In 1830, William IV became King, the Duke of Wellington was forced to resign as Prime Minister, and two other men met in a pub in Nelson, Lancashire.
One of these two (not the oldest person at that point to assume the British throne, or the composer of the hit song ‘Waterloo’) was a local man named Thomas Fryer. The other was a travelling confectioner. They decided to go into business together, making and selling peppermints and lozenges.
Things went well at first – especially as the cost of importing sugar to Britain had fallen - but by the mid-19th Century Fryer and Co had major cashflow problems and the business was bought out for £1,000 by another entrepreneur of the Victorian Age, one Dr Edward Smith of Bolton.
Smith had produced his own Cough No More lozenge and been giving it to his patients to cure various ailments. Installing his brother, William Carruthers Smith, as manager of the company, Dr Smith set about creating a new range of medicinal lozenges offering pain relief and using a quite different recipe, combining ether, pulverised sugar, linseed, liquorice, acacia gum and chlorodyne; calling them Victory Chlorodyne Lozenges.
Now, you might easily see the naming connection from Nelson to an Admiral, who probably should have gone to Specsavers for optometry advice, to HMS Victory. But what of the seemingly innocuous ‘chlorodyne?’ Chlorodyne was in fact one of the best-known patent medicines in Britain at that time. It had been originally invented by a doctor in the British Indian Army – Dr John Collis Browne – and used originally for the treatment of cholera. Browne sold his patent to pharmacist John Thistlewood Davenport who marketed it as a cure also for diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia and migraine. So far, so much medicine and men in big overcoats with big handlebar moustaches you might think.
Well, probably, but chlorodyne itself was a mixture of chloroform, tincture of cannabis and laudanum – itself an alcoholic solution of opium. The original hard, brown brick-like lozenges with cut-off corners might have enticed prospective purchasers to ‘have a glow’ or been marketed as perfect ‘for cold journeys’ or, indeed, having a ‘kick like a mule,’ but, honestly, would anyone have noticed? Would they have noticed anything? Was it here that, despite it still growing at the time, the seeds of decline of the British Empire were actually sown, in an ironic kind of drug-induced victory deconstruction?
Certainly, the lozenges were immensely popular and maybe someone woke up for long enough to discover the real reason why, forcing Fryer’s to give them a snappy new name: Linseed Liquorice V Lozenge Victory. A new factory - the Victory Works – was opened to cope with demand. The plant boasted its own laboratory where raw materials were tested, including peppermint from Japan and China, liquorice from Turkey and Italy, pineapple from Hawaii and sugar from Mauritius.
Now patented as a confectionery product, their name had changed again by 1911 to Victory V Lozenges. In-between sucking on impossibly strong throat lozenges and writing largely inaccessible treatises historians have argued over the origins of the ‘victory v’ label. Some older scholars who can still remember the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 claim that the French boasted that, if any English archers were captured, they would cut off the three fingers of their right hand ‘so that neither man or horse would ever again by killed by their arrow fire’. English archers were then said to have stuck up their fingers after victory in the battle as a kind of Brexit gesture.
Other historians scoff that this is a 20th Century invention and that you have to go much further back – to Homer’s Trojan War – where the Trojans would cut off their defeated enemies’ first two fingers on their right hands, preventing them from holding a sword and thus eliminating them from being effective on the battlefield ever again. To demonstrate their victory, the Trojans would hold their two fingers high, taunting their fingerless enemies.
Some (probably quite a lot, thinking about it) suggest that Winston Churchill came up with the idea after too much brandy and cigars following writer’s block. Whatever the origin, Victory V’s and their new slogan ‘forged for strength’ captured the British love for dubious historical supremacy as the products were championed and exported across the globe.
Fryer and Co also created jelly babies, slab toffee and the first decorated tins as sweet packaging. The Victory V brand was acquired in 1992 by Trebor Bassett and now manufactured in Devon by Ernest Jackson, itself a subsidiary of Cadbury. After a bit of a detox, the chloroform and cannabis bits have been removed by the unsmiling health and safety police.
Thus, rather like the demand to eat coal during pregnancy, the medicinal case for Victory V’s has declined in recent years, but Fryer, Smith and Browne must surely be commended for their collective role in drugging a nation and therefore making it feel so much better, simply by sucking sweets.