London has always been a heavy smoker. Complaints about air pollution in the city were raised at an early stage of urban development. In 1644 an anonymous pamphlet entitled Artificiall fire, or Coale for rich and poore (held at the British Library) seems to predate a longing for suburban greenery: ‘as some fine Nosed City Dames used to tell their Husbands: Husband! we shall never bee well, wee nor our Children, whilst wee live in the smell of this Cities Seacole smoke; Pray, a Countrey house for our health, that we may get out of this stinking Seacole Smell’.
Like most old cities, London has experienced numerous serious fires in the course of its history. At times it was feared that the capital would literally go up in flames. Industrial use of burning coal deeply altered social and environmental history. The Industrial Revolution produced an endless suply of goods for consumption, but in the process natural resources were ruthlessly exploited. Waste and fumes polluted street, soil, and sky. Factories and chimneys blocked out most natural light in the towns. Steam was used to power the factory machines and the burning coal produced an ‘ink-sea of vapour, black, thick, and multifarious as Spartan broth’ (Thomas Carlyle). The streets of industrial cities were covered with thick greasy dirt. A dramatic rise in urban population exacerbated the effects of pollution. City life often was unbearable. Pollution remained (and remains) London’s main enemy. The Great Smog of 1952, a mixture of weather conditions and coal fires, created panic. Understanding the health impacts of London’s air pollution became an issue and for many city dwellers a priority.
Visitors to taverns, clubs and other social gatherings in the capital experienced the smell of another fume in their nostrils. Tobacco was introduced in England in 1586 and placed under a duty in Elizabeth’s reign. It is said to have first been smoked at the Pied Bull tavern at Islington. Addiction to tobacco was reported from the early days of the habit of smoking (then termed ‘drinking’ tobacco, the smoke being inhaled and allowed to escape through the nose). Objections were raised from the outset.
In 1604 James I published his ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ in which he condemned smoking as ‘a branch of the sin of drunkenness, which is the root of all sins’. By 1614, the number of tobacconists in London was estimated at over 7,000. The weed was also sold by apothecaries and prescribed as a drug. Its medical use has long been advocated. Physician Tobias Venner spent time between his practice in North Petherton (Somerset) in the winter, and in Bath between spring and autumn.
The annual influx of the sick provided a lucrative trade for visiting physicians in the city. The hot mineral springs in Bath enjoyed a reputation for the cure of skin problems, paralytic disorders, and other painful conditions. In 1620 he published The Bathes of Bathe, the first to book dedicated exclusively to the city’s spa. He successfully cultivated his image as a genuine balneologist in a world of quacks and charlatans. Venner also published A Briefe Treatise Concerning the Taking of the Fume of Tobacco (1621). Although he disliked the ‘detestable savour’ of tobacco and deplored its recreational use, he recommended smoking as a means of improving digestion and countering the malign effects of cold, misty weather and contagious air. Tobacco came into general medical use during the time and panic of the Great Plague.
The production of tobacco was integral to the slave trade. The signs of tobacconists’ shops in the eighteenth century generally consisted of a large wooden figure of a black Indian, wearing a crown of tobacco leaves and a kilt of the same material. He was usually placed at the side of the door, above which hung three rolls, also cut in wood. The decorated cards or shop-bills of tradesmen at this period were often designed by artists of repute. Hogarth in his early days designed one for ‘Richard Lee at ye Golden Tobacco-Roll in Panton Street near Leicester Fields’.
From early on, the import and production of tobacco in London has had a strong Jewish input. Portuguese-born merchant Dunstan [Gonsalvo] Anes took refuge in London late in 1540 having fled the inquisition in his home country. His son William carried on the family business as a London merchant. In 1626 he and Philip Burlamachi were the king’s factors for tobacco and licensed to import 50,000 pounds of tobacco free of duty for the king. The Anes family lived and traded in Tudor and Jacobean London for ninety years, publicly conforming to the established church, and privately practising Judaism in their homes.
