Tobacco Factory occupies a building with a fascinating history, starting out as part of one of Bristol’s most successful industries. Although tobacco is long gone from the building, the modern day name reflects its industrial past.
Explore the story of its journey, from being a part of a vast factory, through closure and dereliction and its later transformation into the cultural and social hub it is today.
Henry Overton Wills I and partners open a tobacco production and importation business. The company, originally called Wills, Watkins & Co, begins life in a small shop on Castle Street, Bristol. Over generations, the company grew to become one of the biggest tobacco firms in the world, and one of the first to make cigarettes.
As the firm grew, so did the number of people it employed, and the company pioneered worker benefits such as health care and paid holidays. WD & HO Wills, as it came to be known, was one of the founding companies of Imperial Tobacco.
The Tobacco Factory building is constructed on Raleigh Road. It is part of a large industrial site that has almost completely vanished today. The building is named ‘Number 3 Factory’ or ‘The Franklyn Davey & Co building’, after one of the smaller Bristol tobacco companies taken over by Imperial Tobacco. The building is built to the design of architect Sir Frank Wills. He is the son of HO Wills II – the Chairman of WD & HO Wills.
The view from the south side of Raleigh Road, looking across North Street and along the main section of Raleigh Road. The site of the current building is in the foreground, with building work about to start. The now demolished building is behind. The buildings on the far right remain but the over head walkway is long gone.
Sir Frank becomes Lord Mayor of Bristol and is knighted in 1912. He is the chief architect behind the large, brick buildings on the two great Wills/Imperial sites at East Street and Raleigh Road. He is the architect of many other Bristol landmarks, most notably the impressive City Museum & Art Gallery (1900-1904) on Queens Road.
Despite being simple in design, the building has an influence on the surrounding architecture. The factory’s distinctive red-brick façade is subsequently mirrored by the surrounding houses. It is the second Wills building on the street, and the two factories were originally linked by overhead walkways.
The huge factories stretch all the way down Raleigh Road, covering over 1 million sq ft. At their peak, over 40% of the working population of Southville, Bedminster and Ashton work in these buildings.
Throughout the early 19th century, the Wills Tobacco company thrived.
The offices in the current building, where the café bar is now located. The glass screen is where the stage is now.
After the completion of a new Imperial Tobacco HQ and factory in Hartcliffe, the company begins to slowly move out of the Ashton factories. Unemployment in the area soars.
Imperial Tobacco finally relocates all production to Hartcliffe. Over the coming years, the Raleigh Road buildings begin to fall into disrepair.
With no apparent future value, the majority of the Imperial Tobacco factories on Raleigh Road are demolished and replaced with much lower-density developments. Unemployment in the area remains high, as do many other signs of deprivation.
On 10 September, local architect George Ferguson buys one of the few remaining factories on Raleigh Road. The architect saves the site – which is 40,000sq ft of derelict red-brick – from demolition. He plans to redevelop it as a creative, mixed-use community building. His plans are greeted with widespread bemusement.
Inspired by the Manchester Independents campaign, George Ferguson decides to launch a Bristol-based campaign, called ‘Strike A Light For Independents’, with the Tobacco Factory as its hub. The campaign aims to encourage the support and patronage of independent outlets and businesses.
A theatre space is created on the first floor. Local company Show of Strength experiment with using the building as a theatre venue. The first ever theatre production in the Tobacco Factory is their A Journey to Bristol – a short 18th Century comedy set in the city and performed in promenade around the whole building.
Not put off by the lack of available running water, electricity, heating or seating, Show of Strength continue to put on work and develop the venue for over five years.
International touring ensemble Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory stage the first Shakespeare productions at the Tobacco Factory Theatre (King Lear and A Midsummer’s Night Dream) with a single mobile phone acting as the Box Office. After a shaky start, an Independent review describes King Lear as “one of the finest productions of Shakespeare – or any other playwright for that matter – seen in Bristol in years.” The show becomes a huge hit. Today, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory brings two world-class productions to the theatre every year.
The Cafe Bar opens in November, and Teoh’s Asian restaurant moves into ground floor space next door.
The first Sunday Market takes place in the car park of the Tobacco Factory. It takes place monthly and is managed by local resident Charlie Bolton, who would become Bristol’s first Green Party Councillor for the Southville Ward in 2006.
The first fest beer festival takes place. The event, which has taken place every October since its launch, is run in partnership with Bristol Beer Factory, which was opened in 2004 on the site of the former Ashton Brewery. Starting with 15 real ales from local microbreweries plus food and entertainment, the annual festival has grown to be one of the biggest in Europe, showcasing many local and international breweries.
The first New Year’s Eve Masked Ball party takes place.
Satisfied that the venue is in good hands and running sustainably, George Ferguson gifts Tobacco Factory Theatre a 25-year, rent-free lease, ensuring the theatre’s long-term security.
The Tobacco Factory is the official hub for The Urban Paint Festival (Upfest) for the first time. Upfest was founded by three urban art-lovers and inspired by the growing number of ‘paint jams’ taking place around the UK. The festival has rapidly grown to become one of the most exciting and important urban art festivals in the UK.
George Ferguson purchases a derelict tyre and exhaust garage on nearby North Street, adjacent to the Bristol Beer Factory Brewery.
After a summer of redevelopment, The Brewery Theatre opens. On-site, there is a bakery, a café, a sprung-floored dance studio and a fully equipped, 90-seat auditorium. The new theatre hosts the first ever Bristol Festival of Puppetry, which is based at the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s two venues.
Life Drawing classes start in The Snug (formerly The Green Room). The classes continue on the 1st and 3rd Monday of every month (except August) – see our What’s On page for more info.
Retroville vintage and retro market is launched. This popular market took place on the first Sunday of every month, offering vintage and retro clothing, homeware, jewellery, furniture and records.
Retroville now happens every so often throughout the year as a special event market.
Bristol’s much-loved Thali Cafe replaces Teoh’s on the Tobacco Factory ground floor. Having started life as a truck at Glastonbury Festival in 1999, the Thali Café delivers delicious and authentic Indian street food at its five restaurants across the city.
The market celebrates its 10th anniversary with the first Sunday Market on Raleigh Road. This special market includes a ‘village green’ in the road, with a ‘grass’ area, benches and straw bales.