Uncle Joe’s team marks a British confectioner with a sweet legacy

The UK has been renowned for the wealth of traditional sweets businesses that have emerged over the past century. With father’s day around the corner, which has proved a popular time for chocolate gift giving in particular Confectionery Production examines the story of how an artisan’s vision and generosity turned him into a father figure for a local community 

Lancashire has provided the confectionery world with an array of sweet treats down the generations, and the story of William Santus is no exception. He has made Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls world renowned after his wife Ellen started boiling up sugar to make them in the kitchen of their home in Acton Street, Wigan, in 1898.

But although he only had one child of his own, he became a hugely-popular figure among thousands of families and their children. Now the story of his generosity has been revealed by bosses at William Santus and Co after, in the run up to Father’s Day, they gathered together people’s memories of the man who promised his sweets would help “Keep You All Aglow.”

William Santus (main image) was born on July 27 1873 and like so many Wiganers of that era, grew up in poverty; one of seven brothers and sisters, with their father working as a shotfirer in the local colliery.

He left school at 14 to work on a fruit stall in Wigan Market Hall. He eventually bought his own stall, number 125, selling fruit and vegetables to the Wigan public but his life changed when he married a local girl named Ellen Seddon; a dressmaker by profession, and they began making sweets.

The toffee was transported from Gidlow to the Market by means of a small truck and a small boy, Eric, who used to get up early and hand wrap all the sweets that he was to deliver.

He would then take them down to the market and collect them again at lunchtime. In return William Santus rewarded him with what every schoolboy dreams of, a few bob a week and as many sweets as he could eat.

When the firm moved to Dorning Street Mr Santus began an informal policy of only employing staff if they met two criteria. Firstly, they had to know someone who already worked at the factory – and they had to be Methodists. This, he decided, assured that the working atmosphere was always friendly and happy.

Employees were given a generous wage of 8s per week (40p) but, in an act of paternal attentiveness, he usually gave the money straight to their mothers, who then returned a few pence “for spends”.

But the 1930s William Santus’ celebrity status was really starting to grow. 1933 saw the official patenting of the Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and in 1937 the company became fully registered, with Mr Santus marketing brilliance and determination to give something back to the community really starting to take hold.

Free samples of mint balls were distributed to men queuing in the cold outside football and rugby grounds. Once inside there were more packets for sale and these often enclosed another sample packet containing one mint balls printed with the slogan “Take this one home for the kiddie”.

Children would be met outside the school gates and given free sample packets and on afternoons when trade was slow Mr Santus used to take staff our in his car delivering more free samples to the houses along Caroline Street and Wallgate. During the war, and despite rationing, William and Ellen were renowned for sneaking a few extra sweets into the hands of local children.

After the conflict was over, William Santus and Co gave school children aged between five and 11 in the Wigan area a full mug of sweets each to commemorate the Queen’s coronation in 1952. The firm also had a float each year in the annual Wigan Carnival and, true to form, the Santus float would throw out little packets of mint balls to the crowds along the way.

Mr Santus died aged 79 in 1953 and on July 27, 1956, three years after his death and on what would have been his birthday, his only daughter Nellie also passed away. The company is now run by Joint Managing Directors Antony Winnard and John Winnard MBE, his great, great nephews.

Company legacy

John added: “While he had become a father figure to the whole town his own daughter, Nellie, was also extremely close to him and she never really got over his death.

“William, who had become known to most people simply as Uncle Joe because of the affection with which he was held, was still actively engaged with the business until a few days before his death.

“He loved the factory and his work and was never happier than when planning the firm’s future and prosperity.” Antony said: “There are so many amazing stories about William Santus, some of which we have collated over the years. But the more we talk to people the more wonderful tales about him we discover.

“In fact, just about the only thing he didn’t share was the secret recipe for the mint balls themselves, which has remained a family secret passed down through the generations.”

For more information on Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and other products in the range, including a video of the production process: www.uncle-joes.com

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