The initial manufacture of tobacco was concentrated in Hackney, East London, which at one time contained seventy-six factories for the production of tobacco, cigars, and snuff. The name of various taverns reminded its customers of the local tobacco industry, such as the Virginia Plant in Great Dover Street, Southwark, and a Virginia Planter in Virginia Road, Bethnal Green. Through the late 1800s the areas of Spitalfields, Whitechapel, and Bethnal Green became central to the tobacco industry. The raw material was imported from America and brought into warehouses at Pennington Street, alongside Tobacco Dock. Cigar makers worked long hours for a low wage – it was ‘slave labour’ on a leaf that had been produced by slavery. On the other side of the social scale, cigar lounges were established in London that were havens of sophistication and indulgence, places where time stood still in the midst of the relentless pace of the metropolis.
In 1828, Samuel Reiss opened the Grand Cigar Divan, a coffee house on the Strand where gentlemen smoked in peace, browsed over the daily journals and newspapers, indulged in political conversations, and played chess, sitting on comfortable divans or sofas. It became the acknowledged Home of Chess in Britain. Many of the top players of the nineteenth century played here at some stage: Wilhelm Steinitz, Paul Morphy, Emmanuel Lasker, Johannes Zukertort (who had a fatal stroke whilst playing there), Siegnert Tarrasch, and many others. It also hosted the great tournaments of 1883 and 1899 and the first ever women’s international in 1897.
Before the arrival of Polish and other Eastern European Jews who tended to work in the rag trade, the tobacco industry was the chief employer of immigrants in the East End. The continuous decline of the Dutch economy during the first half of the nineteenth century prompted many Amsterdam Jews to settle in London. Arriving from the 1840s onwards, these immigrants established the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in London at Sandy Row, Spitalfields, in 1854. Amongst their particular skills were shoe, hat and cigar making. Many of them settled in a small system of local streets known as the Tenter ground.
Formerly, this had been an enclosed area where Flemish weavers stretched and dried cloth on machines called tenters which were fitted with sharp hooks. The first use of the figurative phrase ‘on tenterhooks’ dates from 1748. By the nineteenth century, the site had been built upon with housing, but remained an enclave where the Dutch Chuts lived as a virtually separate community (the name is thought to be an approximation of the sound of the word ‘good’ in Dutch). During the second half of the century there was in Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane, a family business of cigar makers called Zeegen Brothers. This was one was of a number of similar factories that had mostly come from Amsterdam. Initially, the Zeegen Brothers prospered, expanding their business into addresses at no. 123 Commercial Street and no. 23 Lamb Street. However, the introduction of machinery for the mass-production of tobacco proved fatal and ultimately led to the collapse of the cigar-making economy on which many members of the Chuts community depended. In the London Gazette of 13 October 1896 Alexander, Louis and Israel Zeegen, together with Morris Isaacs, gave notice of the fact that the brothers had dissolved their partnership as cigar manufacturers.
Bernhard Barron was born on 5 December 1850 in the Russian town of Brest Litovsk into a poor Jewish family. He was probably of French descent. In 1867 Baron emigrated to New York, where he worked in a tobacco factory. Soon he started to manufacture cigarettes himself. He then moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he found customers among the students of Yale University, before settling in Baltimore. In 1872 Barron took out his first patent for machine made cigarettes. In 1895 he visited England to sell the patent rights of his invention which could make 450 cigarettes a minute. Attracted by the business opportunities, he decided to settle in London at St James’ Place, Aldgate. There he established the Barron Cigarette Machine Company Limited. In 1903 he joined the board of Carreras Limited, becoming its managing director and chairman. He held both positions until his death in August 1929. Carreras’s cigarettes, notably their Black Cat brand, proved highly popular. The House of Carreras had been founded in the nineteenth century by Don José Carreras Ferrer, a Spanish nobleman who fought in the Peninsular War under the Duke of Wellington. After serving with distinction, he was forced to leave Spain on account of his political views. During the early years of the nineteenth century he began trading in London. Don José specialised in cigars, but his son José Joaquin expanded the business by concentrating on the blending of tobaccos and snuff. His reputation soon spread and by 1852 he had established himself at no. 61 Prince’s Street (near Leicester Square). The majority of his workforce had Iberian roots.
