Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa was a popular energy restorative in the Victorian era, and could be regarded as the Lucozade or Gatorade of its time. At its height it was one of the highest-selling cocoa-based drinks in Britain.
William Tibbles (1834 – 1912) was born into impoverished circumstances in Leicester, in the English Midlands. The family lived in the workhouse during the 1851 Census.
Tibbles described his occupation as a frame work knitter and medical practitioner in the 1861 census. No evidence has been uncovered that suggests that Tibbles ever underwent any formal medical training.
Tibbles claimed that botanicals had cured him of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1867. He began to sell coca and its concentrated extract, cocaine, as a general cure for debility and consumption, from 1871. He was advertising Tibbles Concentrated Essence of Composition and Cocaine by 1876.
Tibbles later invented Vi-Cocoa, a mixture of malt, hops, kola and cocoa. He licensed the recipe and naming rights to Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa Ltd, a company formed to exploit his product. Advertisements for Vi-Cocoa first appeared from 1893.
The company was renamed as Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa (1898) Ltd from 1898 with a capital of £400,000. Tibbles retired soon afterwards. The company was probably overvalued, with high sales heavily dependent on unsustainable levels of advertising.
The company was renamed the Watford Manufacturing Company in 1907. Over 1,000 people were employed by 1914. Vi-Cocoa and Delecta chocolate were the principal products.
The company did not pay a dividend between 1908 and 1918. Nominal capital was increased from £250,000 to £1 million in 1918, with Lord Leverhulme (1851 – 1925) becoming the largest single shareholder. Originally a soap manufacturer, Leverhulme was increasingly concerned with food manufacturing by this time, and the paternalistic reputation of the Watford Manufacturing Company was in harmony with his own views.
Construction of a large new factory begun in 1918-19, but was never completed due to liquidity issues. The company had benefited from healthy sales during the First World War, aided by military contracts. However the wartime boom was followed by a post-war economic slump.
Company capital was increased to £3 million in 1919-20.
The Watford Manufacturing Company entered into liquidation in 1922. Lord Leverhulme purchased the company assets for £543,000 in cash to ensure that all creditors were paid, as well as in all likelihood, to protect his own reputation.
The Financial Times commented after the liquidation that the downfall of the company was as a result of its excessive valuation.
Leverhulme almost immediately sold the site and brands to Planters Products Ltd, a Lever Brothers subsidiary. Vi-Cocoa production continued.
The Watford factory employed 400 people by 1929, and was one of the largest employers in the area.
The Watford factory was sold off in 1930, and production was absorbed into Unilever, the successor to Lever Brothers.
Vi-Cocoa continued to be advertised as late as 1945.