Cigar makers of the East End of London

The trading vessels that set off for the New World, for Asia, and for the West and East Indies from the 16th century onward, brought back a number of goods, without which it’s impossible to imagine the London of today. No morning tea or coffee? No sugar with which to sweeten it? And where would Londoners be without the potato… a London without chip shops is a baleful prospect. But none of the new crops that came into Wapping seemed to catch on quite so quickly as tobacco. victorian caricatureThe first bales are said to have been landed from Virginia in 1586, and the first pipe of the stuff is supposed to have been smoked at the Pied Bull pub in Islington (though presumably somebody must have stopped for a smoke en route from Wapping to north London). Less than 30 years later there were some 7000 tobacconists in London, and despite the attempts of the tobacco-hating James I to tax the stuff out of existence (he described it as “a custome loathesome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine” in his famed 1604 essay A Counterblaste To Tobacco), Londoners couldn’t get enough. Literally. James had his ministers limit the Virginia planters to exports of no more than 100lb of the stuff a year. Just like modern governments, the monarch expressed a loathing of the drug while happily pocketing the excise duty. By the middle of the 1600s the health benefits of the weed were being proclaimed (a brilliant fiction that persisted into the middle of the 20th century), with Spitalfields apothecaries selling tobacco and prescribing it as a protection during the Great Plague that carried off around 100,000 of the estimated 460,000 Londoners in 1665. And despite the miserable failure of tobacco as a medicine, Londoners kept smoking, munching and sniffing the stuff (with chewing tobacco and snuff just as popular as pipe tobacco). Wapping, Whitechapel and Spitalfields tobacconists in the 1700s were identified by the large wooden figure of a black Indian (native American) with a crown and kilt of tobacco leaves. So lucrative was the trade that top artists were employed to produce cards and shop bills, with the young Hogarth turning his brush to tobacco adverts. As the centuries wore on the fashions changed. By the 19th century cigars and, increasingly cigarettes, were gaining popularity in London. The size of the trade is evidenced by the construction of Tobacco Dock at Wapping. And the great quantity of unrefined tobacco now being brought in to the Pool of London from Virginia and elsewhere was matched by the vigorous attempts of gangs such as the River Pirates and Heavy Horsemen  (not to mention many working on the docks) to liberate the stuff. So a bonded warehouse, with tight security needed to be built. The warehouses were part of the massive London Docks, begun on the marshes of Wapping in 1801 by John Rennie and opened four years later. And alongside grew up the East End cigar and cigarette industry. The East End has a plethora of trades that have come and gone. Lace-making, brewing, tanning and a host of other stink industries are now (largely) history, but the tobacco industry is almost forgotten. Maurice Zeegen, writing in 2003 of his own family firm, charted a fascinating and largely forgotten group of East End incomers, who made the business their own. “After the Huguenots [who settled in numbers after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1598] and before the East European Jews [who arrived en masse from the late 19th century] the Spitalfields area was settled by significant numbers of poor Jews from, predominantly, Amsterdam. They were known as ‘Chuts’, thought to be a take on the sound of the immigrants’ word for ‘good’ in Dutch.” tobacco dock And while the Huguenots were renowned for their lace-making skills, and the 19th century arrivals would be (to a large degree) employed in the garment trades, the profession pursued by many of these people was cigar-making. Many small workshops and factories were established in Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Spitalfields, among them was the cigar factory of Zeegen Brothers, situated in Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane. Maurice, great-grandson of one of the founders of the factory, writes of his family business surviving into the 1920s before being absorbed into the Godfrey Phillips cigarette company [itself also founded by a Dutch family], based in Jerome Street, Whitechapel. The 1911 History of the County of Middlesex (the area east of the City wall, in those days, belonging to the now defunct county) suggested that the tobacco industry was still a huge employer in what is now the East End. “The manufacture of tobacco is carried on very largely in East London and Hackney, which contain 76 factories for the production of tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, and snuff. In all London there are about 180 factories in this trade, and in the whole of England, the metropolis included, there are about four hundred and thirty, so that in the number of its tobacco factories East London occupies a conspicuous position.” The number of factories (some major operations such as the Carreras works in Camden, which would eventually relocate to Basildon in Essex, others small workshops with a handful of employees) was remarkable enough. But there were numerous small workshops too, employing pieceworkers to treat the tobacco, roll cigars and produce pipe and plug tobacco. The tobacco industry in the East End was thus very like its natural counterpart, the matchmaking industry, where for every giant Fairfield works (Bryant and May’s factory in Bow’s Fairfield Road, which is now the Bow Quarter, but was once the largest ‘manufactory’ in Europe) there were thousands making phosphorous matches in tiny workshops (even in their own homes), and suffering the horror of ‘phossy jaw’ as a result. The raw tobacco would be ‘liquored’ and ‘stripped’, then the leaf handed over to ‘stovers,’ who first placed it on a steam-pan to separate the fibres, and then on a fire-pan to make it fit for keeping and to improve its smoking quality. The final process was that of ‘cooling,’ where a current of cold air is passed through it to drive off the moisture. The cigars the East Enders made were known, reasonably enough, as ‘British cigars’ in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the quality — if variable — was often surprisingly good. Cuban cigars were the acme of smoking excellence of course, but were expensive. Reports of the time compare the best of the East End cigars as ‘infinitely superior’ to the fake Havanas flooding into the London Docks from Belgium and, by the early 1900s, Mexico. The huge cottage industry began to falter under the attack of cheap imports from the Americas and, in the early 20th century, from the new fashion for Egyptian cigarettes, as cigar smoking declined. Ironically it was the massive popularity of smoking in the 20th century that saw off the small East End firms. Adoption of the drug was driven by the big corporations who could afford to advertise their products and drive cigarettes from a minority pursuit to a habit pursued by most adults. Now it was all about the brand, and the East End cigarette factories died off one by one.     Cigar makers of the East End/east end life/9sep13   pics: the Jerome St factory; Tobacco dock; victorian caricature;

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
This entry was posted in East End crafts and craftspeople, East End entrepreneurs, East End industries, London's immigrant communities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Cigar makers of the East End of London

  1. Dee Searle says:

    Very interesting. Thank you. My grandmother spoke of her job rolling tobacco for cigars. She lived in Hoxton at the time. Were there any cigar factoinear there? This would have been around 1920.

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