then, there was no stopping them.”

Thorntons went on to become one of the foremost confectionery brands in England and at its height, the firm employed 4,500 people at more than 370 high street shops and 229 franchise counters across the country.

But despite success, all was not always rosy in the family business.

In 2009, Peter Thornton - one of Joseph’s grandsons - wrote a memoir called My Life in the Family Business where he alleged he was forced to resign by his brothers and his cousin in a boardroom coup against him in 1987.

“I had the most tremendous battle to divert them from this idea but in the end they all used their voting shares against me,” he told The Guardian when the book was published. “My life and the considerable success I’d had was completely destroyed at that time and it was incredibly difficult to start life again.”

The company was bought by Italian food giant Ferrero in 2015 for £112 million.

Thorntons said it pumped £45 million into transforming its operations, including new-format stores and cafes, but saw its turnaround plan thrown off course by the pandemic.

Ferrero said it will continue to invest in the business and hopes to grow its international supply business from its Alfreton factory over the border in Derbyshire.

A future still hopefully exists for the company, but the halycon days of a store on hundreds of High Streets are going to be a thing of the past. 

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