Rock is believed to of been first sold at UK fairgrounds in the 19th century, hence it was originally known as ‘Fair Rock’. Although it was similar to what we know as ‘Seaside Rock’ these days, it did not have the lettering or vibrant colours we know and love.
One of the early pioneers was an ex-miner from Burnley named Ben Bullock. He owned a confectionary factory in Yorkshire and began producing lettered rock in 1887, it was believed that the idea came to him while holidaying in Blackpool. He then began to send his rock to retailers in Blackpool which was well received and the town adopted it as its trademark sweet! However, there is a tale of Victorian Dynamite Dick being inspired by fairground rock and taking the idea back to the seaside. It was here that he incorporated lettering into the rock to give it his own unique twist.
The process of making rock is fairly simple, but the art of embedding it with letters can be very tricky! It’s so difficult that modern machines still haven’t been able to master the technique. The classic seaside rock is made up of 3 parts of granulated sugar to one part of glucose syrup, this is then mixed together in a large copper pan of water by the members of our team, known as the ‘Sugar Boilers’.
This mixture is boiled to around 150 °C and then poured onto water-cooled steel plates and split into three parts. The inner core is aerated through a pulling machine while also being infused with flavours, which turns in from a solid gold mass into a soft white blob that makes up the centre of the stick of rock. The other parts are the outer layer and the lettering. These parts start to form a skin from the water-cooled plate, this makes it possible to cut the colourings with a pair of shears.
Letters are created with a small palette knife, this is a skill that can take up to 10 years to master, as rock is often up to 6 feet long before it is cut. Letters are each individually created and then pieced together in a horizontal line with the white central filler in between. The shape of the letter plays a factor in the order; Square shaped letters are made first, triangle shaped letters are created second and then round shaped letters last as this helps stop them losing their shape. For example the term ‘Blackpool Rock’ would be made using:
To complete the stick of rock, all the elements are rolled together before they are wrapped in their brightly coloured casing. Finally, the rock goes through a machine that lengthens it before being cut and individually wrapped.
Rock enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and 60s when Britain’s seaside towns were at their height of popularity. Even today many people still buy a traditional stick of rock when visiting seaside destinations, especially as it remains relatively cheap. It has always remained a fairly British phenomenon and has little popularity on mainland Europe, although our American counterparts have adopted rock in the form of ‘Candy Canes’.
Rock has developed many new uses in the 21st century with a number of brands using it as a corporate advertising tool and an alternative to business cards. Brides and grooms are breaking away from traditions such as sugared almonds and using personalised stick of rocks with their names running through to give to guests as wedding favours.