Charles Dickens in Bleak House refers to poor Spanish immigrants clustered around Somers Town and census data reveals the presence of many of tobacco traders and workers in the area. This district, covering the railway termini of Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross, was originally granted by William III to his Lord Chancellor John Somers. In 1784, the first housing was built amid brick works and market gardens. The construction of New Road (now: Euston Road) improved access to the area and in 1793 Frenchman Jacob Leroux leased land from the Somers family for luxury building and development. His scheme failed. War and recession forced down property prices and the neigh¬bourhood lost its appeal. A number of houses were bought by exiles from the French Revolution and thirty years later a similar intake of Spanish political refugees gave Somers Town a strong Catholic tradition which remains to this day. Being the home of a substantial community of exiled liberals, the district developed into a sort of expatriate Spanish barrio.
During the First World War smoking increased sharply and Carreras came to the fore in supplying cigarettes to the armed forces. Having outgrown its Arcadia cigarette factory in City Road, Bernard Baron decided that the Carreras Tobacco Company needed more adequate facilities. In 1926, he commissioned the new Arcadia Works to be built on Mornington Crescent’s communal garden – formerly a favourite residence of artists and writers – to a design by Collins (brothers) and Arthur George Porri which was inspired by the vogue for Egyptian-style building and decoration. Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun had made a huge impact on art and architecture. Egypt-o-mania was in full swing. The 1925 Paris Exhibition popularised the fashion even more, but the English passion for Egypt dated back to the mid eighteenth century. Orientalist John Montagu, future Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty, was among the early English travellers who sailed on from Italy to the Ottoman Empire (inspiring others to undertake the ‘Ottoman Grand Tour’). Back in London, under the assumed name of Sheikh Pyramidum, he founded both the Egyptian Society (December 1741), open to ‘any gentleman who has been in Egypt’, and under the different name of El Fakir Sandwich Pasha, the Divan Club open to gentlemen with the intention of going to Turkey.
Egypt was also a globally successful manufacturer of cigarettes. Non-Egyptian tobacco companies adopted oriental motifs in their advertising to take advantage of this. English soldiers returning from the Crimean War had brought with them a taste for Turkish cigarettes and soon this more ‘sophisticated’ form of smoking was in vogue throughout the city of London. In 1913, American tobacco manufacturer R.J. Reynolds introduced the packaged smoke with a ‘new’ flavour, creating the Camel brand, so named because it used Turkish paper. All these different developments were brought together in the design of Baron’s factory. The white building’s distinctive Egyptian-style ornamentation originally included a solar disc to the Sun-god Ra, two gigantic effigies of black cats flanking the entrance, and colourful painted details. These versions of the Egyptian god Bastet stood guard over Arcadia Works until 1959 when Carreras merged with Rothmans of Pall Mall and moved to a new factory in Basildon. The Carreras factory was opened in style in 1928. The pavements in front of the building were covert with ‘desert’ sand. There was a procession of cast members from a contemporary production of Verdi’s Aida, a performance of actors in Egyptian costume, and a chariot race was held on Hampstead Road.
When the factory was converted into offices in 1961 the Egyptian ornamentation was lost and its revolutionary concept, both in construction procedures and working conditions, became more evident. It was the first factory in Britain to make use of pre-stressed concrete technology, the first to contain air conditioning, and to install a dust extraction plant. Today the building is appreciated as one of the best Art Deco buildings in the capital and seen as an icon of modernist architecture. In his manifesto Ornament und Verbrechen (translated into English in 1913 as ‘Ornament and Crime’), Viennese architect Adolf Loos had declared that lack of decoration in new building is the sign of an advanced society. Progress in architecture, he argued, is aesthetic simplification (honest, simple, and pure) and the removal of ornament. The principle was brought in practise by Le Corbusier and Bauhaus. In the 1920s and 1930s lack of decorative detail became a hallmark of modern architecture. All this makes the design of the Arcadia Works intriguing. Its ornamentation reflected the early English interest in various manifestations of ancient Egyptian culture. At the same time, it offered a glimpse of future corporate branding in which the characteristic features of a building were to be sacrificed to the gleaming demands of advertisers and product-peddlers.