Hartcliffe Factory: 1970s
In 1974, WD and HO Wills opened Europe’s largest cigarette manufacturing plant on land at Hartcliffe near Bristol. The factory lasted all of 16 years and closed in 1990 as the tobacco industry felt the squeeze. Points West saw the factory open.
WD and HO Wills FACTFILE
• Pioneered canteens, free medical care and paid holidays.
• First brand was ‘Bristol’, made between 1871 and 1974.
• Other brands: ‘Capstan’, ‘Strand’ and ‘Gold Flake’
• William Henry Wills formed Imperial Tobacco, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world in 1901.
• ‘Embassy’ introduced in 1914; re-launched in 1962.
• Factories and offices also in Swindon, Dublin and Glasgow.
• Hartcliffe was the largest cigarette factory in Europe.
• In 1969, Christopher, the great-great grandson of H. O. Wills, was last serving family member.
• Converted factory and warehouses remain around harbour in Bristol.
• In 1988 brand withdrawn in UK, but Wills still sold in India.
Cigarettes first rolled off the production line at Wills Tobacco’s state-of-the-art Hartcliffe factory in 1974, after the company moved its processing plants from Bedminster and Ashton, home to Wills’s ‘Number One’ factory and site of its ‘Number Four’ plant respectively.
The planners – and the Board at Wills – believed this modern, efficient factory would produce cigarettes for decades to come – but in reality the last cigarette carton was sealed in 1990.
It was a time when greater health awareness (coupled with increased duty on tobacco) seemed intent on stubbing out tobacco sales.
In the 1980s, Wills’s 200th anniversary celebrations were tarnished by the closure of its London depot and the company’s Glasgow and Swindon factories.
As Hanson went onto acquire Imperial Tobacco, owners of Wills, sales teams were merged, the old factory buildings in Bristol were demolished and efforts to further streamline the company were put into effect.
This culminated with the head office at Hartcliffe closing in 1989, followed by the transfer of cigarette manufacturing from Hartcliffe to Nottingham in 1990.
A decade or so afterwards, the site was cleared (although the office buildings were retained), and the old Wills’s site redeveloped.
The company’s history can be traced back to 1786 when a partnership was set up between Henry Overton Wills and Samuel Watkins.
Starting life in Salisbury, Wills eventually moved the company to Castle Street in Bristol, while only a few years later it re-located again, this time to Redcliffe Street.
Aerial view of the Hartcliffe site
Almost a hundred years since it rolled its first tobacco, the company was valued at more than £30m (in today’s money) with brands such as ‘Woodbine’ soon becoming market leaders.
‘Capstan’ and ‘Gold Flake’ followed suit and so long as there were World Wars to fight, cigarette manufacture was a lucrative way to make a living.
In the 1960s, Wills produced 120,000 cigarettes every hour and with the popularity of ‘Strand’ and ‘Embassy’ brands, the company’s future seemed secure.
Hartcliffe's new factory in production
But with increased health awareness and a steady rise in excise duty, the golden age of cigarettes was over by the end of 70s, and despite the investment made by Wills, production tailed-off dramatically, forcing the Board to cut back while the nation cut down.
In the end, the Hartcliffe factory – despite the superlatives – was too much of a drag on the company’s health and at the end of the millennium it was flattened to make way for a retail park.
last updated: 11/03/2008 at 14:37
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