The Wolverhampton soldier who invented Walkers crisps after a swim with a football legend

The ubiquitous Gary Lineker is soon to host a new game show called Sitting on a Fortune. Cynics might say it is rather fitting for one of the BBC's biggest earners, raking in the readies from a total of nine jobs.

Frank Spittle with a bag of Walkers crisps
Frank Spittle with a bag of Walkers crisps

Aside from his new ITV quiz show, and his job fronting Match of the Day, the former England striker is also well-known for his role advertising Walkers crisps. While it might seem strange that he would advertise a snack not normally associated with an athletic lifestyle, on another level it makes sense: one of Leicester's most favourite sons advertising one of Leicester's most famous products. Or is it?

Because while Leicester-based Walkers might be Britain's largest manufacturer of potato crisps, the original recipe was developed by a young entrepreneur from Wolverhampton.

Frank Spittle was a newly demobbed 21-year-old, when he returned to Wolverhampton in 1946 to work for the family business. Bauer Casings was a manufacturer of dripping, sausage casings and other products sought after by butchers, but these items were in short supply and subject to rationing.

One exception was potato crisps, which were not subject to rationing, although they were still pretty hard to get hold of. The sole manufacturer of this newfangled snack was Smiths of Blackpool, but how it made crisps was a tightly controlled trade secret.

Undaunted, Frank got to work seeing if he could crack it. He set about slicing and frying different varieties of potato, to see which worked best. He discovered they would stick together unless washed twice to get rid of the starch. The problem was knowing what to fry them in.

Frank Spittle pictured at his home in Wolverhampton

In a 2002 interview with the Express & Star's Peter Rhodes, Frank revealed a lucky discovery which could have set him on the road to the big time.

"The only frying agent at that time was fish-shop dripping,” he said. “This left a greasy feeling on the palate if they were eaten cold.”

He tried to find out what Smiths was using, but got nowhere. His father was a friend of the legendary footballer Stanley Matthews, who ran a small hotel in Blackpool. After a midnight swim, a friendly landlady directed Frank to a pal of hers who made Blackpool rock.

“He was using an edible oil to stop his rock sticking to the steel tables while being rolled. Eureka! I had cracked it. The oil was teaseed oil and it came from Korea.”

And it worked. With his recipe perfected, Frank Spittle installed improved potato slicers and an electric packing machine. The slicer was a great success but the packer failed and Crown Crisps, named after the street where they were made, were bagged by hand. Having perfected the product, Frank Spittle set about marketing the crisps by the simple method of walking into pubs, clubs and shops and handing them round to the customers. The results were impressive.

Stanley Matthews had a role in discovering the recipe that led to the Walkers crisps we know and love today

“Liptons allowed me to supply all their shops as far away as the Welsh coast,” he said.

One notable success came the night when the tickets went on sale for the 1949 FA Cup final between Wolves and, ironically, Leicester City. Frank knew there would be a long queue outside the ground, and took a lorry load to sell to those in the queue. The snacks went down a storm, and he sold out on the night.

By 1950 Crown Crisps was employing 25 people and had its own amateur football team. It seemed too good to last. It was. For some time the family sausage-skin company had been supplying Walkers, a small family butcher in Leicester. One day, Frank's father announced that two men from Walkers were coming to visit, and that Frank must show them how to make his potato crisps. Frank was horrified. All his expertise and experimenting were about to be handed over to another company. But his dad insisted.

The rest is potato-crisp history. A few months later Frank's father died. The company fell on hard times. Crown Crisps went out of business. Walkers went on to oust Smiths as the biggest crisp maker in Britain, developing a range of different flavours, starting with cheese and onion in 1954, and salt and vinegar in 1967. Today, Walkers employs more than 4,000 people in 15 locations.

Gary Lineker has fronted Walkers crisp adverts for more than 20 years

Frank, on the other hand, went on to keep a gun shop in Bushbury Road, Fallings Park, before his retirement in 2001. He died in 2010, aged 84.

Frank said he never felt bitter about Walkers' success. He told Peter Rhodes:

"I was a bit annoyed at the time. But my dad was just that sort of bloke. He told me to do as I was told, and not to argue about it. It is a strange story, but true.

"If I hadn't accepted the challenge of a midnight swim off Blackpool while spending a few days with Sir Stanley Matthews, Walkers Crisps of Leicester would not be the commercial giant it is now. Actually, I feel very proud.”

So maybe the idea of using a footballer to promote crisps is not as odd as it seems. But maybe it should be Steve Bull instead.

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