Why no statue ? (5) John Dane Player

John Player’s cigarette company was, strangely enough, set up in Nottingham by a man called John Player. In 1868, he had a shop on Beastmarket Hill and was busy pre-packing the various blends of tobacco so that he could serve his customers much more quickly when they came in. By 1877, he was operating from Broad Marsh, where he introduced ready-packed cigarettes in a readily identifiable packet. He registered as his trademark the well-known drawing of Nottingham Castle. Here it is, at the top of the packet :

In 1883, the famous sailor’s head first appeared. Four years later the famous “Navy Cut” cigarettes were introduced.

When John Player died in 1884, a group of friends of the family ran the company until the two sons, John Dane Player and William Goodacre Player, were able to take over in 1893. Both of these young men were Old Nottinghamians. John had been Boy No 563 and William had been Boy No 564. They were both living in Belgrave Square off All Saints Street, when they entered the High School on January 22nd 1879. At this point, they were both in the Lower School with Nos 541 and 542 respectively.

When the two brothers took over the family business, it was worth around £200,000 (£2.65 million today). They soon merged with WD & HO Wills, the makers of “Woodbines”. These were very popular cigarettes during World War 1 and were handed out free to the troops as they went into the front line trenches (even though it may have been bad for their health).

Player’s, though, continued to market Navy Cut, John Player Special and Gold Leaf. By the beginning of WW2 in 1939, Player’s were selling 67% of the cigarettes in Great Britain. They were extremely popular among the middle classes in the south of the country.  And women found them very chic and alluring:

At that time there was little idea that cigarettes were dangerous. Any number of “physicians” were willing to step forward and approve cigarettes. Some even thought that cigarettes were beneficial and could cure throat and lung problems. Here’s the most surreal image of that era

“More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!”

So everybody was totally confident about the safety of cigarettes and more people smoked than didn’t. John Player and Sons made money in in unbelievably huge amounts. It was said that once a year, when John Dane Player signed the company’s tax cheque, they paid for the National Health service.

Here are the John Player Tobacco Warehouses in Radford, a working class area of Nottingham. The architects all won prizes:

The first people to benefit from the company’s huge income were the company’s employees. Player’s recreation ground was opened on Aspley Lane in 1906. In 1910, they began paying every employee an annual bonus. Holidays with pay were started in 1922. Wages were high and working conditions were excellent and always as safe as possible. In 1934 the two brothers were both made Freemen of Nottingham for their investment in the welfare of their workers. At the end of the war “Navy Cuttings”, a periodical exclusively for employees at Player’s, was published. It was issued once a month until 1967. The contents included information about the different departments and their staff to sports fixtures and forthcoming marriages. The sports articles were always very popular and employees were praised for their sporting prowess.

The atmosphere at the factory was wonderful:

“A lot of people met their husbands and wives at the factory.   We were like one big family.”

One employee said:

“Jobs were only advertised internally. People were moved round the departments and life was very varied. You just felt as if they cared for each employee.”

Sports clubs were set up and led to a comprehensive welfare and sports organisation with private grounds of a very high standard. Employees played in Players Sports teams in a number of different sports such as athletics, soccer, cricket and field hockey for example, and it was all paid for, with weekends away for participants. Here’s the Christmas party:

Just look at their faces. They are happy. And look at their clothes. They have enough money to be well dressed. They even have a company nurse. Can you spot her, standing behind Wally?

John Player had clearly succeeded in his mission. He had built a factory, employed thousands of people and then managed to treat them all decently. And they, clearly,  had responded to his kindness. They liked going to work.



Filed under History, Nottingham, Science, The High School

19 responses to “Why no statue ? (5) John Dane Player

  1. How times have changed – with the knowledge then available they performed quite a service

    • Yes, times have certainly changed. I remember on one occasion telling a class that Woodbine cigarettes were given free to the soldiers about to go over the top and attack. One boy put his hand up and said that that wouldn’t have been very good for their health, and I had to explain that waiting to go over the top in WW1 had very little that was healthy about it.

