Plaque on Café Nero, Coppergate, YO1 9NT

After the death of both her husband and father, the formidable Mary Ann Craven took over the running of two businesses, establishing one of the world’s largest producers of boiled sweets. Archaeological investigations following the demolition of Craven’s Coppergate factory, known as the French Almond Works, led to the creation of the Jorvik Viking Centre.

When Mary Ann Hick married Thomas Craven in 1851 two of the families which had been gradually building up the confectionery trade in York over the previous half century were united. In 1803 Joseph Hick, Mary Ann’s father, had set up in business with his partner as Kilner & Hick, confectioners. After Kilner left the firm, Joseph and his wife Isabella moved their business to Coney Street, opposite the church of St Martin-le Grand. It was here that their second daughter, Mary Ann, was born on 15 September 1826 and baptised two days later at St Martin’s.

Mary Ann Craven

At the same time George Berry, a former partner of confectioner Joseph Terry, was setting up in business with his brother-in-law, Thomas Hide, at 20 High Ousegate. Thomas’s wife Frances (née Craven) was from an East Yorkshire farming family and in 1833 her brother, Thomas Craven, then aged 16, moved to York to become apprentice to Berry & Hide. After seven years of apprenticeship the young Thomas was able to buy the right to trade in York when he became a Freeman in 1840. Thomas Hide died in 1843 and Thomas Craven then set up his own business next door at 19 High Ousegate as a ‘purveyor of confectionery, teas, coffees etc’. For a short while he worked at these premises but, on 1 May 1845, moved to 21 Pavement which he rented at £70 a year. His shop was close to that of another later famous confectionery manufacturer, Joseph Rowntree who, at that time, was still running a grocery business. Rowntree did not describe himself as a cocoa manufacturer until 1875.

Craven’s expands

Site of Craven’s in Coppergate

Thomas Craven married Mary Ann Hick, nine years his junior, on 29 April 1851. They bought the Pavement building outright for £1,300 from the owner, William Dove, and a further site at 10 Coppergate. William Dove was an ironmonger with close connections to the Craven family. He was their next door neighbour when they moved to Heworth in the 1870s and Mary’s daughter, Susan, married William’s son, also William. On 20 February 1860 Mary Ann’s father, Joseph, died and two years later she was left a widow when Thomas died aged 43. She was faced with the challenging prospect of bringing up three young children, Joseph William aged 7, Annie 5 and Susan 3 and, at the same time, running two businesses. It must have seemed a formidable task but she tackled it with resolve, combining the two firms and running them very successfully until her death in 1900. In 1861, just before her husband died, they were employing 50 men and 40 boys. Ten years later she had 110 employees. In 1881 her son, Joseph, became a partner in the firm which now became M.A. Craven & Son. The firm became renowned for the quality of its toffees and humbugs and these and other sugar confectionery were produced from the site in Coppergate and additional properties in Coney Street and Foss Islands Road. There were also four Craven’s retail shops in York including Mary Ann’s Sweet Shop in the Shambles which had a sweet museum on the first floor.

Craven’s French Almonds

It was not until after the death of his mother that Joseph William visited Paris, at that time the centre for the world’s sugar confectionery trade, and bought the recipe for Original French Almonds. He brought it back to York in 1904 and kept it and the manufacturing process secret from Craven’s competitors. So important were French Almonds to their business sales that, in 1920, the Coppergate factory was renamed the French Almond Works. In 1925 Rowntree’s made a takeover bid for Craven’s but this was rejected and, after this date, the Craven’s business declined until, in 1936, the workforce was only 70. Revival did begin later, however, in 1966 when Craven’s left York city centre and moved to Low Poppleton Lane. There, on a six-and-a-half-acre site, they built a 140,000 sq.ft. factory which was extended several times as production increased.

Production grows

By 1980 they were producing 5,000 tons of sweets annually with a workforce of 380. Fifteen per cent of production was exported, particularly to Canada and the United States, but the bulk of the work was now for own-brand products of companies such as Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Marks & Spencer and British Home Stores. Subsequently there have been various takeovers and mergers. The Craven brand is currently owned by Tangerine Confectionery and the factory in Low Poppleton Lane is still in production, though none of the famous Craven’s sweets is currently made. Many of these are still remembered with affection: Craven’s French Almonds, Mary Ann Dairy Butter Toffees, Best English Mints, Old York Butterscotch, Mint Imperials and Buttered Brazils amongst others. Whilst fellow confectioners Rowntree’s and Terry’s began to concentrate on chocolate production in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Craven’s remained manufacturers of high-quality sweets.

Craven’s legacy

Apart from their confectionary legacy, Craven’s also played an indirect part in one of York’s great discoveries. The Coppergate factory was demolished after Craven’s moved to Poppleton in 1966 and, between 1976 and 1981, the York Archaeological Trust was able to undertake excavations over a wide area before the construction of the Coppergate Shopping Centre was begun. They discovered some 40,000 artefacts from Viking Jorvik which had lain for centuries under the Craven’s factory. Many of these are now housed in the Jorvik Viking Centre built soon afterwards on the site and opened in April 1984.

It is difficult to construct a picture of Mary herself, although she obviously must have been extremely efficient, determined and hard-working. There appears to be only one surviving likeness, which used to hang in the factory and seems to show her as a person who would brook no nonsense. She was only small in height and, apparently, had a tall chair built for her to oversee the packers and make sure they were getting on with their work and not gossiping. So successful was the firm that eight years after she died the workforce had grown to around 800. Sometime in the 1870s Mary moved with her three grown children from living “over the shop” at 21 Pavement to Heworth Croft, a large house on Heworth Green, where she lived until her death on the 31 July 1900. Her funeral service was held at All Saints’ Church, Pavement and she was buried in York City Cemetery.

At the east end of the south aisle of the church of All Saints’ Church, there is a stained glass, three-light window, dedicated to Mary Ann Craven. It depicts three saints, who were also mothers, with their sons: the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus; Saint Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; and Saint Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Underneath are written these words:

To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Mary Ann Craven who was born 15th September 1826 and died 31st July 1900, her three children Joseph William, Annie Isabella and Susan Adelaide dedicate this window.


Paul Chrystal and Joe Dickinson, History of Chocolate in York (Barnsley, 2012)

Souvenir Guidebook to York’s Chocolate Story in King’s Square, York

York City Directories for York censuses for 1841-1891 and birth, marriage and death details


© Dinah Tyszka