Doreen Lofthouse had a simple sales technique. She would not leave until she had secured an order of Fisherman’s Friend. Thus she almost singlehandedly grew Lofthouse of Fleetwood from a single pharmacy in the Lancashire fishing port of Fleetwood into a multimillion-dollar business that exports the throat-kicking lozenge to more than 120 countries.
She was born in the town and, having left school at 15 with no qualifications, went to work in the pharmacy as a shop girl. After marrying the proprietor’s younger son, Alan, Doreen foresaw a much wider market than the local fishermen who had bought the packages for generations to fortify them when they sailed their trawlers into the freezing North Atlantic on the hunt for cod.
The recipe of liquorice, menthol, eucalyptus oil and capsicum had been invented as a liquid medicine by James Lofthouse in 1865 to relieve bronchial congestion as well as aches and pains. The only snag was that the glass bottle often smashed as the fishing boats rolled on heavy swells. At the fishermen’s request, Lofthouse modified his fiery medicament into a starch-encased lozenge. The Fisherman’s Friend remained a trade secret of Fleetwood’s sailors for nearly a century.
The family’s only concession to entrepreneurialism was opening a kiosk on the promenade each summer to sell the lozenges to holidaymakers from Lancastrian mill towns who were staying in the boarding houses of nearby Blackpool and made a day trip on the tram to Fleetwood. Many suffered from respiratory problems as a result of unhealthy working conditions in the mills. On their return they would write to Lofthouse of Fleetwood to ask where they could buy the lozenges locally.
Doreen foresaw a much wider market than the local fishermen who had bought the packages for generations to fortify them when they sailed their trawlers into the freezing North Atlantic on the hunt for cod.
One day in 1963 Doreen picked up a pile of these letters and suggested to no little bemusement that she make a tour of Lancashire’s mill towns in her battered MG and visit every local chemist to show them the letters as proof that the product would soon disappear from their shelves. “They thought I was a little crazy,” she recalled.
The family gave her permission but no money for petrol. Diminutive, neat and attractive, the fiercely determined Mrs Lofthouse set off on her expedition, depending on a sale to buy the petrol to drive to the next town. She returned with dozens of orders.
By the end of the Sixties Fisherman’s Friend was being “exported” across the country — Doreen had persuaded a branch of Boots near Birmingham to stock the product and sales were so good that Boots wrote to ask if Lofthouse could supply all its UK branches.
The antiquated lozenge machine in the back room of the chemist in Lord Street was now woefully inadequate to supply demand. One cowering bank manager and meekly signed cheque later, Doreen opened a factory on the outskirts of the town in 1971 and developed a rounded aniseed lozenge in 1974, inspired by a button on her dress. The company started exporting to Norway in 1975 and a salted version was developed for the Swedish market.
Word began to spread that the lozenge was a cure for bad breath and could prevent people falling asleep at the wheel. At seven times the strength of the average menthol chew, Fisherman’s Friend gained rapid popularity in countries where people generally had stronger palates. The light-brown pellets began to be sucked as confectionery. Fisherman’s Friend chewing gum was launched. A sugar-free version appeared in 1979 and mint, lemon and apple cinnamon flavors introduced. Varieties such as spicy mandarin and cherry proved particularly popular in Singapore and Japan. By 1994 it was Britain’s biggest branded food export to Germany, which would import some 100 million packets a year.
The product’s retro packaging also proved a hit overseas. The distinctive black and red lettering had first come about because Doreen’s mother-in-law, Frances Lofthouse, had originally typed the words “Extra Strong” in red, underneath Fisherman’s Friend in black, because she did not want to waste the red ink on the typewriter. Meanwhile, Doreen had a created a logo based on a local trawler, Cevic, which ended its ended its days of service after sinking in the Bay of Biscay in 1991.
The Lofthouses even found a market in the Soviet Union, but declined to do a deal when their prospective clients offered to pay them in salt cod or jam.
Lofthouse won the first of three Queen’s Awards for Export in 1983 and during that decade sales rose fivefold. When she met an admiring Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister produced a packet of Fisherman’s Friend from her handbag. Lofthouse ensured that regular consignments were sent to 10 Downing Street thereafter.
Without recourse to corporate investment, the Lofthouses kept the company in family hands and firmly resisted the temptation to offshore production to the Far East in a bid to maximize profits.
While Fleetwood’s fishing industry declined, Lofthouse became the largest employer in the town. Today nearly 400 people work at the factory. Doreen knew each employee by their first name; they all knew her as “Mrs Lofthouse”. News of one of her impending tours of the factory floor would result in frenzied polishing of the machinery that today produces five billion lozenges a year.
Doreen Wilson Cowell was born in Fleetwood in 1930. Little is known about her family background, apart from the fact that she was educated locally; Lofthouse of Fleetwood was “unwilling” to provide any further details. Her first marriage in 1960 to Alan Lofthouse ended in divorce. She is survived by their son, Duncan, who co-owned the business. In 1973 Doreen shook up the family a second time by marrying Tony Lofthouse, the son of her ex-husband’s brother, who was 14 years her junior. Her second husband died in 2018.
The couple shared a plain office with a view of the car park through the net curtains. “Shop talk” was banned at home, a relatively modest three-bedroomed house in the nearby town of Thornton-Cleveleys with two dogs along with donkeys and Shetland ponies wandering around a 30ft replica of Fleetwood’s lighthouse in her garden. They rarely took holidays, preferring to work, and relaxed by gardening. After her OBE investiture at Buckingham Palace she and her husband celebrated with sandwiches back at the hotel.
The family’s wealth is estimated at more than $165 million. Much of it has been plowed into local philanthropy, including refurbishing the promenade and a pretty house atop a hillside, known as the Mount. Floodlights were bought for Fleetwood FC and a lifeboat for the RNLI. In 2019 she instituted a $41 million fund for community projects in the town. Her generosity earned her the sobriquet “Mother of Fleetwood”.
She continued to run the business as joint managing director with her husband until his death. He had long given up any pretense of being in charge. “Doreen’s been the driving force round here and still is,” he told the Daily Mail in 2010. “We’d all be terrified whenever she said ‘I’m just off to paint my nails’, because you knew there’d be some big idea when she came back.”
Doreen Lofthouse, O.B.E., M.B.E., entrepreneur, was born on February 27, 1930. She died of undisclosed causes on March 30, 2021, aged 91