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A History of Factory Work in Nottingham

21 December 18 words: Emily Thursfield
illustrations: Natalie Owen

Converted factory buildings can be found on every corner of Nottingham. The machines may be silent and the buildings now repurposed, but the work undertaken inside those factory walls have left a lasting impression on the city. In more ways than one…

The Hosiery Trade
The area around St Mary’s Church is one of the oldest parts of the city, originally used by the Saxons for trading before it developed into a residential district of sprawling mansions with extensive gardens for the wealthy.

Things quickly changed when the hosiery industry entered the area. Originally, many workers lived and worked on the same premises, making stockings out of frames in their houses. With the invention of the mechanised frame in 1589 and a rapidly growing workforce, by 1750 there was a desperate need for space; grand houses were torn down or had their gardens built on, resulting in narrow streets with high-density workspaces that we can still see today.

By the late eighteenth century, men’s trousers knocked stockings out of fashion, and folk turned their attention to lace. By this time, there was hardly any room for merchants to build the factories, showrooms and warehouses they needed, but they refused to leave the area. The construction of Nottingham Railway Station and the Post Office in the 1840s did good things for international business, which was now earning the city between £2-£3million in exports each year. The merchants turned to the suburbs closest to the centre; old factories like Roden House in Sneinton are still standing now, repurposed as business centres and residential flats. The most recognisable is the Adam’s Building on Stoney Street, which now houses part of Nottingham College.

Demand for lace declined as the twentieth century continued, and soon the factories fell into disuse. After some consideration of knocking them down and starting again, a group of businessmen decided to repurpose the buildings, and in 1969 the Lace Market was declared a conservation area, protecting all buildings of historic or architectural interest, and keeping a bit of character in the area.  

 

The Fag Factories
In 1862, John Player made the journey from his home in Essex to Notts, where he began working as a drapers assistant, making some quick cash on the side by selling pre-rolled cigarettes over the counter to his customers. It earned him a few quid, so in 1878, he bought a small tobacco business based in Broadmarsh to see how popular his pre-packaged ciggies would be with an already-identifiable brand. Soon after, he purchased land and built three warehouses in Radford, known as the Castle Tobacco Factory. John Player’s was born.

After John’s death, his wife and a group of close friends took over the company until his two sons, William and Dane, were ready to take control. John Player’s & Sons’ sales soared, to the point that two thirds of all cigarettes sold in Britain were manufactured in Nottingham by the company. By 1930, they’d become part of the Imperial Tobacco Group, staff numbers had reached 7,500 and the company gained a first-class reputation as an employer; they were praised for high wages, good working conditions, generous bonuses and for offering paid holiday. Every worker had an allowance of fifty ciggies a week and had access to a recreation ground on Aspley Lane. Worker satisfaction seemed to be a priority for the head honchos, who also created a training school for tuition on office machinery and touch typing.

Players saw many relationships begin inside their factory walls, and generations of families held down jobs there over the years; working for Players became a bit of a tradition for many people around these parts. The Horizon Factory opened on the industrial outskirts of the city in the early seventies, and production continued despite the raising awareness of the health problems caused by smoking. The following years brought a growing black market trade and dwindling sales, and in 2016 the Nottingham site was the last remaining cigarette factory in the UK. That year, Horizon closed its doors, bringing an end to tobacco manufacturing in the city, and the country, after 130 years.

 

Health for a Shilling with Boots
When John Boot opened his first herbalist store on Goose Gate in 1849, he was an ill man wanting to supply the poor with affordable healthcare. After his death in 1860, at the age of just 45, the Boot family could not have predicted that their son, Jesse, would turn their “cut price” store into the multi-billion pound business it is today.

Leaving school at just thirteen, by the age of 27 Jesse had taken total control of the business, staying true to the aim of affordable healthcare with slogans like “Health for a Shilling” and revolutionising the expensive patent medicine industry by buying ingredients in bulk and paying in cash. He reduced profit margins and increased sales rapidly.

Boots had opened its second store by 1881, and appointed their first pharmacist. Up until then, all products were being produced in three cottages on Woolpack Lane. Eventually, Jesse appointed an analytical chemist and leased three rooms in a factory on Island Street. Seven years later, Boots had taken over the entire site.

By 1891, Jesse had acquired the Pelham Street store – now home to Zara – which he transformed into a health and lifestyle emporium, and the following years saw the company gain a fine chemical department and over 200 stores across the country. They were now able to manufacture pharmaceuticals on a large scale and soon became one of only four UK companies approved the British Medical Research Council to manufacture insulin.

Jesse’s son, John, took control in the late twenties and acquired the Beeston site, where he expanded their manufacturing capabilities and created offices for the administrative roles. 1933 saw the opening of the notorious D10 factory to nationwide acclaim. The innovative features of the building improved efficiency to the point where the working week was reduced from five and a half days to five with no pay reduction, helping to set the industry standard across the entire UK. Then, in 1961, the invention and launch of Ibuprofen by Dr Stewart Adams helped secure the future of Boots stores on the high street.

 

The Lace Market is still home to many creative businesses, and preservation of the area’s unique characteristics continues. Despite racking up stores in over 25 countries, the head office of Walgreens Boots Alliance remains in humble Beeston, on the same 297-acre site that John Boot owned nearly 100 years ago. Plus, while Players might’ve shut down, there’s still a fistful of food factories still up and running. Trade and industry in the city have moved on significantly, but if you listen carefully, you can still hear the production-line tales that have shaped working-class life in Nottingham, all the way up to today.

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