Home > A History of John Player & Sons and its Horizon Factory

A History of John Player & Sons and its Horizon Factory

Introduction

On November 1st 1972, the cigarette and tobacco manufacturer John Player & Sons opened its new factory. Named Horizon and situated on an industrial estate in the Lenton area of Nottingham, the building and the machinery it contained cost a combined £15 million. This was a substantial investment and the factory’s scale reflected Player’s then position as one of the largest tobacco manufacturers in Britain.

Player’s marked the opening of Horizon in fittingly extravagant fashion, with the company staging a lavish opening ceremony. One of Horizon’s production rooms was decorated especially for the occasion, functioning as a temporary dining hall. As guests lunched, the English Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Neville Dilkes performed the ‘Horizon Overture’, a piece which Player’s  had commissioned to mark the opening and which was composed by Joseph Horowitz.

Former chairman and managing director of Player’s, John Anstey, officially opened the factory, describing it as ‘a distinguished building of brilliant design, something splendid in new industrial architecture – simple, yet embodying the very latest in engineering and production technology’.  The ceremony witnessed the unveiling of a 12-foot bronze and granite sculpture. This was designed by the Austrian artist Ernst Eisenmayer and built by five of Player’s senior engineering apprentices.

Among the 300 invited guests were the Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Alderman Charles Butler, and his wife. As a gift from the company, they received a silver cigarette box during the ceremony. Their participation had a certain symbolism to it; both the Lord Mayor and his wife had previously worked at Player’s, and their employment history underlined the impact Player’s had had as an employer on the city of Nottingham. Thousands had worked or were working for the company, and many in the city were eager to see the company do well in its new factory.

The launch of Horizon was a significant milestone in the history of John Player & Sons. The new factory represented a central part of the company’s modernising efforts. It was a large, flexible working space which could help provide the production options needed if Player’s were to remain leaders of industry. Horizon was a physical move but also a symbolic move away from Player’s older Radford factory complex and the Victorian, paternalistic values on which the company had been founded.

 

Horizon Factory

Horizon as seen from the air in 1985

 

A Brief History of John Player & Sons Up Until Horizon

The company’s origins lie in the mid-nineteenth century. John Player, the man, came to Nottingham from Saffron Walden and set up a shop on Beastmarket Hill in Nottingham town centre which initially sold seeds and manures. As a supplementary money making scheme, Player sold tobaccos to his customers and, over time, this side-line grew to become his main business. In 1877 Player bought his first factory in the Broadmarsh area of Nottingham and began manufacturing tobaccos and cigarettes. In 1884 the business moved to a larger premises in the Radford area of Nottingham, the Castle Tobacco Factory, which Player had had purpose built. Unfortunately, Player himself did not live long after the opening, dying of liver cancer later in the year. Player’s two sons, William Goodacre and Dane Player, took over the running of the business in the 1890s.

Not long after this, the Imperial Tobacco Company was formed in 1901. This involved the amalgamation of several leading British tobacco manufacturers into one larger company in order to fend off the threat of takeover posed by an aggressive American competitor. John Player & Sons was one of the founding companies, and the Player sons served on Imperial’s first board of directors. Despite this reconfiguration within the British tobacco industry, John Player & Sons continued to prosper and its production and marketing operations were hardly affected by becoming a subsidiary of the Imperial Tobacco Company.

Over the course of the first few decades of the twentieth century, John Player & Sons’ sales began increasing rapidly. This growth was mainly down to the success of the company’s mass produced, machine-made cigarettes. In 1900 Player’s Medium Navy Cut was launched. This brand proved enduringly popular, and, over time, the brand’s sailor and lifebuoy trademark became synonymous with John Player & Sons.

To keep its production growing in line with demand, John Player & Sons expanded its factory site during the inter-war years. In 1932, the company built No. 2 factory on Radford Boulevard, and added No. 3 and No. 4 factories to their Radford complex in 1939. In the same year, Player’s built the bonded warehouse on Wollaton Road to store its supplies of unprocessed tobacco. Employee numbers at Player’s also increased significantly over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1906 the company was employing around 1,600 people, but by 1939 this had risen to 7,500.

World War Two interrupted Player’s growth, with restrictions on tobacco imports affecting the quality of the cigarettes Player’s was able to produce. In such a situation, the company had to limit production of its leading brands and produce alternatives using inferior quality tobacco. Following the war, Player’s fortunes were more mixed. After wartime restrictions were lifted, the company enjoyed strong sales during the mid-1950s, but as smoking tastes began to change the company started to lose ground to its competitors.

