John Player & Sons by Alexandra Hague


From when it was first established as a business, John Player & Sons has had a huge impact on the community in Nottingham.  The company has given employment to thousands living in and around the city.  John Player himself became one of Nottingham’s most famous benefactors.  His sons developed the company further and were both made Freemen of the City in 1934 in recognition of their benefactions and exceptional contributions to the welfare of the local community. 

Mr. John Player, born in Saffron Walden, Essex (1839 – 1884) began his career in tobacco by purchasing a shop on Beastmarket Hill Nottingham, selling seeds and fertiliser.  After initially selling these products to farmers and agricultural workers he became interested in tobacco as a commodity, he bought loose tobacco and sold it as a side-line as ‘screws’ to farmers.  However, the sale of tobacco was proving more lucrative than the sale of seeds and fertiliser.  By 1871, Player was registered as a Tobacconist, employing one man and three boys.  By 1877, he was so successful with these products that he bought a small tobacco factory, previously owned by the tobacconist William Wright at number 45, Broadmarsh Nottingham.  Now as a tobacco manufacturer, Player registered the first trademark of the company; the image of Nottingham Castle.  The Registered Trademark was his guarantee to the consumers that the products were of high quality.  He planned to expand the business further and develop a range of products that were easily recognised by the consumer, encouraging brand loyalty.  Player’s original tobacconist’s shop continued to do good trade even after Player moved on to tobacco manufacturing.        

The Players factory on Radford Boulevard, c. 1937.
The Players factory on Radford Boulevard, c. 1937.

This idea for marketing his products proved successful and by 1881 there were 80 people under the employ of John Player and this figure grew as demand increased. Player purchased land in Radford so that another three factory blocks could be built.  The first block of the Castle Factory (alternatively known as No. 1 Factory) was opened in 1884 on Radford Boulevard, while the other two blocks were hired by lace manufacturers until Player’s company grew enough to require the extra space.  At this time No. 1 was one of the largest factories in the world, with one room 300 feet long by 60 feet wide, the machinery was driven by a 300-horse power engine.  The remaining two factory blocks were not used by Player’s until the first branded cigarette was manufactured in 1889; Player’s Gold Leaf Navy Cut.  The demand for these cigarettes was so high that the workforce had to be increased to approximately 500 employees.     

On December 9th 1884, John Player died; just after the completion of the Castle Factory on Radford Boulevard.  For nine years a group of his close friends ran the business until his two sons, John Dane (1864 – 1949) and William Goodacre (1866 – 1959), were ready to take over in 1893.    Two years later, John Player & Sons was made a private limited company and John Dane and William Goodacre became managing directors.  They supported all their employees very well, when their father was alive he ensured that working conditions were always as safe as possible, and the amenities they received were very generous for the time.  By 1898, the workforce totalled 1,000, 200 female employees known as the ‘Player’s Angels’ hand-made up to 2,000 cigarettes per person per day.      

In 1901, American millionaire James Buchanan Duke (head of the American Tobacco Company) wanted to take over the business.  He had already gone to Liverpool to take over at Ogden’s.  When he approached Player’s, the brothers showed him the door and within four months Player’s united with Wills, Churchman’s and many other tobacco firms to form an alliance that proved too strong for Duke.  In reaction, Duke called a truce the following year and did not attempt to take over the companies again.  They formed the Imperial Tobacco Company, John Dane and William Goodacre remained on the Imperial Board until their retirement in 1926. 

The employees had always been treated very well by John Player and his sons, if Player’s had fallen into the hands of the American Tobacco Company things might have changed for them.  In 1905, a few years after the ordeal with Duke, Player’s Football Club was founded.  In the year after, Player’s recreation ground was opened on Aspley Lane.  These facilities were built only for the enjoyment of the employees. When interest in sports other than football grew in the workforce, the Football Club later became the Athletic Club.      

