ELHAS Meeting Report - January 2011

We began the New Year with a talk by Tom Dixon on the history of liquorice farming and manufacture in the Pontefract area. Tom, a star of stage, screen and television (well, maybe not screen, though the products certainly were) has appeared regularly on TV on programmes such as Great British Train Journeys and Look North and often gives presentations at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He began his talk with a brief history of the uses of liquorice which has been used medicinally for hundreds of years. The earliest mention of it was as a remedy for swellings, sore feet, excess of saliva and naturally as a diuretic. In the third century BC in China it was regarded as a giver of strength and long life. It is also recorded that the diarist Samuel Pepys was treated for bladder stones with a drink derived from liquorice. And during World War Two the war office took all the farm's crop to send to troops in the far east as a means of quenching thirst. However we were intrigued to hear that it is still in use today in the treatment of cancer. Fine strands of liquorice are used to suture after surgery on the stomach and gut since it will naturally dissolve within the body.

Tom explained that the reason the Pontefract area was the ideal place to grow the product was that the plant has extremely long roots and Pontefract has unusually deep top soil, in fact no less than 12 feet . How ever as a commercial crop it has its difficulties since it has to grow for seven years before being harvested. It is not grown commercially in this area now, although Tom still grows it on the farm where he grew up. Over the years Tom explained that the crop has had royal connections as his family sent a box of it every month to Queen Victoria at Osbourne House. Since liquorice is fifty times sweeter than sugar it is fair to say it probably did not have a good effect on the Queen's general or dental health. In fact when Michael Portillo was recording at the farm for the Great British Train Journeys programme he said he held Tom's family responsible for her death!! One of the most fascinating facts Tom revealed was the way it has been used in the film industry. Who would have thought that the boot eaten by Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush or the cable car cables chewed by Jaws in Moonraker were made from liquorice. But they certainly were and Tom had the boot complete with Chaplin's teeth marks to prove it. Over the years many famous people have visited the farm owned by Tom's family including John Betjeman who wrote a poem about the experience and disgraced minister John Profumo who came accompanied by two "assistants". We thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating insight Tom provided into the world of liquorice and his confident and easy style of presentation made it an entertaining evening for us all.

The next meeting on Monday 28th February 2011 will be an illustrated talk by Adam White, curator at Lotherton hall, entitled 'Lotherton Hall and its Collections'.