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How the tobacco industry played a vital part in nottingham’s history

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In fact, the company has been in Nottingham for nearly 130 years.

Back in 1877, Britain was enjoying the fruits of prosperity for the powerful and still growing Empire.

Queen Victoria had reigned for 40 years, and at the instigation of Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, had also taken the title Empress of India.

Lace making was the principal, but by no means the sole, industry in Nottingham.

There was a tobacco industry here, but on nothing like the scale John Player would expand it to.

He wasn’t a Nottingham man.

He came here in 1862 from Saffron Walden, Essex, where he had been bought up, the son of a solicitor.

His initial reason for moving was to take up a job in Nottingham as a drapers’ assistant.

That career was short lived, but it seems to have given him the impetus and the know how to set up shop on Beastmarket Hill selling seeds and other agricultural and horticultural goods.

A history of Players, written in 1977 for the firm’s centenary records “At that time tobacco was sold loose from jars. Hand made cigarettes were weighed out on scales according to individual needs.”

Player started to sell loose tobacco, but only as a sideline.

It wasn’t long before he realised how lucrative selling tobacco blends was, and soon the sideline became his major business

Such was its growth rate that his next logical step was buying a tobacco factory.

The premises were in Broad Marsh, and he acquired them in 1877.

The business, producing pipe and chewing tobacco as well as hand made cigarettes had been established in 1823 by William Wright.

At the time Player bought it, the factory employed 150 people, but its production capacity was such that it only met local demands.

Player was a far more ambitious man, and had his sights set on wider, infinitely more lucrative, horizons.

Rather than continue with the time consuming and highly labour intensive tradition of hand rolling cigarettes, he set about introducing ready make tobacco products, for quick sale over the counter.

He also showed a remarkable flair for marketing.

Player wanted to create brand loyalty among his customers, so they would come back, again and again, for Players” cigarettes and other tobacco products.

So he introduced the company”s first trademark, a drawing of Nottingham Castle, was registered in 1877 and continued to be used for years after it still appeared on pipe tobacco tins well into the 1960s.

Player’s’s better known trademark, the still familiar sailor”s head took longer to come into being, and indeed came in a number of different forms.

The first head, the sailor alone, appeared and was registered in 1883, Five years later, the lifebelt frame and Players Navy Cut appeared, superimposed.

The two ships, HMS Britannia and HMS Hero were added in 1891.

Designs changed quite a bit, the most eccentric showing the rear of a sailors head, and bearing the legend, ‘Turn your back on all but Players.’

As Player grew and I”ll look at that in more detail shortly it was decided that there should be one sailor motif and that it should be standardised. This was based on a painting by the illustrator AD McCormick.

Player”s initial expansion, to the Broad Marsh, proved pretty soon to be too limiting in terms of production capability.

What the company needed was a larger site, and that was precisely what John Player set about finding in the 1880s.

What characterised the achievement of the major industries we associate with Nottingham Boots, Player and Raleigh was their rapid expansion.

By the 1880s, this was the demand Player faced.

The company”s marketing methods were so highly successful that Player was able to buy the extensive site at Radford, which for so long became associated with the company.

In 1880, it was a largely undeveloped area.

With his customary foresight, he built three factory blocks, the nucleus of the 30 acres of factories and offices that were to grow on the site.

Since only one block was needed immediately, the other two were hired out for lace making until they would be needed to expand the tobacco business.

This anticipated expansion took place early in the 1900s and a certain Mr Meats, Lace Manufacturer, was so loath to give up his tenancy that his steam power had to be cut off and the matter thrashed out in Player’s favour at the Nottingham Assizes.

The Castle Tobacco Factory was opened in April 1884, but tragically John Player was not destined to see his plans come to fruition.

A few months later he became ill and went to Bournemouth.

He died there at 45, having seen his factory take shape and having persuaded the authorities after persistent requests, that Nottingham should be granted the privilege of its own bonded warehouse.

The new factory, one of the world’s largest at the time, had one room 300ft long by 60ft wide, a 300hp engine driving the machinery and very elaborate fire precautions.

Working conditions, too, were given a high priority and John Player involvement with the welfare of his employees was reflected in amenities which were far ahead of their time.

When the founder died, the company he started was run for nine years by a group of his close friends until his two sons, John Dane Player and William Goodacre Player, were ready to take control.

Player”s history continues

“A popular brand of cigarettes at that time was player’s Gold Leaf Navy Cut, established before the 1890s. This brand was the forerunner of the famous Players Medium Navy Cut cigarettes. By 1898 the demand for Players brands meant that the second and third factories could not be absorbed and the workforce built up to 1,000 workers.

Player now had five Elliott machines, each capable of turning out 200 cigarettes a minute, in addition to these machines some 200 girls, widely known as Player’s Angels were making cigarettes by hand, the most efficient operators making 2,000 per day.

