“We’ve lived here for 6 years and have never been to the tobacco factory before.”
Me being in Bristol on a Sunday was a good chance for all of us to check out the Tobacco Factory.
Not that we smoked. The Tobacco Factory in Bristol today means a completely different thing…
There are many different types of drugs in the world, some are accepted and celebrated while others struggle for recognition. Easily the most accepted ‘drug of choice’ in the world is coffee – caffeine is a psychostimulant – and we celebrate it the world over with cafes and coffee culture. Then there is alcohol, frowned upon when taken to extremes and strictly controlled in some places but still broadly accepted. At the other end of the extreme are drugs such as cannabis, marijuana that carry a death penalty in some countries. Slotted somewhere in the middle is tobacco, a drug that has seen its fate transformed from cool to cringy.
We have globalisation to thank (or blame) for cigarettes.
Tobacco smoking was something that native Americans had been consuming for a long time (back to around 1400 BC), serving both a social and religious function. It was brought to Europe and the rest of the world as a result of colonisation of the Americas by the Spanish. Tobacco smoking became popular as a practice because of its alleged health benefits. Astronomer Thomas Harriot claimed that it “openeth all the pores and passages of the body” so that the natives’ “bodies are notably preserved in health, and know not many grievous diseases, wherewithal we in England are often times afflicted.”
It was into this era that tobacco factories opened and did roaring trade. A group of Bristol traders, opened a tobacco trading firm in 1786 called Wills, Watkins and Co. it grew to become one of the largest players in the market. But America came into the picture, or more specifically a single giant from America, the American Tobacco Company did and the smaller firms in Great Britain struggled under this competition. So to fights back, in 1901, 13 British tobacco firms merged to form the Imperial Tobacco Company. Both the British and the American firm agreed to not enter each others market, effectively allow the other to take control of each market across the Atlantic. The brand is still in operation today, chances are if you have bought a Davidoff, Camel or a Mild Sevens you have bought a cigarette from this firm.
Just as how Bristol was a centre of trade, Bristol in this case was the centre of the British cigarette trade, with a massive tobacco plant located in the Southville district. A massive plant was built here and was one of the biggest employers of the area.
There was a time when cigarette smoking was cool and hip the coolest celebrities would be photograph smoking it and young kids wanted to emulate these people.
This was something that went on for generations, easily two centuries. But cigarette smoking had drawbacks, and research in the 20th century began to show that the contents in cigarettes were found to lead to long term health consequences. The negative effects meant that there was an incentive for Health Departments, governments and organisations to encourage people to stop smoking. Then the anti-tobacco movement swung into full force and an effort to educate people out of cigarette smoking went into full swing. As of 2017, 1 billion people worldwide smoke tobacco, a number that has increased even though the proportion of smokers has decreased (thank global population growth for that).
In an effort to reconsolidate, Imperial Tobaccco completed a new headquarters and moved out of its old factory site.
That however meant that many of the people employed at the factory were out of a job and unemployment soared. The loss of the factory in the district left all of the district in a state of disrepair. The factories were gone, the jobs were gone and the maintainance of the area had disappeared. Piece by piece the factory is destroyed and the land sold, all except one building. A local architect, George Ferguson, bought that one building and declared plans to build a creative hub in it, a declaration more people saw as lunacy than creativity.
Yet somehow it worked.
A theatre was open and large companies started to play to it, as Bristol transitioned into the creative and service based sectors a new group of people started to move into the district to gentrify it, and in 2004 a weekend Sunday Market was opened in the area. The Tobacco Factory was now a thriving hipster spot.
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