“City of Wonder:” Cadbury’s Troubled Utopia

An image of strong social consciousness had long been a part of the Cadbury chocolate company’s guiding ethos. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Cadbury positioned itself as a socially conscious manufacturer, emphasizing the purity of its chocolate and its health benefits to children in advertisements (Martin 2/22). Even as it embraced industrialism and struggled internally with entanglements in questionable overseas labor practices, the company strove to present itself as a model corporate citizen deeply concerned with the lives of its workers and consumers.

In the late nineteenth century, those branding efforts took a new and fascinating turn. Seeking to expand the production capacity of the business they had inherited from their father, George and Richard Cadbury moved the manufacturing works to a greenfield site some four miles outside of the industrial hub of Birmingham (Bournville Village Trust). It was 1879. Over the next twenty years, the factory project morphed to take on a new dimension: George facilitated the construction of model homes, and, eventually, extensive garden and recreation areas for employees. The village became a playground for Cadbury’s vision of a garden-factory town girded by Quaker morals (the consumption of alcohol was forbidden in the village)(Robinson). By 1900, a Village Trust was established, signaling the formation of a full-fledged civic community(Bournville Village Trust).

Packing_room,_Bournville_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16035
The Bournville factory would eventually form the hub of the model garden village.

Breathlessly described as “a city of wonder—the living monument of an altruistic merchant prince” by a 1902 observer, Bournsville  was indeed a testament to Cadbury’s social and mercenary goals (Dewsbury Reporter, quoted in Bryson and Lowe 21). It also reflected many of the issues endemic to planned communities, which are by their very nature exclusionary and moralizing. Like many of Cadbury’s endeavors, Bournville was a carefully calibrated balance of social mission and marketing appeal. George Cadbury, ever conscious of the public gaze and the ways in which he could craft the company’s image in order to sell chocolate, shaped and presented the model town as part of a larger effort at personal branding. Cadbury capitalized on the growing backlash to industrialism, turning what was quintessentially a major industrial and development project—the formation of a large suburban factory and accompanying dwellings—into the poster child for a nostalgic garden city movement. That image persisted and grew into a mythic persona: Bournville is today hailed by many as a foundational part of the Garden City movement, a legend that owes much to the publicity efforts of George Cadbury (Robertson 181).

The fact that Bournville eventually became a historic touchstone of social planning is no surprise given the extensive strategies Cadbury undertook to package the town for the public. “At the invitation of George Cadbury, about thirty-five of us…visited the Bournville Works, the name given to all those institutions for social betterment connected with the Cadbury cocoa works” wrote Edith Winder in a 1906 issue of Friends’ Intelligencer, an American Quaker magazine. Winder marveled at the lush gardens, well appointed missionaries’ residences, and recreational spaces of the settlement. She lavished praise on the village, and seemed thoroughly convinced by Cadbury’s hope that his plan would lead to “the alleviation of the evils which arise from the insanitary and insufficient accommodation supplied to large numbers of the working class” (Winder 362).

The circumstances of that visit are telling: by the turn of the century, Cadbury had begun offering carefully curated tours to reformers and city designers (Winder notes that the tour circumvented the actual factory itself). A Visitor’s Department was formed to accommodate and promote the flow of interested tourists and journalists, hosting 3,844 visitors in 1903 and an impressive 163,827 by 1938 (Robertson 182).  These tours rested perfectly at the nexus of social consciousness and image-building that epitomized the entire project: Visitors like Winder were impressed by the extensively planned, well-cultivated village outside Birmingham, and spread word of the idyllic town and its strong community values abroad. Much of the information gathered on such tours was provided via press materials produced by Cadbury Brothers Ltd; in other words, they were a perfect opportunity for free and positive publicity for the company. Perhaps most influentially, Cadbury produced a booklet, Factory in a Garden (Robertson 186). As Cadbury’s reputation as a socially conscious company rose, the image of Cadbury as a post-industrial company producing quality products in an idyllic suburban setting would remain prevalent for decades to come.