There were several reasons for this. From 1950 onwards there was a steadily increasing amount of scientific and medical knowledge which indicated that smoking caused diseases such as lung cancer, bronchitis and cardio-vascular disease. In particular, the 1962 report by the Royal College of Physicians, titled ‘Smoking and Health’, received a large amount of coverage in the British media. Smokers responded by smoking cigarettes with filter tips in increasingly greater numbers.

What’s more, market research revealed that smokers increasingly wanted brands which were new and modern. Player’s was in a particularly weak position to address these trends. Its leading brands had been created at the turn of the twentieth century, and the company’s image was tied up in traditional imagery such as the lifebuoy logo. The company tried to launch new filter tipped cigarettes during the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it started to lose sales to its competitors. 1964 was described as a particularly ‘bleak’ year by Player’s board of directors.

The company desperately needed a boost and in 1966 it managed just that with the launch of a new brand, designed precisely for the changing cigarette market. The new cigarette was named Player’s No. 6 and it was an instant success. The brand came in both plain and filter-tipped versions with bold packaging, which notably did not feature the sailor logo. Player’s No. 6 was also short in length, making it cheaper than many of the other leading brands. Most importantly, however, Player’s No. 6 came with a gift scheme. A number of vouchers were included with the cigarettes and the resourceful smoker could save these up and exchange them for a gift. The items on offer were displayed in a glossy catalogue which Player’s spent a lot of time and resources producing. The range of gifts on offer was extensive, with smokers being able save up for anything from can openers to sailing dinghies.

The response of consumers to Player’s No. 6 caught John Player & Sons by surprise. In February 1966, a month after the brand’s launch, the company had to take out additional press adverts apologising for the fact that supplies of No. 6 were unable to keep up with demand in some areas. In May, Player’s Stirling factory switched its entire production capacity to manufacturing Player’s No. 6. John Anstey boasted that No. 6 was ‘the biggest introduction success story in the whole history of the cigarette industry’, and by 1970 Player’s No. 6 had become the largest selling cigarette in Britain.

 

Radford 1940s

Player's Radford site from the air, c. 1945

 

Plans for Horizon

It was in the months which followed No. 6’s launch that the planning stage of the new Horizon factory really got under way. A group of Player’s managers were given the task of assessing the need for a new factory, and then overseeing the building of the new premises. Dubbed the ‘Horizon’ group, most of these managers were under 40 years of age, a move designed to ensure that those making the decisions about the new factory had to live with their choices.

An early brief produced by those planning the new factory revealed the extent of the problem Player’s were looking to address: ‘Over the past few years it has become increasingly obvious that the present manufacturing facilities in our Radford factories are neither suitable nor capable of meeting the demand for our products.’  The warren-like complex at Radford, with production spread over three factories and multiple floors, made increasing the company’s cigarette output difficult. Headroom in many of the factory rooms was low and the ways in which the various buildings’ structures were laid out limited the amount and type of machinery that Player’s could incorporate into its production processes.

The company envisaged a new factory which would house highly automated production facilities and a building which was large enough to accommodate new machines and methods as they were developed in the future. The new factory had to be able to produce the bulk of Player’s sales both in the immediate short term and in the years which followed.

Importantly, Player’s wanted a modern working environment with a building to match. To achieve this, the company appointed the architectural and engineering firm Arup Associates to design Horizon. Arup were a then rising force within British architecture, having previously designed the Maltings concert Hall in Suffolk and buildings at Loughborough, Birmingham and Oxford Universities.

Arup designed a large, spacious building which was made up of four floors. Standing 70 feet tall, Horizon had two main floors, each having a headroom of 20 feet. The ground floor contained the primary and dispatch sections, as well as amenities for workers and a car park. The higher of the two main floors contained the production facilities. These were separated by a smaller floor, known as the void, in which the machinery’s pipes and services were housed. In addition to this there was a floor below the roof which housed the building’s services, such as its air conditioning.

On its outside, the building had a bold, stark design, which resembled the so-called ‘brutalist’ architectural style of the time. The building’s frontage was clad in large concrete panels and columns and the roof’s steel structure lay partly exposed at the top of the building. Inside Horizon, natural light was limited, with the production floor having only a row of ceiling-level windows.

Horizon was built on an area of reclaimed swamp land which had subsequently been used as a landfill site. The factory’s foundation rods had to be sunk 30 meters in order to find solid earth. All in all, Horizon took 29 months to build with cigarette manufacture beginning at the site in January 1972. The building won the Financial Times award for industrial architecture in 1973, as well as awards from the Royal Institute of British Architecture and the Civic Trust.

The power system employed at Horizon was also state-of-the-art. It was the first building in the United Kingdom to be powered entirely by North Sea gas, with Player’s signing an agreement with the East Midlands Gas Board for its supply. Within the factoriy’s grounds, there were large gas storage units keeping a store of gas for the factory in case the supply was ever disrupted.

