These days there is such a stigma attaching to cigarette smoking that it is easy to overlook the impact of a company like John Player and Sons, one of the great employers of the past. No cigarettes have been made in Nottingham since 2016 but 7,500 people worked there for Players in 1939 and the company, part of Imperial Tobacco from 1901, was a major benefactor. One of its gifts to the city was St Margaret’s church in the western suburb of Aspley.
John Dane Player (1864-1950), son of the founder, was an industrialist in the Victorian tradition. He and his brother, William Goodacre Player (1866-1959), were made Freemen of Nottingham in 1934 for their investment in the welfare of their workers and their charitable work, especially in aid of the Children’s Hospital.
In the early 1930s John Dane Player paid for the construction of a “simple” church for the people of the new suburb of Aspley. In fact it is a majestic church, designed by local architect E A Heazell and built in brick, using a modern Gothic design – see the recent drawing, below, which is on display in the church. It was completed in 1936 and was one of two churches that Players built in the city. A small plaque expresses the congregation’s gratitude.
The interior is enormous, with ample room for Nottingham’s Daytime Orchestra, which gives a concert in the nave every term.
A striking feature of the interior is its colourful and richly evocative east window, created by Michael Stokes of MDS Stained Glass in 2008, (a Nottinghamshire company, highlighted in the post on Aslockton church).
Two features express a delightfully quirky link with local benefactors.
The window was paid for with a gift from local businessman George Armine Newell. Mr Newell’s business was industrial cleaning. The window shows his “coat of arms”, a heraldic dragon wielding a brush, with the motto ” Tergere est Servare” (to Clean is to Serve).
Somewhat smaller and difficult to see at first, above the image of the original cigarette factory in the lower panel second from the left, is the tribute to the founder of the church. It takes the form of the head of a sailor, a John Player & Sons registered trademark.
The trademark first appeared in 1883 and was associated from 1900 with the Players Medium Navy Cut brand, the company’s best selling product in the first half of the 20th Century. It was seen by consumers as a vivid symbol of Players’ long history, and an icon of mid-20th Century popular culture (see Daniel O’Neill’s article in Credits, below).
St Margaret’s provides a living and vibrant link with a 20th Century philanthropist and an industry which has completely disappeared from Nottingham.
John Player and Sons: the heyday and decline of cigarette making, by Daniel O’Neill. The annual history lecture of the Thoroton Society, Nottingham, in the Transactions of the Thoroton Society Vol. 119, 2015, pp 205-217. Copy held in the Bromley House Library, Nottingham.
A short history of the church can be found on the Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project website. It has not been updated to record the new east window.
The end of cigarette making in Nottingham was covered by Notts TV in an interview with historian Chris Matthews, here.
Grateful thanks to Rev Jon Hutchinson and Alan Robinson of St Margaret’s, who were helpful in providing information. The parish page is here.
Photo of the opening of the Player Wing of the Nottingham Children’s Hospital from nottinghamhospitalshistory.co.uk.