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Gallaher's cigarette factory closure: Sad chapter in the history of an industrial giant that sprang from humble origins

By Claire Williamson

Tom Gallaher may have started as just one man selling tobacco from the back of a cart, but within 40 years he had opened the largest cigarette factory in the world.

The Gallaher name is synonymous with a time when the north of Ireland was still a major player in the industrial world.

Established in 1857 by Thomas Gallaher and originally opened in Londonderry, the company went on to become one of the biggest tobacco suppliers in the world.

Gallaher was a brand that stood alongside power house companies such as Harland & Wolff shipbuilders that put Ulster industry on map.

The business flourished and in 1863 it made the move to bustling Belfast city. In 1896, Gallaher opened what was then the biggest tobacco factory on the planet.

And with the development of colour lithography in the late 1870s, companies like Gallaher's could now create attractive images to market their products.

Gallaher began operating from premises in Hercules Street, his company's York Street factory was built in 1881, and within 10 years 40 tobacco spinning machines were in operation, eventually covering a 10-acre site.

This included the factory opened in Ballymena, which has been a cornerstone of the town's economy.

To cope with the huge expansion and demand, Gallaher also opened premises in London.

As his company continued to grow, Gallaher took his place as one of the most prominent and successful businessmen in the British Empire.

In 1900 Queen Victoria awarded Gallaher's a royal warrant, and in 1928 it became a publicly traded company. Growing manufacturing demands prompted major extensions to the York Street factory in 1935.

Most employees were females and among their tasks would be stripping the stem from the tobacco leaf. Mostly it was performed by hand before machine stripping was developed.

According to local legend, the smell never left the women no matter how much they washed and when they went to dances, their dancing partners would say: "I know where you work."

When the first machine stripper came in, the workforce rose to more than 1,000.

With war on the horizon, Gallaher's built air raid shelters in 1939 at the Belfast factory and the warehouses at Connswater.

In the Belfast Blitz over Easter 1941, 180 Luftwaffe bombers attacked the city. As a result 1,000 people were killed, 1,500 injured and half the houses in Belfast were damaged or destroyed. Many factories were also damaged.

Despite this, cigarette production boomed during the Second World War, with cigarettes regarded as a morale booster for servicemen and women.

Gallaher's main factory and York Street Mill were among those badly damaged by bombs.

This prompted the decision to build a brand new factory at a site purchased just outside Ballymena at Lisnafillan. This site was built specifically for cigarette manufacture.

It was to become one the town's biggest employers, alongside the Michelin tyre factory and Wrightbus.

The factory put Ballymena on the map as an area of promising enterprise. And in 1963 it got the royal seal of approval when the Queen Mother visited the factory.

Gallaher's first major acquisition came in 1936 with the purchase of JA Pattreiouex – the makers of the Senior Service brand – followed by the acquisition of cigar makers JR Freeman in 1947.

It bought over the UK branch of Benson and Hedges in 1955, and in 1963 it launched Silk Cut, which was to become one of the company's most well-known and popular brands.

When Benson and Hedges was purchased, a new brand named Olivier was launched.

It was named after the actor Sir Laurence Olivier, who helped market them, and it's claimed that they were the only product stocked at vending machines at his theatre in London.

A huge milestone occurred for Gallaher Group Plc in May 1997 when, for the first time, its shares were listed on both the London Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange.

After 1997, the Gallaher Group was transformed in to a leading tobacco multinational.

Its position as a global manufacturing and wholesale company was firmly cemented, with manufacturing plants around the world in places such as Austria, Russia and South Africa.

Then, in 2007, Japan Tobacco International became the sole owner of the Gallaher Group – the purchase was the largest-ever foreign acquisition made in Japanese history, costing JTI a reported £7.5bn.

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