Iconic Wigan sweet firm gears up for big anniversary by discovering a real-life Uncle Joe

For almost 125 years Uncle Joe has been the face of the world’s most famous mint balls, but now the family firm which makes them has discovered his real-life 21st Century counterpart.

By Charles Graham
Monday, 23rd May 2022, 12:30 pm

The boiled sweets, first made in the kitchen of a Victorian terraced house in Wigan, are today known around the world, thanks in no small part to the friendly-faced man dressed in top hat and tails who appears on the packets and tins.

But, after years of research and searching through their family tree, the manufacturers discovered that he wasn’t a real person, but a friendly figure invented by the firm’s founder, William Santus.

Now, after launching a national appeal for people to nominate an Uncle Joe with a happy smile and a generous nature they have discovered a real-life Uncle Joe to help them with their 125th anniversary celebrations next year.

Joseph Thomas with his namesake

Joseph Thomas, or Uncle Joe to his three nieces and three great nephews, is a former bus driver who was born and brought up in Wigan and has lived in the same house in the town for the last 60 years.

The 76-year-old was nominated by his family for his kindness and loving nature. After the sudden death of his father in 1961, Joe became the man of his household and aged just 15 he took it upon himself to look after his mum and little sister, who was only five at the time.

Giving up the chance of getting married and having his own children, he stayed loyal to his family and became a loving uncle to his sister’s three daughters.

Joe, who has been rewarded with a year’s supply of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and a guided tour of the Toffee Works factory where they are made, said: “This is a wonderful surprise and a great honour, especially for someone who has been eating Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls all his life.

Joseph Thomas with Wm Santus co-director John Winnard on the factory floor

“I used to enjoy them as a child and then used to eat them while I was driving buses. Uncle Joe is instantly recognisable to generations of families and I am delighted to be following in his footsteps.”

Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls are made by Wigan-based William Santus and Co Ltd which was established in 1898.

Each year 33 million sweets are made in the same way as the first ones back in 1898, when Santus’s wife Ellen started boiling up sugar in the kitchen of her home in Acton Street, Swinley.

They soon became a local favourite and their fame spread, as did the slogan "They keep you all aglow".

The ownership has been passed down through the family generations and joint managing directors John Winnard MBE and Antony Winnard are the great, great-nephews of the founder.

They said: “The iconic character has been the face of our sweets for decades but when it became clear that he wasn’t a real person we thought it would be great to mark our 125th anniversary by finding a real-life Uncle Joe, who embodies all the fun and generosity Uncle Joe’s stands for.

“William Santus was known for giving away sweets and helping those in need and he not only made the sweets, he dreamed up the advertising campaigns and it seems he even drew the character on the tins.

“Joe is a great fellow and embodies all the qualities which William Santus was looking to capture when he created Uncle Joe. We are sure he would be delighted with our choice.”

The brothers believe William Santus may have taken the name for his sweets from a local Lancashire greeting.

John said: “There was a nicety that was used in the streets and between miners as they were coming up from their shift.

“When they were crossing over with the lads heading to the coalface and saw somebody they didn’t know by name they say ‘Alreet Joe’. It was a term of with friendliness and camaraderie.

“And, as a kid, everyone had a favourite uncle who would bring them sweets as a treat. We think he just put the two together and came up with Uncle Joe.”

While the ingredients of pure cane sugar, oil of peppermint and cream of tartar are "suitable for vegans" and "gluten free", the exact recipe remains a closely guarded secret.

These days it’s not just mint balls, the company produce flavoured sweets using rhubarb and ginger, sugar free ones and a variety of other treats. There’s even been a special limited addition Uncle Joe’s Gin.