The Christian political thinker Jim Skillen has spent many years unpacking how Jesus Christ is Lord of every area of life and culture. In his many books he has shown us how all kinds of Christians can serve God in their distinctive spheres of responsibility. I am particularly in his debt for his insights about the varying ‘offices of responsibility’ that challenge all of us who seek to serve the Lord. George Cadbury is an excellent example of a Christian who faithfully obeyed God in his sphere of responsibility – a chocolate factory.

Channel 4’s The Worst Jobs in History has a powerful description of a truly horrible job – a 19th century child chimney sweep.

Small boys between the ages of 5 and 10 are sought to clamber up chimneys to clean out deposits of soot. Some of the chimneys are extremely narrow, perhaps only 18 centimetres (7 inches) square, and you may be reluctant at first to wriggle into them. However, plenty of encouragement is provided – by a lighted straw held beneath your feet or by pins stuck into you. You may suffer some cuts, grazes and bruises at first, but months of suffering will toughen up your skin to a leather-like quality.

Sweeps have other things to look forward to – twisted spines and kneecaps, deformed ankles, eye inflammations and respiratory illnesses. The first known industrial disease – ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ – appears in the testicles from the constant irritation of the soot on naked skin. Many sweeps are maimed or killed after falling or being badly burned, while others suffocate when they became trapped in the curves of the chimneys.

Although you will officially be apprenticed as a chimney sweep, there really is no work of any value to be had at the end of your years of training – despite your poor diet, you will have grown too large to be of any use.

Throughout the history of the world, men, women and children have been treated as ‘living tools’ and slaves. Children as young as five have laboured in the most appalling conditions. Let’s explore the life of a Christian factory owner who cared passionately about the misery and degradation that awful work can bring to vulnerable and exploited human-beings.

George Cadbury was born in Edgbaston near Birmingham in 1839. His father, John Cadbury was a tea and coffee dealer. The Cadburys  were members of the Society of Friends and they sent George to the local Quaker School. His childhood was spent in a loving and deeply religious family. Prayer, Bible study, self-discipline and social awareness were part and parcel of Cadbury’s childhood.

At the age of 22 George and his elder brother, Richard took over the family business and in 1873 they stopped selling tea and coffee and focused exclusively on chocolate. Their name is now a byword for excellent confectionary that many of us consume on a weekly/daily basis. For a few moments let’s call to mind some of the famous Cadbury products.

Cadbury’s Flake – Only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate tastes like this.

Cadbury’s Crème Egg – A thick Cadbury chocolate shell filled with an irresistibly gooey centre.

Heroes – Individually wrapped miniatures of Cadbury favourites for everyone to share.

Picnic – Crispy wafer and chewy caramel covered in peanuts, raisins and Cadbury milk chocolate.

George and Richard were not just concerned about the quality and profitability of their chocolate. As Christians both men believed that the happiness and well-being of their employees was one of the chief aims of the business. They were profit-sensitive without being profit-driven. They were quite happy to make an honest ‘coin’ but not at their employees’ expense.

Both of the Cadbury boys loved sport. George was passionate about football, cricket, tennis, swimming and golf. George admitted late in life that the first thing he turned to in his daily paper was the cricket news. He was keen on early morning cold baths and he relished swimming in freezing-cold rivers. He was an eccentric in every sense of the word.

What was it like to work in the Cadbury chocolate factory? Well each day began with Bible readings and prayers for all. The working day was considerably shorter than many other factories of the time. George and Richard introduced half-days on Saturdays and bank holiday closing.

In 1878, when the premises became too small, the brothers decided to build a factory in the country. They called this new site “Bournville”. On this site the brothers provided football and cricket fields, a huge playground for children, swings and even an open air swimming pool. Utterly unheard of at the time.

Employees were encouraged to have fun and the sporting and recreational facilities were first-rate. Sometimes George would tell his employees to knock off early and everyone would enjoy playing and watching a cracking game of cricket. On one occasion the brothers took all eleven wickets in a match. George once bought his employees a bicycle of the bone-shaker type, which they used to learn to ride on during the lunch-break. Sometimes half a dozen employees would be presented with a football and instructed to go and enjoy a kick around in the local park.

Writing in 1871, George’s sister recorded in her diary that George and Richard took the girls from the factory rambling over the Lickey Hills. Happy and exhausted the ramblers returned to the Cadbury mansion for tea and cakes.

Inside the factory there were warm cloakrooms for drying wet clothes and kitchen facilities for cooking food. The brothers also built superb houses for their employees. Every house had a spacious garden for growing vegetables. Fruit trees were planted and the garden dug over before each new owner moved in. Trees were planted along the wide roads. Imagine moving from a rat-infested slum dwelling to a wonderful garden estate. You would probably shout – “The kingdom of God is here!”

Later George built schools and a shopping area for his employees. Cadbury campaigned for old-age pensions and fought against the brutal treatment of so many working people. He even paid £60,000 of his own money into pension funds for his employees!

On his estate he had a special building constructed and each year thousands of deprived children found in the spacious grounds every delight that could appeal to them – swings and cricket, races and games and above all the open-air swimming pool.

When George died in 1922, his funeral was attended by over 16,000 people.

Let us ponder deeply as to how Cadbury followed Jesus in his sphere of responsibility. Thank you Jim Skillen for helping us to understand how Christians can administer justice (Hebrews 11:33) in all the many ‘offices of responsibility’ that call us to faithful, loving service.

Mark Roques
Categories: RealityBites

Mark Roques

Mark taught Philosophy and Religious Education at Prior Park College, Bath, for many years. As Director of RealityBites he has developed a rich range of resources for youth workers and teachers. He has spoken at conferences in the UK, Holland, South Korea, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. Mark is a lively storyteller and the author of four books, including The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith. His work is focused on storytelling and how this can help us to communicate the Christian faith. He has written many articles for the Baptist Times, RE Today, Youthscape, Direction magazine and the Christian Teachers Journal.


Ted Newell · January 18, 2024 at 11:07 am

What a fabulous picture of the sheer relief and blessing of the kingdom of God! Here is a little glimpse before the time! Talk about applying his faith! And thanks to Jim Skillen for encouraging the thoroughgoing — radical in the best sense — thinking and working

Roy Clouser · January 19, 2024 at 6:43 pm

My father’s father began work in the Penna. coal mines when he was 5. Thanks for the account of how the gospel’s influence can transform work as well as the rest of life. We sometimes forget that work isn’t a curse. Work was cursed. But it can also be a great blessing.

Bruce Gulland · January 19, 2024 at 7:04 pm

first rate!

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