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John Player Archive

Miles Travelled = 261
Museums Visited = 7
Mood = Relieved

I’m in Nottingham again, attending the launch of a documentary film about the John Player Archive. Not at the Museum of Nottingham Life this time. If you look up from Brewhouse Yard there is a line of sandstone cliffs, riddled with caves. And on top of the hill above sits Nottingham Castle Museum. I’m sure it should be possible to climb up there through the caves. But I set off up the road instead, past the statue of Robin Hood and in through the front gate.

Despite the name, Nottingham Castle Museum is not a castle. A grand building to be sure. But any invaders these days could simply smash the huge ground floor windows and climb inside. Happily, I don’t need to do anything so dramatic.

The room is mostly full when I arrive. By the time we kick off there is standing room only. Ex employees of John Player sit shoulder to shoulder with filmmakers, museum services staff and other MuBu project organisers.
My part in the proceedings is to speak for 10 minutes about MuBu and my visit to the JP Archive. However, faced with so many enthusiasts for the company, I’m feeling somewhat anxious. What I’d planned to say was this:

I’d heard of this great Nottingham-based company already. A great employer. Internationally famous. And its name is… its name is Ralleigh. But although I’d heard of John Player, I had no idea it had a Nottingham connection. I only live down the road in Leicester. How come I didn’t know?

Of course, I’d then ask why it wasn’t better known, express a hope the film would do something to put things right.

Nottingham Castle Museum

As it turns out, the audience are in a forgiving mood and take my admission of ignorance with a kind of rowdy good humour. I escape without lynching, though one ex-employee makes a witty reference to Raleigh by shouting shout ‘On your bike’ when I mention Leicester. There’s an air of vague embarrassment when I speak about the debate over tobacco and the fact that it kills people. But that is quickly dispelled when we watch the film.

It is indeed a fine piece of work and a credit to all those who took part in the production. I have no more excuse for ignorance. The most impressive thing about it is the obvious happiness of the ex employees to talk about a company that was clearly the centre of their lives.


Museum of Nottingham Life – part two

Miles Travelled = 198.7
Museums Visited = 6
Mood = Thoughtful

Two MuBu projects are opening up the John Player Archive so it can be shared with a wider audience. Both have recruited volunteers from outside the museum service to help interpret the collection. Both projects are using film.

The first group of volunteers are ex-employees of the company. They have been using their knowledge to identify processes, locations and machinery featured in photographs and recording their memories of different aspects of life at the company.

Their recollections are unreservedly positive.

When I think of ethical employers, my mind goes to Cadbury and other great Quaker firms of the past. But the way John Player treated its workers should clearly put it high on the list. The pay was good and there were generous pension and benefit schemes. A company doctor and dentist cared for health. Frequent social events and trips kept everyone entertained. John Player even had its own recreation ground for the enjoyment and well-being of its workers.

And they produced cigarettes by the million. I’m still struggling to fit these apparently contradictory aspects of the company together.

I have to remember that in 1877, when the company was established, tobacco was not known to be dangerous to health. Even in the 1950s and 60s, when some of the project volunteers were working for the company, the link to cancer was not universally accepted. It seems that most employees followed the company line – that in manufacturing and advertising cigarettes they were not persuading anyone to smoke, merely trying to win over smokers from other brands.

I don’t believe that argument. But I have to accept that others do. And whatever I may think of tobacco, it is clear that this particular company was a leader in the ethical treatment of its workforce. 

John Player cigarette adverts 1950s 1940s

It will be fascinating to see how the second group of volunteers interpret the John Player archive. They are young people with no connection to the company. For the last 8 years tobacco advertising has been banned in the UK, so if they have seen cigarettes advertised at all it will have been when they were young children.

But for now, I’m just grateful to the ex-employees of John Player for helping me to see the positive side of the company. My next stop on this journey will be the launch of their documentary film, so I’m going to have a chance to meet them face to face.