What facilities to include for workers was the subject of much debate among those planning the new factory. Initially, various grand suggestions were mooted, such as including a games room, a library and even a swimming pool at Horizon! However, putting these suggestions aside, the Horizon Group decided expert advice was needed and arranged for Loughborough University and the Institute of Social Research to produce a report on workers’ requirements and how these might change over time. The report stated that people now wanted a degree of separation between their work and leisure lives, and Player’s decided to concentrate on including facilities for the working day at Horizon. Shops and a bank were provided for workers, and the canteen facilities cost, at the time, £23,000.

In addition to being adaptable and modern, Player’s wanted their new factory to be more efficient than its Radford site. From early on, the Horizon Group stated that ‘the “Horizon” concept is only viable on a double-day-shift basis’. This double day shift was an innovation designed to keep the machines operating for longer, with an early shift running from 7:00am until 2:00pm and a later shift running from 2:00pm to 9:30pm. The new system was a change to traditional working patterns at Player’s factories, where normal working hours had been the routine. The double-day shift was trialled in No. 3 factory in 1969 and then phased into wider use over the next three years.

Even though the company intended for its machines to be operated for longer at Horizon, Player’s planned that the switch to the new factory would facilitate a saving in terms of manpower through the introduction of a more fully machine-operated production process. Over time the company reduced the size of its workforce. In 1966 Player’s were employing nearly 9,000 people in total, but it was hoped that at Horizon this number would be slimmed to around 1,000 per shift. These reductions were not achieved suddenly, but through a process of what the company termed ‘natural wastage’. Player’s was prepared to take a flexible approach to retirement, initially allowing their employees to leave at 60 rather than 65. Later, when further reductions were needed, this age was lowered to 50.

 

Horizon Gatehouse

Gatehouse outside the Horizon factory, c. 1980

 

Conclusion

Looking back now, Horizon was in many ways a product of the optimism at Player’s during the second half of the 1960s. This was a golden period for the company, one in which it was a leader within the British cigarette market, and it was a time before the smoking and health issue had really begun to adversely affect sales. The factory’s big, open spaces reflected Player’s desire to be a frontrunner in cigarette production both then and in the future, with sales forecasts made by the company at the time of Horizon’s planning predicting that business would continue to grow well into the 1970s. This optimism and ambition was encapsulated by Player’s desire to make Horizon ‘the most advanced factory of its kind in the world’.

The period in which Horizon was built was also a time when Player’s was striving to update the company’s image and embrace a more modern approach to business. This can be seen in the decision, also taken during the mid-1960s, to abandon the company’s lifebuoy icon in favour of a cleaner, more corporate ‘JP’ logo. Horizon was itself the product of this modernising ethos; with the factory getting its own ‘H’ shaped logo. This logo also incorporated the building’s layout in its design through the inclusion of two large sections separated by a smaller void. Player’s Horizon project thus represented a decisive move away from the more paternalistic, family-run values which had been held by the company in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Player’s was literally and figuratively moving away from its old Radford site. After Horizon opened, Player’s No. 1 and No. 2 factories were wound down, although production was kept going at No. 3 for several years after. Over time, Player’s began to expand and move its other operations to the site, opening the Regional Distribution Centre in 1985 and moving its offices to Horizon around the same time.

The optimism and modernising spirit around the company in the early 1970s did not last for much longer, however, with the decades which followed Horizon’s opening being difficult ones for both John Player & Sons and Imperial Tobacco. The health issues associated with smoking began to increasingly affect sales, with the British cigarette market shrinking from 1974 onwards. The entry of Britain into the European common market changed the way tobacco was taxed and resulted in an increase in the price of Player’s No. 6. Sales of the brand began to decline over the late 1970s and its gift scheme was phased out. In addition, Imperial invested £26 million in the development of a tobacco substitute, New Smoking Material. Sales of cigarettes containing the substitute were poor. There followed a period of cost saving within Imperial, with management jobs being cut and Player’s sales and marketing teams being moved to Bristol. This was followed by more shake-up and shrinkage at the two companies after Lord Hanson took over Imperial in 1986.

Now that Horizon has shut for good, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on its legacy. Despite the factory being planned and built at a time of relative optimism at Player’s, the adaptability built into Horizon allowed it to remain a viable production centre even after the downturn within the British cigarette market which occurred from the 1970s onwards. Horizon, however, could not fight against the tide forever, and the factory closed in May 2016 with Imperial having decided to move production to Europe.  The closure represents the end point of what has been a long history of John Player & Sons and tobacco manufacture in Nottingham.  It is a history that this website aims to mark and record.

Adapted from a talk given by Dr. Dan O'Neill on 24 May, 2016 at Lakeside Arts, University of Nottingham