Alton's Cigar Factory, Canning Circus
The Society’s Mark of the Month for June 2004 has been awarded for the refurbishment and conversion of Alton’s Cigar Factory at Canning Circus into apartments by Lace Market Properties. Refurbishment rather inadequately describes the saving of this derelict and unwanted tinderbox of a building. After a site visit in the mid 1990s I feared the outcome of a casually – or deliberately - dropped match or cigarette end.
I have to admit a particular, if oblique interest in the building for a Mr Alton was a former owner of my present house. The last link of the Alton’s with the tobacco trade is the retail outlet Josiah Brown on Market Street, managed by the present generation of the family.
It is reported that Alton’s was founded by Edmund Alton in 1862, although where is not clear. The first mentions in Directories, so far traced, are quite revealing. In Kelly’s Post Office Directory for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire 1876, under Cigar Manufacturers, Edmund Alton has ‘Cigar Stores’ on Low Street, Sutton-in-Ashfield, whilst among the other seven cigar manufacturers in Nottinghamshire are the ‘Nottingham Cigar Manufacturing Co.’ (Manager William Weston) at 22 Broad Street; and John Player at 5 Beast Market Hill and in Market Street, all in Nottingham. In Morris’ Directory of Nottingham 1877 the ‘Nottingham Cigar Manufacturing Co.’ has Edmund Alton as manager, and John Player has moved to Broad Marsh.
In White’s Directory 1885-6 Edmund Alton & Co., Cigar Manufacturers are at 5 Derby Road. By 1894, the Nottingham Cigar Manufacturers, E. Alton & Co., has moved to the Aspley Works, Peveril Street. Then in 1897 came the planning application by the architects F. Ball & Lamb on behalf of E. Alton & Co. to alter the Sion Hill Works, just off Canning Circus on Derby Road.
By 1901 the firm was operating from their new location, where they remained until driven to closure in 1992. Alton’s were the largest independent cigar producers in the country and the very last place where cigars were hand rolled in Great Britain. As there were apparently 26 similar cigar factories in the Nottingham, Loughborough, Leicester area in 1901, Alton’s was indeed a survivor!
The rest of this article has been adapted from The Cigar Factory by George Drury, which appeared in the Nottingham CSC Newsletter Spring 2002 and is reproduced with his permission. As indicated George contacted Mr Anthony Alton for details of the last days of Alton’s.
E.V. Alton’s affection for 19th century ways seems to have pervaded the factory throughout its working career. A visitor in 1982 described the brass doorplate, practically worn away by polishing, and the general feeling that you had entered into some Dickensian lawyer's chambers, all enhanced by the pervading smell of the finest Havana leaf. All Alton’s cigars were hand-rolled until 1946 when machinery was introduced and by 1956 the factory was fully automated. However, the very best Havana leaf was still hand-rolled and a newspaper article of 1963 described the small band of skilled women who were able to turn out on average 100 corona size cigars a day. The oldest member of the team had been with the firm for 56 years and the youngest had finished her apprenticeship 40 years before. Mr Anthony Alton, who was managing the company when the factory closed down, tells me he well remembers their work and maintains that it was ‘superb’, as good as the very best to be found in Havana. The premium over the cost of a machine-made cigar was nine pence. The firm relied almost entirely for the rest of its workforce on machine operators who learned their skills in Jamaica.
The hand-rolling process was, of course, the same as in Cuba. Leaves were first dipped in a bath of water to make them pliable, then the main stalk was taken out and the two halves kept separate in left and right hand pieces - this to ensure that the outer leaf spiralled in one direction to improve the appearance when packed in boxes. Leaves called binders, which made up 20 percent of the cigar, were wrapped around shredded tobacco, the filler, which constituted 75 per cent of the cigar. The remaining 5 per cent was the outer leaf, the wrapper, but the vital part since it made the major contribution to the flavour. After that came the humidor treatment when the cigars were kept at precise temperatures to dry out the initial moisture and then at a lower temperature, aiming to maintain a moisture content of 12 per cent. A too dry cigar simply falls apart on touch.
Although the factory made cigars from Cuban leaves, trade description regulations meant that only those made in Havana could be described as ‘Havana Cigars’. Altons imported Cuban cigars and in 1954 bought one of the oldest importing businesses. Tobacco also came in from other areas but Cuban was always regarded as the best, a combined result of the variety and the growing conditions - indeed, seeds from Cuba, planted elsewhere never produced the same quality leaf. The fact that, despite variations in harvests, the supply met the company’s needs throughout its manufacturing existence is enough evidence of the good relationship with the Cuban suppliers.
I was able to confirm this in conversation with Mr Anthony Alton. I contacted him about the final years of the company’s existence and he kindly supplied details of the final chapter. The Cuban tobacco harvests during the 1970s were bedevilled by Blue Mould infestations and it was sometimes doubtful whether supplies would arrive. However, the firm had a practice of retaining a three-year stock reserve and this saw them through - indeed, the 1981 harvest was ‘superb’. On the other hand, during the 1980s the anti- smoking campaigns began to gain ground and the demand for all tobacco products declined. At the same time the Cubans began to focus on revitalising their own production and it became increasingly difficult for the firm to obtain the kind of leaf they required. By this time members of the family no longer dealt directly with Cuba but through a European agent ‘You had to be careful’, Mr. Alton told me, ‘some of the leaf could blow your head off and was completely unusable’. By 1990 it was clear that the factory was no longer viable; it was put up for sale and closed in May 1992. On a poignant note, Mr. George Alton who had been involved with the firm from its heyday the 1930s when it employed 140 hand rollers alone, died in September 1991.
There is a story that the founder of the firm was in conversation with one of the Player family who announced that he was going to install machinery to replace the army of women who hand-rolled their products. Edmund Alton poured scorn on the idea: “Why make rubbish cigarettes when you can have them made by all those lovely girls and done properly?” As the present Alton family member wryly observed, the rest is history!
Ken Brand/George Drury