Between 1910 and 1914, considerable expansions were made to the company.  In 1910, the Imperial Board authorised the first bonus payment to all employees at the Castle Factory.  Employment in the factories steadily increased until there were 2,500 people working in the factory by 1914.  Trade increased after the outbreak of the war and at Christmas 1914, every member of the forces received a presentation box of cigarettes and tobacco from Princess Mary. 

After the war, the Player’s advertising department expanded and George Green was the first Advertising Manager to be hired.  In 1924, Green first developed the ‘Player’s Please’ slogan, which began to appear in several different forms including; ‘Player’s will please you’ and ‘They’re Player’s and They Please’.  The slogan appeared in block capitals until Green decided to base the design on his own handwriting.  The slogan came into general use in 1927.

The year before, John Dane and William Goodacre retired from the company.  From 1926 to 1927, E. S. Tansley and W. H. Blandy took over as Branch Managers.  From 1927 to 1943, E. S. Tansley ran the company single-handed.  W Milligan worked alongside E. S. Tansley as Branch Manager for a year and then ran the company alone until 1947.  From 1947 onwards H. C.  Williams and W Ritchie took over.

In the 1920s there was a change in the consumer profile.  It became more acceptable for women to smoke and the act was seen as a symbol of sophistication, independence, upper-class rebellion, modernity and maturity.  A major influence for smoking on young men and women were Hollywood films.  As the cinema became more popular more people saw iconic stars smoking cigars and cigarettes.  So, as the consumer profile changed as the media industry evolved, demand increased.  There needed to be more work to accommodate this.  By 1928 there were 5,000 employees and the advertising department was producing an average of 15,000 displays, stands and show-cards per week.  A new factory had to be built to accommodate these new workers.  Therefore, in 1932 No. 2 Factory was built opposite the Castle Factory on Radford Boulevard, designed by T. C. Howitt. 

By 1939 the workforce increased again to 7,500 employees.  Factory No. 3 on Radford Boulevard was completed along with the Bonded Warehouse on Triumph Road, which John Player himself had requested repeatedly until his death.  This warehouse had the capacity of 20,000 tons of tobacco leaf.  During the Second World War, Player’s had to change their form of packaging to material that was a lot thinner than the type of board they shipped from Denmark, Norway and Holland because of the German presence in those countries.  The manufacturers could only use local supplies and supplies from America.  This thin material was used for packaging until rationing ended in 1955. 

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 it was replaced by Player’s Post in 1967.  The contents of those periodicals ranged from information about the different departments and the staff in those departments, to sporting events and marriages in the company.  The sports articles were always very popular and employees were praised for their sporting prowess, like Tom Blower who made headlines in the 1940s for swimming the English channel.  From the 1940s to the 1960s sports activities were key in creating a positive working environment for the employees and various sports were used to advertise the products.  However, in 1962 there was a report released by the Royal College of Physicians on Smoking and Health that detailed the dangers of smoking.  Player’s did not introduce health warnings on cigarette packets until 1971.  

Aside from the health warnings, the 1960s was an important decade for the success of Player’s.  1960 marked the Diamond Jubilee of Navy Cut and in 1966 a new brand was launched that stood out from all the others because of its coupon scheme.  Other competing cigarette companies had released brands with coupons and it was only wise for Player’s to do the same.  The brand was released as Player’s No. 6, there was a gift catalogue that came with it listing the various items that could be claimed with coupons.  No. 6 had its very own promotional team, ‘Player’s Girls’ who sampled and sold the products at stalls and at social events.  No. 6 proved to be an overnight success and really helped Player’s to have the monopoly on the market.  There were special prize giving ceremonies organised for people when they claimed the gift they had saved coupons for.  The brand was a good way of allowing Player’s to say thank you to the consumers and further enhanced its glowing reputation.  By the end of the decade, No. 6 ensured that Player’s was the biggest selling cigarette and tobacco company with 34% of the market. 

