A History Of Tobacco In London

By Londonist Last edited 24 months ago
A History Of Tobacco In London

Despite what Bob Newhart appears to have thought, it was Sir Francis Drake, not Sir Walter Raleigh, who first brought tobacco to English shores from the New World in 1573. Even then, British sailors had previously obtained tobacco, either for chewing or smoking, from fellow Spanish and Portuguese sailors.

Tobacco Dock, where tonnes of you-know-what was stored during the 19th century. Photo by Matt From London, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

The element that Drake discovered was a method of curing the tobacco so it could be stored, transported and was affordable. The East India Company’s formation saw tobacco (plus many other exotic items) becoming more widely available. Soon, the exchequer was enjoying considerable revenues from taxing the huge increase in the popularity of smoking. Due to the high cost, the dried leaves were largely smoked in small clay pipes, broken examples of which are regularly still found by mudlarks along the banks of the Thames.

Incredibly, pipe-making takes place in London today. Alfred Dunhill (inventor of the windshield pipe, which stopped ash blowing in your face while pootering along in your motor car) opened his tobacco shop in 1907 in London’s Duke Street. Unsatisfied with the quality of the pipes he was buying in, Dunhill set up a workshop close to Duke Street in 1910. That workshop recently moved out to Walthamstow.

Mudlarks. Photo by tezzer57, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

In 1619, to maintain tight control over excise, King James I ordered that all tobacco must enter the country via London and that pipes should only be made by a group of pipe makers based in Westminster, to whom he granted a Royal Charter. This first group of pipe-makers was reincorporated by Charles I in 1634 under the name of the Tobacco-pipe Makers of London and Westminster and England and Wales, which today is The Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers & Tobacco Blenders (and a right jolly looking bunch of fellows they look too).

The Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers & Tobacco Blenders. Photo by Nic Wing.

Paul Talling's wonderful Derelict London website records parts of London just before the wrecking ball moves in. One image of note is that of a tobacco roll sign in New Cross, which, according to George Apperson’s The Social History of Smoking “was one of the commonest of early tobacconists' signs, and was in constant use for a couple of centuries”. Talling says this building has now been demolished to make way for a new hotel, but that a specification of the planning permission is that the tobacco roll is reinstated. Let's hope that happens.

London's only surviving tobacco roll. Photo by Paul Talling.


The roots of the UK cigar scene can be traced back to 1814, when officers returned from the Peninsular War with cigars gifted by their fellow Spanish officers. The officer’s messes and gentleman’s clubs of London started to seek out fine examples of the smoke, made with tobacco from Cuba.

Then, in the early 19th century a new type of coffee house started to appear. Cigar divans, as they were known, were coffee houses which catered for tobacco smokers. The venues featured musicians and poets and were wildly successful and very fashionable to be seen in. The original London divan was thought to have been Mr Gliddon's Cigar Divan, opening at 42 King Street on 8 February, 1825 by Anne Gliddon. The idea had come from Gliddon’s brother who had travelled extensively in the East. The salon, it's said was hung “like an eastern tent, the drapery festooned around you...”.

What is now Simpson’s in the Strand first opened in 1828 as a chess club and coffee house — The Grand Cigar Divan. It soon became known as the "home of chess", attracting such chess luminaries as Howard Staunton the first English world chess champion through its doors. Today the main restaurant is called The Grand Divan.

Of course, many Londoners prefer a cigarette — a habit that became fashionable following the outbreak of World War I. Undoubtedly the comeliest building to produce cigarettes in the city, was the Egyptian-inspired Carreras Cigarette Factory in Mornington Crescent. It continued churning out fags until 1959.

Baccy cats at Carreras Cigarette Factory. Photo by shadow_in_the_water, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Let's deviate from one facial orifice to another for a moment. Snuff began as the tobacco choice of royalty and the elite in 17th century Europe, before being provided to the masses. Nasal snuff is a finely ground, flavoured tobacco which is taken by a simple sniff into the nostrils. Today snuff is not widely used but it can still be obtained in London at stores such as Segar and Snuff Parlour in Covent Garden, where a traditional highlander stands guard.

London has seen its fair share of celebrity smokers. The tobacco store of Robert Lewis first opened its doors in St James's Street in 1787. It can claim many famous customers including Sir Winston Churchill, whose ledger and chair are still to be seen in the store, Oscar Wilde and many members of royal families from the UK and further afield. In September 1992 the business was acquired by the Dublin-based tobacconist James J Fox and the store has now traded in all forms of tobacco for over 225 years. What is reputed to be England's oldest pipe maker Inderwicks was founded in 1797 and could be found at 45 Carnaby Street. In more recent years Inderwicks had a shop on Bear Street which in the 1990s became part of the Bear and Staff pub.

The humidor at James J. Fox.

The number of London cigar stores and cigar terraces/lounges has grown markedly since the UK smoking ban in July 2007, and there are plenty of places to light-up in London. One of the best known is Boisdale which combines restaurants, bars and cigar terraces. Boisdale is also home to one of the world’s largest cigar auctions. During the boom in cigar sales which took place after the American embargo on Cuba, Christies sold many rare and aged cigars as part of wine sales in the late 1990s. Up until 2007 it also ran specialist cigar auctions. From 2009 these auctions have been run by C.Gars Ltd and have taken place at Boisdale. Amazingly many boxes of rare pre-revolutionary cigars continue to emerge and are snapped-up in steady bidding from over 200 collectors and cigar aficionados from all over the world.

A cigar auction at Boisdale. Copyright C.Gars Ltd.

By Nic Wing, creator of the London Cigar Guide and the Cuban Cigar Walk London. He is currently preparing for the launch of a new online magazine, UKCigarScene.com

Last Updated 01 October 2015

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The East India Company?

Am I having a thick five minutes here?

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