Norwich Through the Decades: Roots of Norwich Christmas cracker tradition

Tom Smith employees Maria Derere, left, and Shane Knights get to grips with one of the giant cracker

Tom Smith employees Maria Derere, left, and Shane Knights get to grips with one of the giant crackers. Picture: Submitted

Mustard, chocolate and shoes are all industries which have pride of place in Norwich's history. However, another more seasonal trade saw the city become a hub for one famous Christmas good.

Cracker, crackers everywhere! Teetering piles of boxes and ingredients characterise this working lin

Cracker, crackers everywhere! Teetering piles of boxes and ingredients characterise this working line at Tom Smiths in 1964. Picture: EDP Library - Credit: Archant

Millions of Christmas crackers will soon find a home on dining tables.

Our final picture of Tom Smith Crackers provides a birds eye view of the assembly line and dates fro

Our final picture of Tom Smith Crackers provides a birds eye view of the assembly line and dates from 1986. Picture: EDP Library - Credit: Archant

Paper hats will be briefly worn, jokes groaned at and combs, nail clippers and bottle openers shared around, as the popular tradition returns.

Christmas cracker historian Peter Kimpton of Norwich who still finds it fun to pull the festive trea

Christmas cracker historian Peter Kimpton of Norwich who still finds it fun to pull the festive treat with partner Rose. Photo by Simon Finlay

It has been 169 years since, in 1847, confectioner's apprentice Tom Smith stumbled on the cracker while trying to add love messages into the wrappers of his bon-bons, which were wrapped in a twist of paper.

Christmas cracker historian Peter Kimpton of Norwich who still finds it fun to pull the festive trea

Christmas cracker historian Peter Kimpton of Norwich who still finds it fun to pull the festive treat with partner Rose. Photo by Simon Finlay

The story goes that it was the crackle of a log on the fire that saw him add a banger mechanism and up the size of the bon-bon, before the sweets were dropped for trinkets.

A Tom Smith worker gets hats ready to go into the crackers. Picture: Submitted

A Tom Smith worker gets hats ready to go into the crackers. Picture: Submitted


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Tom's London business boomed and rival cracker producers sprang up - including Caley's chocolate and confectionary factory in Norfolk, which launched its own crackers in 1898. But Tom's triumphed - securing a royal warrant in 1906 and distributing hundreds of cracker design all over the country.

More Tom Smith crackers roll off the production line. Picture: Submitted

More Tom Smith crackers roll off the production line. Picture: Submitted

The outbreak of the Second World War saw trade ceased at both firms, but, as hostilities ended, talks started between Caley's owne Eric Mackintosh and Smith's chairman GW Morrison.

Sue Richardson and Angela Clarke with some stamps inspired by Tom Smith crackers. Picture: Submitted

Sue Richardson and Angela Clarke with some stamps inspired by Tom Smith crackers. Picture: Submitted

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An agreement was reached to merge the two companies - and in 1953, the Tom Smith name started operating from a factory on Salhouse Road in Norwich, previously owned by renowned city form Colman's.

Peter Kimpton's book on the history of Christmas crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP N

Peter Kimpton's book on the history of Christmas crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP Norfolk MagazineEDP pics © 2006(01603) 772434 - Credit: EDP pics © 2006

The next four decades were a golden period - countless crackers were made in Norwich and transported around the world, with 50 million produced every year during the 1980s.

Supplied pic of a Tom Smith's box of crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP Norfolk Magaz

Supplied pic of a Tom Smith's box of crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP Norfolk MagazineEDP pics © 2006(01603) 772434 - Credit: EDP pics © 2006

The Royal Family enjoyed crackers produced in Norwich during those years, while Prince Charles Diana had locally-made crackers at their wedding breakfasts - bearing cutt links for him and a brooch for her.

Supplied pic of a Tom Smith's box of crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP Norfolk Magaz

Supplied pic of a Tom Smith's box of crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP Norfolk MagazineEDP pics © 2006(01603) 772434 - Credit: EDP pics © 2006

At its peak, 500 staff were employed by the firm, split between Norwich and its subsidiary in Stockport, and while many of the more expensive crackers were made by hand, two machines that could produce almost 40 per minute were bought.

Supplied pic of a Tom Smith's box of crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP Norfolk Magaz

Supplied pic of a Tom Smith's box of crackers.Photo: SuppliedCopy: Keiron PimFor: EDP Norfolk MagazineEDP pics © 2006(01603) 772434 - Credit: EDP pics © 2006

Things looked rosy - until a management buyout in the 1990s saw clouds began to gather.

In 1996, it was taken over by Guinness Mahon and Co, who installed a new management team and two years later, exactly 100 years after cracker production started in Norwich, the last crackers came off the Norwich Tom Smith production line. Today, based in South Wales, things are brighter for the business - the Tom Smith name remains synonymous with Christmas crackers, still stocks the Royal Household and is remembered fondly by those in Norwich.

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