Above: Stone drinking fountain in Finsbury Square.
Just north of Finsbury Circus — which is within the boundary of the City of London — lies Finsbusy Square which is within the old Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury — now part of the London Borough of Islington. It is a rather uninteresting square, mainly covered by grass, but in the SW corner is a large stone drinking fountain. The ornate structure was erected by Thomas and Walter Smith, the sons of a sweet manufacturer and inventor of the Christmas cracker, Tom Smith. It commemorates their mother Martha Smith and is probably walked past by thousands of people every day who never give it a second glance.
Above: Details of the inscription on the fountain.
The father, Tom Smith, opened a confectionary shop in Goswell Road sometime around 1840. During a trip to Paris, he noticed the French-style ‘bon-bon’ which was a little sweet, covered in fancy paper with twisted ends, much like many toffees and chocolates still are today.
On returning to London, he had the idea to make something similar and put them in a fancy box. The idea of pulling the wrapper off seemed rather boring and he had the idea of adding a small ‘snap’ so that, as the reciepient opened the sweet, there was a mini explosion to add to the surprise. The cracker had been invented and the year was 1847.
The company moved to larger premises at 65-69 Wilson Street, near Finsbury Square, where it produced what we would now call boxes of crackers with names like ‘Tit-bits Crackers’, ‘New Jewel Crackers’ and even ‘Matrimonial Agency Crackers’. A press report in December 1881 stated ‘One large firm in Finsbury has this year imported a thousand gross of whimsical little articles from Japan, all of them of a size to be stowed away in the body of ordinary-sized crackers. There is the usual explosion, and then, instead of the familiar sugarplum, there is discovered a tiny glass case with a flower blossoming in a flower pot, or there is a little tea-kettle.’ A pack of the original Tom Smith crackers can be seen in the Museum of Childhood, at Bethnal Green.
After a disastrous fire at the factory in 1889 the company rebuilt it. They had a work force of 2,000 people, including 400 women. It was a very large operation with the company producing 112,000 boxes of crackers in a year-round operation to build up stock for Christmas. It also made crackers for other occasions.
The company is still trading today, although it moved from the Finsbury area in the 1950s. Today the Tom Smith Group is a subsidiary of Napier Industries, the largest manufacturer of crackers in the world. The fountain at Finsbury Square is a last, reminder of the area’s links to the inventor of the Christmas cracker.