  2. Great post John. I remember when I was about 11 or 12 my pal David Newman took some woodbine cigarettes from his dad’s opened packet and we went into the fields for a smoke. It went well until I took a drag and simultaneously started to speak and a dash of air took the smoke into my lungs and I fell over in an undignified heap. David’s dad liked Woodbines and Capstan full strength and died quite young.

    • Thank you. I started smoking as a definite habit when I was at university and it proved extremely difficult to give up in my late twenties. Even then, though, I was beginning to suspect that my health was suffering, with breathlessness and one scary episode where, after exertion, I thought I was having a heart attack. My wife did too, so it was no more cigarettes for me!
      As youngsters we used to smoke Player’s No 6, and then a brand of Player’s in a red packet whose name escapes me. I never did move up to Capstan Full Strength, although I did try French cigarettes for a time.

  3. GP

    I learn something new every day! I used to smoke Players when I was young (and had a connection to acquire them). But, I never knew all this.

    • Well, I’m glad, as always, to shed some light into one of the darker corners of Nottingham’s history. John Dane Player was apparently a lovely man, and he gave away what would now be millions of pounds.
      As you will see in Part 2, he paid for the best part of three quarters of the High School’s buildings and was extraordinarily generous with the Nottingham Children’s Hospital.
      He had no children of his own, so he decided to use his millions to look after everybody else’s.

  4. Chris Waller

    I had no idea that Player’s started life in Nottingham. What strikes me most is how this shows the change in attitudes towards smoking over the last sixty years. My grandfathers and most of my uncles smoked. One uncle smoked Navy Cut, a habit he picked up, not surprisingly, in the Royal Navy. They all, sadly, suffered the consequences of smoking. The line “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” seems now grimly amusing. It is deeply ironic that Player’s tax payments funded the NHS.

    • As I replied to GP above, the one thing about John Player was that he was the most amazing philanthropist in Nottingham’s history. At the school where I worked he built the East Block, the West Block, the North Block, the Gymnasium and the Assembly Hall. Beyond that he gave huge sums to the Nottingham Children’s Hospital.
      And at that time, of course, people all smoked to be grown up and sophisticated. Player made gazillions from women who bought his cigarettes for exactly that reason.

  5. They certainly knew how to look after their staff as did that other giant Cadbury/Bournville. A whole town, specialist health care and social activities, To boot it was far healthier than smoking too! How things have changed for workers!

    • Yes they have, We see them every few days, arriving with your internet next day delivery item. With the exception of Bill Gates, all the billionaires today seem interested only in making more and more money, until they have ten times more than they know what to do with.
      As you said, Victorian philanthropists were more interested in serving God and helping their fellow man….Player, Cadbury, Rowntree, Barnardo and William Booth, to name just a few.

  6. Well John, I smoked for too many years until my youngest daughter said something about me not being alive to see her graduate from University. I stopped that day. I wish my eldest child had said the same years earlier. But it is amazing how some of these companies were very good to their employees.

    • Yes, and as I have already written to GP and to Aviationtrails, they were motivated largely by their religion, considering that everybody, no matter how poor, how dirty and smelly, was a child of God and should be helped when they needed it.
      In those days, of course, nobody knew that cigarettes were dangerous. It was rather like my childhood when X-rays were thought beneficial, and people treated radiation with far less respect than they should have, not realising it was dangerous.
      My own father died of bladder cancer, and I didn’t think that that was anybody’s fault but it was. A few years after his death, I found out that that was a common reason for death among wireless operators in RAF heavy bombers, a job which he did. Apparently the cathode ray tubes in the radar sets were thought responsible.

      • And Cadbury Chocolate who have quite a history of looking after their employees. They were a quaker family and in Hobart where one of my daughters live the Friends School is considered by many to be the best secondary school in Tasmania.

      • Yes, the Quakers provided a good few philanthropists, including Cadbury and Rowntree. In a wider sense it was religion that made many Victorians believe that we are all the children of God and that we all need to be respected for that. Hence the anti-slavery badge with a picture of a slave and the caption “Am I not a man and a brother?”

      • Yes John. Very good point.

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