Robin Longbottom on how the town was once a centre for tobacco and pipe manufacturing

ON July 1, 2007, it became illegal to smoke tobacco in enclosed public spaces and workplaces, including work vehicles, because of the danger that it presents to health. This ended an era of social smoking that stretched back to the 16th century.

Smoking first became popularised in England after an Elizabethan poet and pamphleteer, Anthony Chute, published a short work called Tabaco in 1595. It mistakenly promoted smoking as a healthy pursuit and purported that it could cure illnesses and relieve chest conditions. Remarkably the myth continued well into the 20th century.

Until the latter half of the 19th century smoking was almost wholly confined to the pipe, the cheapest and most common being made of clay. Although cigars had been popular among the upper classes since the 1820s, they were expensive as they had to be imported from Cuba and the Americas.

In the late 1830s James Smith, a grocer at 20 High Street, Keighley, broadened his business to include tobacco sales and he and his son, John, began buying tobacco leaf in bulk. They blended the leaves and pressed them into blocks, known as 'plug', and cut it into slices called flake, which could then be rubbed between the palms of the hand and put into a pipe. During the mid to late 19th century Keighley had four full-time pipe makers. They made clay pipes, but from the 1870s more expensive briar, or bruyere, pipes made from the root of an imported Mediterranean heather, became popular. A clay pipe ready loaded with tobacco could be bought for just a penny or two and was cheap enough to be thrown away after use.

When John Smith took over his father’s business in the 1870s, they employed three men, four boys and one woman in their tobacco business. By the end of the decade, his premises in Temple Street were making roll tobacco, also known as 'rope'. The process was known as spinning and the leaf was twisted together to make a long rope, almost an inch thick, that was wound onto a drum or large bobbin. When sold it was cut into short lengths known as pigtail from which the purchasers often cut a slice to chew, particularly if they worked in a mill where smoking was a fire hazard and prohibited. The business expanded in the 1880s after John’s nephew, John William Smith, took over. He began making cigars and traded as John Smith & Co, Tobacco and Cigar Manufacturers. The premises were at 12 & 14 Temple Street and included a saleroom, offices and warehouse, with the upper floor being given over wholly to the manufacture of cigars. A building at the rear, known as the cutting room, was used to continue the original business of pressing leaf into blocks and cutting it into flake, although the pressing was now done by steam machinery.

The company advertised that all its tobaccos and cigars were made from “the best of Havannah and Mexican and other classes of leaf”, including Virginia and Kentucky. The leaves were carefully selected and blended to make Smith’s own brand of hand-rolled cigars, named the Cevellia, the National and the Azeno, which was made solely from imported Mexican leaf.

In the 1890s the company was said to employ 40 hands and to have had a large wholesale trade throughout Yorkshire, Lancashire and the north of England. However, after the turn of the century, it was unable to compete with cheaper imports and the larger national tobacco manufacturers and the business swiftly declined. Although manufacturing ceased in Temple Street, John Smith continued as a retail tobacconist from the family’s original shop at 20 High Street until his death in 1915.