BirminghamBournvilleShops
Today, idyllic Bournville is hailed as an originator of the Garden City movement. But it also reflects a complicated combination of economic and marketing goals.

Relatedly, another expression of the mixed social and commercial goals of the village was its extensive use in advertising Cadbury products. Advertisements for tins of “Bournville biscuits” and chocolates abounded in early twentieth century periodicals (Lancet advertisement). These ads emphasized the fact that the chocolate was “made under ideal conditions,” playing into the near-mythic associations of the garden city with ideal living, working, and manufacturing conditions (Pictures and The Picturegoer advertisement).The recreational grounds at Bournville served as decoration on Bournville chocolate tins which proudly proclaimed the chocolate’s origin in “a factory in a garden.” Bournville had become the perfect marketing tool—by using its name and image, Cadbury was able to sell chocolate via the idyllic setting in which it was purportedly made. 

The fact that Bournville was able to attain a reputation as a utopian post-industrial village is important not just for what it reveals about Cadbury’s publicity strategy, but also because such claims downplay the experiences of real citizens and the conflicts that arise from the creation of model cities. Like all planned cities, Bournville necessarily struggled to reconcile a utopian vision with the realities of mixed-dwelling life. From Burnsville to Celebration, Florida, utopian planned communities are forced to make demographic and exclusionary decisions which can undercut their status as perfect communities: usually, lines are drawn along socioeconomic, class, or racial lines. And, in Bournville’s case, these issues may have arisen from the fact that the “Garden City” image eventually associated with the town was retroactively applied to what may have been a mercenary venture. Bournville had branded itself as a home for laborers and as a charitable mission for the poor (Winder notes the presence of “almshouses” on the fringes of the estate” (361)), but the reality was slightly different. As Bryson and Lowe note, the first houses in the community were priced high enough to “exclude unskilled workers, semi-skilled workers, as well as individuals from the lower and middle classes,” attracting instead real estate spectators who may have been the actual intended target demographic for the project (22). But because Cadbury controlled the presentation of the village to visitors and in texts, this original goal could easily be downplayed and supplanted with one that focused on social consciousness.

Girl's Recreation Ground.  Bournville.  Photo.
Bournville was known for its gardens and public recreation areas, promoting George Cadbury’s image of a moral suburban community.

Formed at the turn of the century, Bournville was perhaps one of the first self-reflexively nostalgic planned garden communities created as a pushback to industrialism, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Like these later cities, Bournville embodied the contradictions inherent to the building of a utopian city for ultimately commercial ends. Visitors to the city saw a socially aware attempt at combatting the ills of modern city life; but for Cadbury, the village and its reputation were also powerful tools for marketing. Like so many other aspects of the company and its branding, Bournville represented a carefully controlled effort to craft a socially conscious image while carrying out clearly mercenary goals.

Works Cited

Bailey, Adrian R., and John R. Bryson. “Stories of Suburbia (Bournville, UK): from Planning to People Tales.” Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 7, no. 2, 2006, pp. 179–198.

“BOURNVILLE CHOCOLATES.” The Lancet, vol. 218, no. 5652, 1931, p. 1442.

“BOURNVILLE.” Pictures and The Picturegoer (Archive: 1922-1925), vol. 9, no. 52, 1925, p. 64.

Bournville Village Trust. The Bournville Story. Bournville: Bournville Village Trust, 2010. Print.

Bryson, and Lowe. “Story-Telling and History Construction: Rereading George Cadbury’s Bournville Model Village.” Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 28, no. 1, 2002, pp. 21–41.

Robinson, James. “Bournville: The Town That Chocolate Built.” The Guardian. N.p., 22 Jan. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

Winder, M. “BOURNVILLE.” Friends’ Intelligencer (1853-1910), vol. 63, no. 23, 1906, p. 361.

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