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.