On November 1, 1972, Player’s marked its biggest ever addition to the company’s operations by opening the £14 million Horizon factory, built on a 45-acre site on Lenton Industrial Estate.  Horizon caused international interest in the company as it was the most modern factory in the world at the time it opened.  The Financial Times awarded the building with an Architectural Award in 1973.  The opening ceremony for Horizon was performed by Mr John (Now Sir John) Anstey, former chairman and managing director, he marked the occasion by unveiling a specially designed piece of sculpture made by Player’s engineering apprentices. 

In 1974, the firm was granted a Royal Warrant of appointment as tobacco manufacturers by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.  The Royal Warrant was granted in recognition of John Player’s as suppliers of cigarettes to the Household of H. M. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother for many years.  It was granted personally to the Chairman, Geoffrey Kent.  After this Warrant was granted to the company, the Royal Arms now appears on letter headings and vehicles and on a brand released in 1976 - John Player King Size.

By the late seventies, Player’s work in sponsorship was very extensive.  It was largely pioneered in the UK by John Player and a handful of other companies.  Few other companies have committed themselves as enthusiastically as John Player have to sponsoring sporting events and the arts.  Player’s knew the importance of the support given through sponsorship; the firm saw it as a means of creating good-will among participants, spectators and organisers.  The variety of sporting events that Player’s have sponsored include; motor racing, motor cycle racing, tennis, rugby, cricket and power boating.  Player’s sponsorship portfolio also includes involvement in the arts, awards for excellence in professional fields and organisation of cultural events in Nottingham.

By the 1980s a lot changed for Player’s.  In 1986 the Hanson Trust completed a takeover of the Imperial Group.  The year after, two out of the original three factories in Radford were demolished, the remaining factory stood empty and was sold later on.  From 1986 to the present the workforce was reduced dramatically down to 700 employees, but this was largely due to improved technological efficiency.  In 1996 Imperial Tobacco regained its corporate independence.  However, Player’s is no longer one of the main employers in Nottingham, today Horizon Factory manufactures cigarette brands from all companies under the Imperial Group, not just Player’s.

Decline of the tobacco industry

It was not until the end of World War II that the rates of lung cancer in men began to rise.  In the heaviest smoking countries, United States, United Kingdom and Canada, this prompted medical researchers to initiate the first statistical studies of the disease.  The first studies were conducted in the 1950s by United States and United Kingdom.  Over the next two years came reports from other studies and these results created a health scare which temporarily reduced global tobacco consumption by 10 percent.  The industry responded in two ways; they introduced and promoted filter-tipped cigarettes (42 percent of all cigarettes from 1956 to 1960), and mentholated brands, which they claimed to be less harmful.  The tobacco companies also repeatedly questioned the validity of the scientific results of the studies (this tactic continued into the 1990s).  

In 1964 the American government published a definitive report on the health consequences of smoking, it was the first of many.  This report was damaging for the industry all over the world and consumption declined dramatically.  There has also been a decline in the support given to producers and manufacturers, regardless of the contribution they have made to the agricultural, manufacturing and exporting sectors of the economy.  From the early 1970s there was a ban on all tobacco related advertising and this only exacerbated the decline.  Since the 1990s consumers have been attempting to sue various companies for the damage they have caused to their health.  All this, as well as the growing evidence of the dangers of passive smoking and the gradual loss of patience that has developed in the general public with a product that has been repeatedly proved unsafe, has contributed to the industry’s loss of favour today. 

In April 2014 Imperial Tobacco announced that the Horizon factory would close in 2016 with a loss of all jobs. This will bring an end to the tobacco industry in Nottingham after a period of nearly 150 years.


Turning over an old leaf: The tobacco industry in Britain is in decline and under fire … Ian Parker, 21 August 1994;

Tobacco industry:


Grateful thanks are extended to Nottingham Museum of Life (Brewhouse Yard) for their help in putting together this entry.