John Cadbury: Chocolate Pioneer and Social Reformer

John Cadbury: Chocolate Pioneer and Social Reformer

John Cadbury, who founded Cadbury chocolate, made the world a sweeter places in many ways. (Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images)

Trevor Phipps

Trevor Phipps


Updated: 5/26/2024


As he walked through his English hometown, John Cadbury (1801–89) counted nearly 600 alcohol retailers and almost 100 pubs. Cadbury was born in 1801 in Birmingham, England, to a Quaker family that opposed slavery and believed that alcohol was the main cause of poverty.
Cadbury’s family noticed many fine qualities in him, even as a young man. His Aunt Cash wrote a letter to her son Joel (Cadbury’s cousin) saying that Cadbury was a wise, energetic young man who possessed a strong athletic form. Cadbury’s sister Maria also once wrote about Cadbury’s intelligence and energy at a young age, also saying that he dressed better than the other boys at school.
When he graduated from a Quaker school, Cadbury learned the beverage trade as an apprentice to a tea dealer. Then his father gave him a loan that changed his life. In 1824, Cadbury used the money to open up a small grocer’s shop on Bull Street in Birmingham, the town’s main commercial strip.
There he sold coffee, hops, tea, and cocoa as healthy alternatives to alcohol. Little did he know that his local business would grow into a worldwide, multi-billion-dollar chocolate empire.
Advertisment for Cadbury’s cocoa, 1890, in “The Graphic.” (Public Domain)

Advertisment for Cadbury’s cocoa, 1890, in “The Graphic.” (Public Domain)

His shop was nicely laid out and caught the attention of many passersby. The store contained exquisite pane glass windows with mahogany frames that were rare during that time. Cadbury hired a Chinese man dressed in traditional Asian wear to tend the shop, which was decorated with eye-catching Oriental figurines.
When Cadbury first started, he crafted his cocoa powder by grinding the beans by hand using a mortar and pestle. However, in 1831 Cadbury streamlined his cocoa production when he opened his first factory. By 1842, Cadbury manufactured and sold 16 varieties of a chocolate drink and 11 kinds of cocoa. He was honored in 1854 with the Royal Warrant and appointed official cocoa manufacturer for Queen Victoria (who was known to have quite a sweet tooth).

More Than Chocolate

While he was building his chocolate business, Cadbury spent his spare time trying to better society. After Cadbury’s uncle passed away from alcoholism, Cadbury and his father founded the Birmingham Temperance Society, and pledged to never drink alcohol.
In 1829, he was appointed to the Birmingham Board of Street Commissioners, the town’s early version of a city council. During his years in local government, Cadbury made strides to end poverty and improve living conditions within the city. One day he saw the poor conditions young boys worked under to clean chimneys, and implemented machines to clean the chimneys, instead. He also came up with ways to reduce smoke and pollution coming from steam engine vehicles that entered the city.
The way people mistreated animals in the mid-19th century saddened Cadbury even though cruelty to animal was not against the law. Cockfighting was a popular sport and stagecoach horses were often driven until they dropped dead in their tracks. Cadbury established the Animals Friend Society that would eventually become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA); this is now the largest animal welfare charity in the UK.
As his enterprise grew and prospered, Cadbury spent days in his garden, enjoying the outdoors. He shared his affluence with others by loading baskets and delivering his vegetables to the less fortunate in town.
Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars are pictured in front of the Cadbury World tourist attraction at the Cadbury chocolate factory in Birmingham, central England, in 2009. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars are pictured in front of the Cadbury World tourist attraction at the Cadbury chocolate factory in Birmingham, central England, in 2009. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Cadbury developed arthritis and was depressed after the death of his wife in 1855. In 1861, he retired from his business, leaving it to his two sons, Richard and George. Cadbury passed away in 1889.
The two young men continued their father’s legacy by growing the business while caring for their employees and giving back to the community as their father had done. They also made their father’s dream come true of building a village where people could live close to where they worked. They established the Bournville factory and village that still exists today.
James Cadbury’s great-great-great grandson launched his own chocolate company, Love Cocoa. “Because I’ve got the Cadbury name, people probably think my pockets are lined with money,” he told The Sun in 2023. “But, because my ancestors were Quakers and philanthropists, they gave a lot of money back. They didn’t believe in creating wealth for the family and for generations so, instead, they put the money into different charities.”
John Cadbury left the world much more than delicious chocolate: He thought of others first and made their lives better.  
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Trevor Phipps

Trevor Phipps


For about 20 years, Trevor Phipps worked in the restaurant industry as a chef, bartender, and manager until he decided to make a career change. For the last several years, he has been a freelance journalist specializing in crime, sports, and history.

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