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Many thanks Florence sincerely, from Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 20, 2014

By Chris Smith

  • The signed postcard that came all the way from Hollywood to West Bromwich

  • Victor Finnegan, inventor of the Black Country Nip-a-Kof sweet

  • The Dudley Hippodrome in its prime in the '50s

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EASTER means many things to many people, but somewhere along the line eggs, particularly the chocolate variety, will be considered as an essential ingredient, especially by children.

Several months ago we featured 'A Mon and his Pig', a tale from Hill Top in West Bromwich supplied by Bugle reader Chris Smith who lives in Coventry, and Chris has been busy again with another cracking tale that involves his mom, a chocolate Easter Egg, and the famous comedy duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It was Eastertide 1952, and Laurel and Hardy were topping the bill at the annual Easter Show at Dudley Hippodrome, but as Chris explains, there is a preamble to this story.

"Once, opposite the Red Cow, which is situated on the High Street in Smethwick, there stood a shop with a double fronted window. Each window was painted dark green, three quarters of their height from the level of the pavement, and over the years the window frames had acquired that dirty brown look as a result of the chimney smoke from surrounding factories.

"On the right-hand side of the building stood a dark brown painted door, recessed into the framework of the shop facade and the only visible entrance into the premises. In 1950, this unobtrusive, rather drab looking building was the centre of the Finnegan sweet empire and a factory of such importance in the lives of many Black Country folk. Each weekday, and on Saturday mornings, sweets of all kinds and flavours were produced in specific batches by just four members of staff.

"However, the beginning of every day was the most important time, when the most profitable and favourite sweet, the quarter of an inch, square, sugar coated, black cough sweet, famously called 'Finnegan's Nip-a-Kof', was made in large quantities; its formula is still a closely guarded secret to this day.

"The 'Nip-a-Kof' was a firm favourite for a very long time, and became an essential part of every day life for many Black Country workers. As they purchased their Woodbines or Player's cigarettes, and the obligatory newspaper, on their way to work, they would also buy two or more ounces of 'Nip-a-Kof' (2d for 2oz), which they sucked during their labours in order to counteract the dirty, dusty environment they worked in.

"In those days of course heavy industry was located in every corner of the Black Country, the region famous for its factories, collieries, aluminium and iron casting works, brickworks, gasworks, machine shops, vehicle manufacturers and laundries, etc., which inevitably had a bad influence on the air quality, but at the same time kept the sales of Finnegan's cough sweets riding high.

"Every evening Finnegan's delivery van could be seen dashing along the highways and by-ways of the Black Country, and as far afield as Wolverhampton and Cannock, to ensure that shops were fully stocked with 'Nip-a-Kof' for the next day's business when most newsagents opened at 5 o'clock. Workers were often heard to say, 'It's Finnegan's cough sweets that help keep the taste of dirt and dust out of our throats.

"The immediate post-war years were governed by restrictions and rationing, and medicines were also in short supply and therefore expensive. As far as working mums were concerned, the best remedy for family coughs and sneezes was to suck on a 'Nip-a-Kof sweet', especially for the children of the household.

"During the 1950's the hand painted advertisement for Finnegan's Nip-a-Kof could be seen on many advertising hoarding's across the Black Country, but by the '80s only one survived, in Blackmore, Cannock, on a building soon to be demolished. Finnegan's also made sweets for shops along Blackpool's famous Golden Mile where elderly folk on visits to the seaside soon found them to their liking.

"Mr. Finnegan was also a patron of the theatre and an associate of the Kennedy brothers, who were also patrons of the Dudley Hippodrome, taking part in financing some of the shows which helped to introduce new acts to the stage. During the pantomime season and for the Easter shows in particular the children who sat in the front stalls were often showered with Finnegan's sweets by the principal performers.

"In 1952 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were topping the bill at the Dudley Hippodrome Easter Show on what was reputed to be their last tour of Great Britain. (They toured again in 1954). Prior to Easter week it was suggested, then agreed, that at the end of the show Stan and Ollie should be presented with an Easter Egg, but no ordinary one. This one was going to be very much bigger than most and Mr. Finnegan was asked to make it.

"It was a task he happily accepted, and it was my mom, Florence Smith, who was given the responsibility of producing the egg in time for the show. She was Finnegan's foreman and since leaving school at the age of 13 had been involved in all aspects of making sweets at the factory and told him she could at least try. Finnegan had every faith in her and the first job was to assemble the materials for such a grand undertaking. And where better to borrow a large egg mould, which came in two halves, and the necessary amount of chocolate to make the finished article very impressive indeed, than Cadbury's of Bournville.

"After some very hectic work during the days that followed, the two parts of the Easter Egg were completed, filled with loose sweets, then sealed together and finished ready for the presentation. On the night of the show the egg, wrapped in brightly decorated cellophane and neatly tied with a ribbon, was carefully transported to the Hippodrome in the works van and kept hidden from view.

"Because Mr. Finnegan found walking difficult, he and my mom sat together to watch the show, Florence waiting to help her boss to the stage steps to make the presentation at the end of the performance. The show was a great success and as always Laurel and Hardy had made tears of laughter flow from the majority of those in the audience. Then the theatre lights were raised and it was announced that a presentation would be made, 'Could Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy please remain on stage'.

"At this point Florence helped Mr. Finnegan to the stage steps, but his attempt to climb them to reach the comic duo was too much for him to bear. He was in pain, had become wearisome, and realising he couldn't fulfil his obligation turned to my mom, and for the first time she could ever remember, Finnegan called her by her first name. 'Well Florence. You made the egg, so you go and present it on my behalf'. For a split second she was unable to move, hanging on to Finnegan's arm so tight you would have thought it was about to fall off. But the job had to be done and in front a packed Hippodrome she made her way on to the stage with the Easter Egg that had been handed to her by a stage hand by her side, and made the presentation.

"The audience was in raptures, and clapped, whistled and stamped their feet, making quite a din, a fitting end to the 1952 Easter Show. My mom was only five feet tall and a lath at seven stone in weight, and standing beside the two famous comics it was almost as if it had been part of their performance.

"Several months later a letter arrived at our house addressed to mom with the postmark 'Hollywood America' on the envelope. Mom opened it carefully, not daring to wonder what may be inside, and with great dexterity she pulled out a photograph of Laurel and Hardy. In the most charming way they had personally signed their names and added the following message, 'Many thanks Florence, sincerely'.

If you would like to share any memories you may have of close encounters with famous personalities here in the Black Country in years gone by, please contact 01384 567678 or email editor@blackcountry bugle.co.uk.

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