Scotland’s lost cigarette factories

The WD&HO Wills factory in Alexandra Parade, Glasgow. It closed in the mid 1980s and is now a business centre. PIC: Contributed.
The WD&HO Wills factory in Alexandra Parade, Glasgow. It closed in the mid 1980s and is now a business centre. PIC: Contributed.
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They produced tens of millions of cigarettes every week, with thousands employed to sort, dry and cut the vast casks of West Virginia tobacco that arrived at Scotland’s docks during the 19th and 20th Century.

From the factories of Dennistoun, Stirling, Paisley, Edinburgh and Dundee came brands such as Glasgow Mix, Three Nuns, Lorraine and the fabulously named Tassie du Lux.

People working at the WD & HO Wills cigarette factory in Glasgow in January 1968. By the time its operations closed in Scotland, the firm was making 160m cigarettes a week. PIC: Contributed.TSPL.

People working at the WD & HO Wills cigarette factory in Glasgow in January 1968. By the time its operations closed in Scotland, the firm was making 160m cigarettes a week. PIC: Contributed.TSPL.

Latterly, as smaller companies were sucked up by global players, familiar brands such as Embassy and Lambert and Butler were pushed out an enormous rate in Scotland’s industrial heartlands.

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While keeping markets and home and abroad in smoking materials, which in the early days included large quantities of hand prepared snuff and shag for pipes, the tobacco industry was to leave an enduring mark on Scotland - and not just on the health of its customers.

Linlithgow man Stephen Mitchell, one of the earliest and most significant player in Scottish tobacco production, bequeathed £70,000 for a large public library in Glasgow following his death in 1874. The Mitchell Library in Charing Cross - one of largest in Europe - was built in his name.

Smith's Glasgow Mixture - one of the top brands of the day produced in the city. PIC: Contributed.

Smith's Glasgow Mixture - one of the top brands of the day produced in the city. PIC: Contributed.

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“He really did leave an astonishing legacy,” said Michael Meighan, author of Scotland’s Lost Industries, adding that Mitchell also invested in British and North American railways, as well as churches at home.

Vast amounts of wealth had been generated by the Glasgow Tobacco Lords during the 18th Century but this rich band of merchants, many who had stakes in the slave-driven plantations of Virginia and Carolina, largely switched focus from the crop following outbreak of the American War of independence.

Tobacco was later to be sent directly to Scotland by American merchants.

Three Nuns tobacco sorted in Alexandra Parade factory. PIC: Contributed.

Three Nuns tobacco sorted in Alexandra Parade factory. PIC: Contributed.

As the bonded warehouses on the banks of the Clyde quietly filled up with huge tubs of the crop, work began on converting into a range of smoking products, snuff, cigars and shag for pipe smoking.

Mr Meighan said: “Tobacco manufacture became a huge industry in Scotland and it became one of the biggest industries in the West of Scotland.”

Mitchell was one of the first to grow his low-tech pipe tobacco business into a highly-mechanised operation that produced ready rolled cigarettes at a high rate.

It was also was one of 13 companies to amalgamate into Imperial Tobacco in 1901, along with other Glasgow companies such as WD&HO Wills, J&F Bell, makers of the Three Nun brand, and F&J Smith.

Cartons of Woodbines at the WD & HO Wills cigarette  factory in Glasgow in January 1968. PIC: TSPL.

Cartons of Woodbines at the WD & HO Wills cigarette factory in Glasgow in January 1968. PIC: TSPL.

All kept producing under their own name, with Smiths having a factory in the city’s Albion Street. By 1888, 200 people worked there.

D&J Macdonald, another firm withing the Imperial conglomerate, which was set up to stave off the threat of aggressive American takeovers, employed 150 staff at its Trongate factory, where modern machinery was deployed to meet growing demand for ready rolled cigarettes.

The Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society also worked against the threat of American acquisitions. Set up in 1891, it produced cigarettes for Co-op stores across Scotland, largely from its factory at Shieldhall, where brands such as Rocky Mount and Adana Turkish were produceed.

By 1918, it was producing 24m cigarettes a year as well as cut plug, shag and snuff.

The shift to mechanisation - and the drop in demand for smoking products - that was to ultimately lead to loss of tobacco manufacture in Scotland, Mr Meighan said.

WD &HO Wills opened its massive factory on Alexander Parade in 1954 and at its height employed more than 600 workers, with Embassy and Lambert and Butler latterly made here. In Stirling, 500 worked at its Player’s Plant.

Both were closed in the mid 1980s and were producing 160m cigarettes every week at the time. As Imperial Tobacco sought to further rationalise operations, its cigar factory, also in Dennistoun, closed in 1990.

“It was a devastating time for the workforce, particularly in Stirling where the factory was a major employer.

“Tobacco started out at a very low-tech industry but firms such as Imperial Tobacco wanted to mechanise it and make it more efficient, which they did so through rationalisation. That is really why the industry disappeared.

“That is not to say they stopped making cigarettes - they were just made elsewhere.”

Some Scottish brands have survived and considered rarified goods among smoking connoisseurs. Edinburgh’s John Cotton tobacco, which dates back to 1770 and was made in Easter Road, has been revived by a Pennsylvania company. There are plans to stock it Scotland once again.”

-Scotland’s Lost Industries, by Michael Meighan, is published by Amberley.