Up in smoke: Tracing the rise and fall of Bristol’s tobacco industry as seen through its buildings

Bedminster without the tobacco industry would have been like London without its port or Nottingham without lace. At its peak some 13,000 people were directly employed by the trade in this inner Bristol suburb. But many other related businesses and their employees benefitted indirectly from tobacco manufacturing in Bedminster.

When tobacco workers poured out of the towering red-brick factory buildings – remnants of which survive on East Street and North Street – they spent money in pubs, shops and cafes. Many lived in the terraced houses in the surrounding streets and their children went to nearby schools. A club building, which has only recently been demolished so that new housing could be built, was said to have catered for 900 men.

You can only imagine the impact on Bedminster after Imperial Tobacco decided in the 1970s to relocate the production of its companies to a new purpose-built and expanded site in Hartcliffe, further south from the city centre. Bedminster became a shadow of its former self and it took many years to recover. Some say that process is continuing.

Tobacco Factory

You only need to take a walk through the area today to see it is well and truly on the up. The Tobacco Factory – housed in an old tobacco production facility – is a popular community theatre and bar. And near where it lies on North Street there are a whole host of trendy pubs, cafes, delis and other shops. Southville, as this part of Bedminster is known, is often regarded by national newspaper surveys as one of the best areas of Bristol to live.

East Street, anchored by a 24-hour ASDA store built on the former site of Bedminster’s original 1880s Wills tobacco factory, has long been considered more downmarket than North Street. But it too could be on the up after upmarket property developers City and Country announced that it plans to launch a development of one, two and three bedroom apartments consisting of both “unique conversion in historic buildings” and “stylish new build”.

But Bristol’s illustrious association with the tobacco industry stretches far beyond the industrial Bedminster. I’ve already mentioned Hartcliffe and Imperial Tobacco’s headquarters remains on Winterstoke Road, near Bristol City’s home at Ashton Gate. The industry’s history in the city started, however, in the city centre.

Tobacco shops

Up until the Second World War Bristol’s most important shopping district was the area now know Castle Park. It was the place to head for shops, pubs, cinemas and other amenities. During the Blitz the area was badly damaged and it was decided not to re-build, but instead create a new shopping centre in Broadmead and the old streets were lost.

It was, however, in Castle Street, which would have run through what is today the grassed park, that at number 73 in 1786 tobacconist Samuel Watkins took into partnership a 25-year-old from Salisbury called Henry Overton Wills. There were 14 such businesses in the city at the time, but the reason this shop deserves our attention is given the impact that it would go on to have on Bristol and beyond.

Castle Park, once the site of Bristol’s main shopping area

After Watkins retired in 1789, the Wills family formed a number of partnerships – the first of which moved the business to Redcliff Street – before its members became sole proprietors again in 1843. W.D. & H.O. Wills, as the company became known, grew rapidly and in 1869 the main site was completely re-developed. The factory premises at Redcliffe Street were used until 1929, while the office block was kept until the early 1960s (it was demolished in 1969 and given the wave of new buildings in recent decades it is hard to track down the precise site).

Right from the early days of the company when it operated in Castle Street, it sought to care for its workers. H.O. Wills invited four of his staff, then half of his employees, round to his house for a meal every Sunday. His sons paid for 120 workers to travel by horse bus and train to the Great Exhibition in 1851, as well as giving them a sovereign of spending money. And some 10 years after the 1869 re-development of the Redcliff Street site, a report praised the working environment:

“Looking at these trim and tidy girls with smiling faces and nimble fingers, one somehow instinctively feels that the system adopted must have a wonderful influence, for these are far removed from the Midland and Northern factory hands as can be imagined. The arrangements for the comfort and convenience of the workpeople shows the through concern that Messrs. Wills have for them. On the various landings there are lavatories and a dressing room, for both men and women, and a library to which all have access.”

Once the site of Wills in Redcliff

Industrial suburb

By the late 19th century cigarettes were becoming increasingly popular in Britain, having only been properly introduced to this country by troops returning home in 1856 from the war in Crimea. This new-found popularity of these new tobacco-based products was good news for Wills, which had outgrown its Redcliffe premises and so sought to build new premises in Bedminster.

Wills Factory No 1, as it was known, opened in 1886 on the vast site – previously a tannery and before that a medieval hospital – now partially occupied by ASDA and included the street frontage that today forms Consort House. Designed by Sir Frank Wills, it was built using red brick, limestone and slate and was described as “the finest and most complete tobacco factory in the United Kingdom”. Construction on the site continued through to the early 20th century and in 1908 came Regent House, a headquarters for Imperial Tobacco Company, which amalgamated Wills with 12 other tobacco companies in a bid to fight off the threat posed by American Tobacco Company.

