Ready to sticky rock and roll with the holiday treat that spans generations

Wrapped in crunchy cellophane, and containing a grainy black and white photo — of Youghal or Bray, Brighton or Blackpool — this classic teeth-breaking sweet is still selling by the bucket load. In fact, the market is expanding, says Robert Hume, who has discovered some unusual details about this cheap and cheerful holiday gift

Ready to sticky rock and roll with the holiday treat that spans generations

Rock hasn’t always come in sticks with letters

Pedlars sold small colourful squares of unwrapped rock at country fairgrounds in the early 19th century. This “fair rock” had no garish neon hues like today, and no lettering.

Diarist, Henry Mayhew, mentions souvenir sticks of rock being hawked on the streets of London in 1851, and marvelled how the words, “Lord Mayors Day”, ran from one end to the other.

Early rock was sometimes nicknamed “love rock”, for the inscription often contained the word “love”. “Do You Love Me?” read one. Another, less romantically: “Do You Love Sprats?”

Lettering can take ten years to master

Ex-miner, Ben Bullock, began pulling sugar to mass-produce long ropes of lettered rock at his sweet factory in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, in 1887 which he would cut into sticks with shears. Soon afterwards, ‘Dynamite Dick’ was pulling, rolling and lettering in Morecambe, Lancashire.

Lettering is a craft that can take ten years to master. The letters, always capitals, come in six-foot-long strips of clear red sugar. Any spaces within the letters — as in ‘P’ or ‘O’ —are filled with opaque white sugar.

Sticks of Cobh rock in Aunty Nellie’s shop, Cobh, Co Cork. Picture: Denis Scannell
Sticks of Cobh rock in Aunty Nellie’s shop, Cobh, Co Cork. Picture: Denis Scannell

‘Square’ letters are made first, as they will not lose their shape, while ‘triangular’ (A and V) and ‘round’ letters (C, D, G, O, Q, S, U) are constructed last to prevent them from running into the soft toffee.

Whether you lick your rock, crunch a bit off, or attack it with a knife and hammer, as my dad did, the inscription is always visible. As Ida observes in Graham Greene’s 1948 thriller, Brighton Rock, “bite one all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton”.

Rock and roll

Butlins hit the headlines in 2008 when it rolled out the largest stick of rock the world has ever seen to celebrate a Sugababes concert at its Minehead camp.

A team of ten people spent over 24 hours smoothing it into shape, and a forklift truck was needed to lift it.

Measuring half the length of a bus, and boasting a circumference of 1.25 meters, the monster was equivalent to almost 5,000 normal sticks of rock and weighed 440.8kg — as much as a baby elephant.

Funny flavours

Rock has long since branched out from peppermint. Shells, a popular seaside restaurant in Strandhill, Co. Sligo, sells, at €2, a very intriguing “mixed-fruit type, hard to pin down exactl y— but it’s delicious”, says manager, Lorna Golden.

No such doubt at Aunty Nellie’s sweet shop in Cobh where you can sink your teeth into ice cream sundae, cappuccino, trifle and bubblegum-flavoured rock.

But if it’s something savoury you’re after, Sweet Delights in Blackpool can offer pizza margherita or chicken tikka masala rock.

Yet plenty of us are still orthodox at heart in matters rock. When Maura Harris from Benners Hotel, Dingle, requests: “Bring me back a rock”, she means a “minty” specimen. “Rock is rock, and should only have one flavour,” she argues. “If that changes it no longer is the traditional rock that we know.”

Rude rock causes uproar

Lancashire’s Southport Rock Shop made national news in 2002 when two male police officers ordered the manager “to take all the rock willies out of the window”. The rock boobs could stay, they told him, because “they hadn’t received any complaints about them”.

Last summer parents entering a rock shop with their children in Scarborough, Yorkshire, failed to be amused by “wobbly titties” and a “willy on a stick” imported from China, deeming them more appropriate for the shelves of a sex shop. A Blackpool outfit selling similar items alongside traditional rock commented they would “rather not sell them but that’s what people want”.

Rock is going places

Highstreet banks and coffee shops, department stores and airlines, are promoting their businesses using rock. “People might throw away marketing flyers, but sticks of rock get remembered”, says Brett from the Rock People in Lancing, West Sussex. “Your business running through the message will always hit the spot.”

But politicians beware. When Wicklow Labour Party TD, Anne Ferris, distributed free “Anne Ferris rocks” as part of her unsuccessful election campaign last year, many dismissed the gesture as a publicity stunt.

Though who would deny a bride and groom on their big day presenting guests with sticks of rock, emblazoned with the couples’ names, a heart, and the date they took the plunge? Now there’s a change from sugared almonds.

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