Museum of Nottingham Life

Miles Travelled = 198.7
Museums Visited = 6
Mood = Discomfort

It was a fine autumn day when I arrived at the Museum of Nottingham life to meet Maria Erskine, keeper of community history. She’d promised to introduce me to a unique collection containing some twenty-thousand objects.

Museum of Nottingham Life, Brewhouse Yard

Though the collection is of international significance, I’d not heard of it until a few weeks before. Notwithstanding the importance of the material or the fact that the museum had held it for a quarter of a century, it had yet to be seen by the public. That was about to change. An exhibition was being organised – though they’d first had to take legal advice because of the nature of the material.

What subject could be so ethically or legally challenging to have kept it hidden away in a warehouse all these years?


The John Player company has been a manufacturer of tobacco products since 1877, during which time it grew to become one of Nottingham’s largest employers.  Significantly, among the many thousands of workers was a professional archivist. This may account for the unusual size and completeness of the collection, which was finally donated to the museum service in the 1980s.  It includes cigarette packets, shop display boards, reels of film, samples of tobacco and more. Some of the boxes still haven’t been opened, so even the museum service doesn’t know the full extent of it.

But there are laws about tobacco advertising. It’s not permitted these days. And much of the collection is exactly that – advertising material. It presents an interesting problem for a museum. Where does education about social history become the promotion of tobacco? In legal terms the answer is simple enough. So long as the displays do not feature brands still on sale, showing them to the public will not break the law.  

Unexpectedly I find that I also have a problem when dealing with this collection.

I’m the digital writer in residence for MuBu. It’s been my privilege to visit museums around the region, meet interesting people, talk to them about fascinating objects and then write articles, which I hope will communicate my sincere enthusiasm.

But as soon as I walked into the room where samples of the John Player archive were laid out, I felt my shoulder muscles tense and my jaw tighten. Maria Erskine was talking, telling me about the collection, its history and plans for displaying it, but I found myself preoccupied, trying to figure out where my discomfort was coming from.

The answer was right in front of me.

John Player cigarette adverts

Cigarette smoke gives me a pain in the sinuses and makes my eyes sore. To be honest, I was delighted when the law changed in the UK, banning tobacco advertising and restricting various freedoms to smoke. The new laws meant I could travel on trains and busses, go to coffee shops and pubs, eat at restaurant, and all without the misery of second hand smoke.

The array of tobacco adverts from the 1970s and 1980s laid out on the table were bringing back bad memories. Bad associations with sinusitis and bloodshot eyes. If I was going to do my job and write with enthusiasm and conviction about this undoubtedly significant collection, I would have to find a way of putting aside my prejudice.

More in part two


Brewhouse Yard

Miles Travelled = 140.7
Museums Visited = 5
Mood = Expectation

Sometimes the name of a place is enough to conjure up a sense of history. So it is with Brewhouse Yard, home of the Museum of Nottingham Life.

Museum of Nottingham Life Brewhouse Yard

The museum is situated immediately below the site of the ancient castle, backed up against a cliff line riddled with caves and passages and plumb next to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, England’s oldest inn. Frankly, it couldn’t be more steeped.

Nottingham Castle caves, Brewhouse Yard<

That’s where I’m heading next – to see a collection of international significance which has been held for a quarter of a century without being shown to the public.


Missing Dinosaurs

Miles Travelled = 140.7 
Museums Visited = 5
Mood = Happy

If you listened to yesterday’s podcast about Leicester’s New Walk Museum, you’ll know why the geological gallery is empty. The exhibits have not gone far, however. Some are in storage and others can be found around the museum, waiting to go home.

New Walk Museum

New Walk Museum empty gallery

the Barrow Kipper in New Walk Museum


New Walk Museum – part two

Miles Travelled = 140.7 
Museums Visited = 5
Mood = Happy

I’m visiting New Walk Museum, but something very large is missing from the dinosaur gallery. To hear the story of the digi-dinosaurs and how MuBu is helping to to tell the stories of 8 of the the museum’s 2 million objects, click on the podcasts below.

New Walk podcast part 1

New Walk podcast part 2