Most of the Wills buildings in East Street were demolished in 1986 leaving only the facade of the 1884 Number 1 Factory, as well as some later structures. This enabled ASDA and a number of arcade shops to be built. And recently outline plans for the aforementioned apartment scheme by City and Country were announced for re-developing the remaining parts of the site. “The focal point for the development is the urban oasis that is being created with stepped gardens of elegant shrubbery and planting,” it says on its website. Given the good job that the developers have done bringing new life to Bristol’s old General Hospital buildings, the impact of the scheme could be very positive for East Street.

Former site of Wills’s Factory No 1, Bedminster – now an ASDA store

I visited the site of Factory No 1 – and indeed other Bristol tobacco industry buildings – as part of a fascinating walking tour led by Simon Birch of Bristol Civic Society. He told some wonderful anecdotes, including that of wages for thousands of workers being wheeled from the bank across the road every Friday. It explains why the recently-closed branch was so large for a mere suburb like Bedminster. We also saw neighbouring the library that Wills built for the area.

The company continued in Bedminster its reputation of being an enlightened employer, providing employees with a theatre, recreation ground, a savings bank, subsidised meals, a medical service, as well as annual summer outings. But the selection process to join was strict, with female applicants required to provide Sunday school references, and once on board staff were expected to work hard.

If you carry on to North Street you can see where additional Imperial company factories were built as operations expanded on a 14 acre site bought from the Smythe family. The Tobacco Factory, the community theatre and bar complex which was speared by former Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson, was constructed in 1912 for the Franklyn Davey & Co. This is an impressive building on its own, but as you head down Rayleigh Road you need to imagine other numerous other now-demolished Wills company buildings.

Wills was apparently so worried about a fire developing in the factories that it invested in its own fire brigade and provided accommodation next to the station for the firefighters and their workers. These buildings survive on Rayleigh Road.

Old fire station and adjoining accommodation

One of Ashton Gate school’s teaching blocks was built in the early 20th century as a headquarters for Imperial. Most of the clues that it was used by the company have been removed (apparently there used to be stickers on windows), but intriguingly they have left a sign up explaining its CCTV policy.

Ashton Gate school’s teaching blocks – previously the headquarters for Imperial


By the 1960s the largely Edwardian factories in Bedminster were providing unsuitable for Imperial; the production facilities inside were dated and traffic in the area was also becoming problematic. The company therefore purchased 45 acres of land in Hartcliffe to build a vast new £15 million factory and the first cigarettes were produced there in 1973. Within two years the majority of Wills production had been transferred away from Bedminster and Ashton.

At its peak the new facility was the largest tobacco factory in Europe, producing some 350 million cigarettes a week and employing a workforce of 4,500 people. But it lasted little more than 15 years in Hartcliffe. In 1991 the factory closed, with cigarette production moved to Nottingham and for a number of years cigars were made in Winterstoke Road. It is in the latter location that Imperial has, since 2013, had its state-of-the-art, award-winning office block.

In Hartcliffe, the main Imperial factory was demolished in 1999 and Imperial Retail Park was built in its place. The neighbouring office block, which achieved Grade II listed status, wasn’t demolished however and was converted into 270 eco apartments as part of Urban Splash’s Lakeshore scheme.

Lasting legacy

Former tobacco industry buildings survive across Bristol, but perhaps the most striking reminders of this once-major city trade survive in the form of the bonded warehouses. Three of these vast structures, which were built between 1905 and 1908 and owned by the Port of Bristol Authority, can be seen in the Cumberland Basin and were where the tobacco was stored until it was required for manufacturing. It was at this point that duty need needed to be paid to HM Customs & Excise. Given the extent of trade in Bristol others needed to be built, including in Baldwin Street and Cannons Marsh.

But when VAT was introduced in the 1970s, the need for bonded warehouses became redundant. The ones in Cannons Marsh were blown-up in 1988, while the Cumberland Basin buildings survive, but have found new uses – one is used for the council’s archives while another is a branch of Safestore, the self-storage company.

As for the Wills family, they were major benefactors for the city of Bristol. The Wills Tower at the top of Park Street is a reminder that were instrumental in the foundation of the city’s university. And over the years the family also provided financial support for some 30 churches, the Theatre Royal, the Museum and Art Gallery in Queen’s Road. Whatever your views on tobacco, the great businessmen behind the industry have certainly had a sizeable impact on Bristol.

Former bonded warehouses, Cumberland Basin

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