With the sad news that the former John Player’s tobacco factory in Radford will need to be demolished, at least in part, due to a devastating fire on April 1st we look back at the legacy of a worldwide business empire which began in 1860…
John Player had set up shop as a lace agent but it was the addition of tobacco to his stock for quick sales over the counter that brought him huge success and wealth.
He came to Nottingham from Saffron Waldon in Essex, entering the tobacco trade in 1868 from his small shop in Beastmarket Hill. To cater for his regulars’ preferences for a particular blend, John began pre-packing the tobacco and the business prospered.
In 1877 he bought the long-established business of Joseph Wright in Broad Marsh and introduced ready-packed cigarettes in an identifiable brand.
A skilled marketeer, John registered a drawing of Nottingham Castle, this brand image still appearing on pipe tobacco tins and cigarette packets well into the 1970s. Player’s better known trademark, the familiar sailor’s head, first appeared in 1883 and the famous “Navy Cut” cigarettes were introduced in 1887.
The company’s marketing methods were so successful that John was able to buy an extensive site at Radford.
In 1880 it was a largely undeveloped area. With his customary foresight, John built three factory blocks, the nucleus of the 30 acres of factories and offices. Since only one block was needed immediately, the others were rented out to lace-makers. The Castle Tobacco Factory, opened in 1884, was one of the world’s largest at the time.
When John was taken ill in 1884 he went to Bournemouth to see out his final days, dying aged just 45.
A group of his close friends ran the factory for nine years until his two sons, John Dane Player and William Goodacre Player, took hold of the reins.
Expansion continued in the 1900s with the Radford site boasting one of the largest factories in the world and a workforce of 1,000.
From 1910 until the outbreak of the First World War, Player’s continued to grow in Radford, reaching 2,500 employees by 1914. The distinctive No 2 factory on Radford Boulevard was designed by Player’s own architects and opened in 1932.
Both John’s sons, who were educated at Nottingham High School, became philanthropists, giving to hospitals, convalescent homes, churches and schools.
Just before they retired in 1930, staff numbers reached 7,500.
They were both made honorary freemen of the city of Nottingham in 1934. John Dane was also made a deputy lieutenant for Nottinghamshire in 1934, having served as a JP since 1905.
He was a benefactor of the Nottingham children’s hospital, to which he gave £50,000 for its rebuilding programme.
The Players had the reputation of being enlightened employers and began paying every employee an annual bonus on earnings in 1910, and holidays with pay were started in 1922. The firm became noted for its high wages and excellent working conditions.
Sports clubs associated with the firm started in the early 1900s and led to a comprehensive welfare and sports organisation with well-equipped grounds.
One of those attending was Malcolm Freeman, who worked for Player’s for more than 40 years and said he enjoyed the atmosphere at the factory, adding: “A lot of people met their husbands and wives at the factory because we were like one big family.”
And Pat Swallow, 56, of Colwick, had numerous jobs at Player’s including factory officer and working in the international department. She said: “When I started, a lot of jobs were only advertised internally and that just added to the family atmosphere. They would move people round the departments and I really felt as if I had a job for as long as I wanted one. They were really supportive and you just felt as if they cared for each employee.”
John Player & Sons, as it became known, continued to grow with the increasing demand for cigarettes.
John Dane died in 1950 at the age of 85 and his brother William died aged 93 in 1959. They left behind huge wealth, with John Dane’s estate exceeding £2.5 million (today worth around £47m).
The company went on to launch a variety of new brands in the post-war years, but in the 1980s things began to change again for the company. In 1986, it was taken over by Hanson PLC and moved from its Radford base to the new Horizon factory on Lenton Industrial Estate.
The old Player Nos 2, 3 and 4 factories in Radford, as well as the personnel block, were demolished to make way for a retail park.