Thomas Gallaher, 'Tobacco King'
Thomas Gallaher was born in Templemoyle, Co. Londonderry in 1840. At the age of 15, he was apprenticed in a firm specialising in importing tea and tobacco. He quickly picked up the basics of the trade and in 1857 started his own one-man business hand-rolling tobacco and selling it from a cart.
His success, ambition and drive soon led him to open premises and in 1863 he moved to Belfast on Hercules St and later settled at the well known York Street site.
Gallaher made his first journey across the Atlantic to America to buy his own tobacco leaf in the 1870s. This was to become an annual event making him a notable figure of trade on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tom Gallaher’s forceful personality and his shrewd grasp of all aspects of the industry earned him the title of ‘Tobacco King’. Tom Foster, a former employee, recalls that it was a regular Saturday lunch-time practice for the old man to fill his pockets with twists of tobacco which he handed out to the unemployed men who usually gathered outside the factory. At the same time, of course, he cursed them roundly for being idle.
York Street Factory
McLaughlin & Harvey were the contractors to Gallaher in 1881 when he moved to York Street. As business increased, the huge factory was expanded to cover about ten acres of ground.
H. McLaughlin in his speech at the opening ceremony of the factory, said that the tie-rods used would reach eleven miles, and the bricks if placed end to end, would make a line from Belfast to Cork and back, thence to Dublin, and on to Galway, after which there would be still enough left to build a mansion.
In 1896 Gallaher became a limited company with a capital of £1million. The next few years saw Gallaher’s awarded a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria, and business booming with the introduction of the first machine-made cigarettes, Park Drive.
By 1909, the employees in York Street numbered over 1,000, and Thomas Gallaher was the largest independent purchaser of heavy tobacco in the world.
Tom rapidly became a well known figure in the tobacco trade on both sides of the Atlantic. In the early 1870s, he made a trip to the United States of America to personally buy his tobacco leaf in Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia, where he was known for his humour, wit and his shrewd business mind.
Tobacco seed is so minute that a tablespoon will plant six acres. This tiny seed is sown in prepared beds where it takes about two months to develop into six-inch plants. The young plants are then set out in rows, three or four feet apart, and carefully tended until the ripe leaves are ready for harvesting three months later.
After harvesting the tobacco leaf is cured either by hot air, fire or sun. The leaf is then sorted into various grades and ready for auction to be purchased by tobacco merchants all over the world.
Connswater Bonded Warehouse
Bonded warehouses allowed the manufacturer to purchase and store tobacco without paying duty until it left to be processed in the factories. All tobacco was weighed as it entered Bond under supervision of a Custom’s Officer. Gallaher’s main bonded warehouse was at Connswater.
The law requires tobacco to enter the country at 10% moisture making the tobacco very brittle. Several tobacco leaves are fastened together to form ‘hands’ and then sprayed with water to increase moisture. Still attached to their stems, the applied water gave enough strength to allow these to be ‘stripped’ out by hand.
Different types of leaf would be blended with water, acid and flavours in varying amounts to produce the different Gallaher brands.
In 1900 Thomas Gallaher wrote a cheque to H M Customs for £142,227, the largest sum they received in one go. Today huge sums of money are still raised by taxing tobacco products.
The women who worked in the Stripping Department were known as ‘strippers.’ Stripping the stem from the tobacco leaf was a vital process which needed to be done on all leaf prior to any other stage in the manufacturing process. Mostly it was preformed by hand, by girls after a period of training. Machine stripping was later developed but this still required checking by hand.
One woman recalls; “My Ma was a "stripper" in Gallaher's in the 1940's. Her sisters also worked there, and so did her mother during the First World War. Granny's job was putting the cigarette cards into the packets. She used to include… her name and address, and soldiers used to write back. Mum said the stink of the tobacco never left them no matter how much they washed. She'd go to dances, and the first thing a bloke would say was "I KNOW WHERE YOU WORK!"
York Street Blitz Damage
In 1935 major extensions to the York Street factory were added to accommodate the growing cigarette manufacturing demands. Only four years later, Gallaher’s had shown great foresight and took early precautions in beginning to build air raid shelters in 1939 at their York Street factory and bonded warehouses at Connswater. These shelters for staff were fully equipped with sleeping areas and washing facilities.
During the Belfast Blitz at Eastertime 1941, 180 bombers of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) attacked the city. As a result 1,000 people were killed, 1,500 injured and half the houses in Belfast were damaged or destroyed. Many factories were also damaged by the bombs.
Many properties on York Street were badly damaged including York Street Mill and Gallaher’s main factory. This prompted the decision to build a brand new factory at a site purchased just outside Ballymena at Lisnafillan. This site was built specifically for cigarette manufacture.
During the Second World War, cigarette production was booming as cigarettes were believed to help maintain morale of the troops.
The new factory at Lisnafillan was designed mainly for cigarette manufacturing, but after 1945, demands were larger than production and new extensions were added to the factory to produce both cigarette and pipe tobaccos.
Recruitment booklets in 1960, targeted at girl school leavers, show what a pleasant working environment Lisnafillan was. They highlight the excellent wages; girls aged 15 received £3.13.0 per week and received increases each year until they reached the age of 21 when the wage rose to £6.10.3 per week.
The factory was outfitted with modern canteens, welfare and recreational rooms. Ulster Transport Authority arranged with Gallaher’s to transport workers to work and take them home again.
“We start early…. and finish early…, most of our girls prefer this. You have time to get ready for a party.”
With the development of colour lithography in the late 1870s, companies like Gallaher’s could now create attractive images to market their products. A popular method the tobacco industry used was to commission colourful display showcards for tobacconists and newsagents to advertise their brands.
Gallaher Ltd produced many new brands such as Park Drive, Condor, Rich Dark Honeydew and War Horse. Other brands they acquired such as Du Maurier, which was launched in 1903 by Peter Jackson Ltd. after the actor Gerald du Maurier, made requests for 'a cigarette less irritating to his throat.' Peter Jackson Ltd was acquired by Gallaher in 1934.
Benson & Hedges joined Gallaher’s in 1955 and the following year Olivier cigarettes were launched, named after Sir Laurence Olivier. The actor was involved in the initial marketing campaign and reputedly stocked only Olivier cigarettes in the vending machines at his theatre.
The Gallaher Collection contains over 250 showcards.
'Smoke Rings', later changed to 'Smoke Signals', was the Gallaher Ltd monthly in-house company magazine. The Gallaher Collection contains over 100 of these magazines dating from 1947 – 1960 and some archival copies of later issues until the closure of the York Street factory in 1988.
Initially in 1946, only the York Street factory in Belfast had an in-house magazine. However a decision was made to spread its readership for all branches of the company in 1947 including factories in Ireland, the UK and overseas. The magazine, which cost 6d. when it first started, was a way for the whole company to hear news from all branches.
There was an assigned person in each department to compile news. Each issue documents the amount of engagements, marriage, births, death notices and news of the many Gallaher sports teams and the social outings of each department, as well as general news of the company.