The steady inroads being made by cigarettes into the traditional tobacco and cigar markets is proved by the popularity by 1899 of such Player’s brands as Sandringham Dubec, Weights, Gold Leaf and No3 Virginia. There was an extensive box making department and the large bonded warehouse, for which John Player had fought so hard.

In 1899 Players shipped 150,000 Drumhead cigarettes to the troops in the Boer War by the SS Majestic and the following year 1,500 worth of Navy Cut cigarettes went out through the company’s agents in Capetown and Port Elizabeth to the troops in South Africa as a Christmas gift.”

The year 1901 saw a new century and a threat to the Player brothers’ business which might well have had disastrous consequences for them and the rest of the British Tobacco Industry.

An American millionaire, James Buchanan Duke, strode into their office and announced “Hello boys, I’s Duke from New York to take over your business.”

“Buck” Duke owned exclusive rights in America on the new mass production cigarette making machine, the Bonsack.

By undercutting his competitors he had obtained a monopoly in the United States and was now turning his eyes towards Europe for fresh conquests.

His first port of call was Liverpool, where he snapped up Ogdens. What he had not expected was that the other companies would promptly close ranks against him.

The Player brothers politely showed him the door.

Within four months of Duke’s opening gambit, 13 of Britain’s leading manufacturers, including John Player and Sons, had formed the Imperial Tobacco Company.

When Duke was later threatened by the new group on his home territory, he called a truce the following year. Both William Goodacre and John Dane Player remained on the Imperial Board until their retirement in 1926.

It is interesting to note that in 1913 Imperial contributed 1,000 guineas to a fund for the relatives of those lost in the Scott expedition.

That same year the Board
authorised, for the third year running, a bonus of eight per cent.

From 1910 until the outbreak of War I, Players continued to expand its building programme in Radford, and its workforce, which, by 1914 had grown to 2,500.

The war also had a curious side effect on Player”s marketing the large number of Australian servicemen in Britain prompted the company to introduce the brand name Digger for its all Empire tobacco blend, which went on sale in 1917, the company”s 40th anniversary.

And still it continued to expand, and the Armistice, in 1918, heralded an even greater boost to its fortunes.

Smoking was on the increase, and now women, who had gained the vote in 1918, were not afraid to be seen having a cigarette in public, which would have been considered scandalous beforehand.

Steady growth and progress continued to keep Player’s a key Nottingham industry, where jobs in the firm remained in high demand. In 1923, Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales the future King Edward VIII visited Nottingham, and the following year Player’s introduced what was to become a long standing slogan ‘Players Please’.

The sons of the original John Player, John Dane Player and William Goodacre Player also played a key role in the life of Nottingham.

Both had been educated at the High School, and both became notable philanthropists, giving to hospitals, convalescent homes, churches and schools.

In recognition of their munificence, both were made Freemen of the City of Nottingham in 1934 they were dead by the end of the decade, John Dane Player at the age of 85, William Goodacre Player at 93.

During their years as captains of the family industry, the company workforce had expanded more and more, from 2,500 staff in 1914 to 7, 500 in 1930, just after they had retired.

World War II heralded another era. Many of its staff, like my own father, George Brunton, who had joined the company in 1938, shortly before he took a commission in the Robin Hoods, were away fighting, and the company itself was presented both with shortages of tobacco and packing material.

This demanded a rethinking of the way cigarettes were presented for retail.

One solution was to harken back to the days when cigarettes were sold individually.

So it was that Player produced cheap, card boxes of 500 cigarettes, which could then be sold individually over the counter.

In the later 1940s, after demobilisation and men returned from the war, the company embraced renewed success.

My father continued to work there until his death, at the age of 54, in 1974.

During the late 1960s he designed a slide rule which became a standard tool of the tobacco industry, in the way it calculated the burning time of a cigarette.

The 60s also saw Player’s first major postwar cigarette launch.

Gold Leaf (as distinct, from Player late 19th Century brand Gold leaf Navy Cut ) was attractively packaged in red, white and gold, set off by the familiar Player sailor motif.

Not long after, to meet the challenge of an ever changing consumer market, the company launched No.6, the tipped cigarette packaged in two tone blue and white, and the plain in two tone brown and white, the lettering of both picked out in gold.

John Player Special was the next major brand, its packaging and therefore image notably transferring to sponsorship, including Formula 1 racing.

The next major launch was John Player King Size, in 1976, in its instantly recognisable royal blue pack.

But times were changing. The health issues that smoking raised couldn”t be ignored, so Players also produced a low tar John Player King Size in a red pack.

Within a decade, though, the company underwent even greater changes.

In 1986, Imperial Tobacco, of which it was part, was taken over by Hanson PLC.

At the same time, the move of staff to Player’s new state of the art Horizon factory, in Lenton, escalated.

The old Player No. 2, 3 and 4 factories in Radford, as well as the personnel block, were demolished to make way for a retail park.

Only the old Head Office block, where my dad had worked, remained. It is now used by the National Westminster bank