The Imperial Tobacco Company

The Imperial Tobacco Company


The Imperial Tobacco Company was created in 1901 through the amalgamation of 13 British tobacco and cigarette companies: W.D. & H.O. Wills (the leading manufacturer of tobacco products at that time), John Player & Sons, and 11 other independent family businesses, which were in competition with companies from the United States by the American Tobacco Company.

In 1902, the Imperial Tobacco Company and the American Tobacco Company agreed to form a joint venture: the British-American Tobacco Company Ltd. The parent companies agreed not to trade in each other’s domestic territory and to assign trademarks, export businesses, and overseas subsidiaries to the joint venture.

In the same year, Sharrer’s landholdings in Cholo district were sold to the British Central Africa Company Ltd. For the first two decades of the 20th century, the area remained undeveloped and relatively under-populated. With the construction of the Shire Highlands Railway from Port Herald to Blantyre, the estates began to grow Flue-cured tobacco, and The British Central Africa Company Ltd was able to interest the Imperial Tobacco Company in Nyasaland tobacco.

The Imperial Tobacco Company imported good quality seed and brought in experts, at first aiming to produce cigar leaf, but later concentrating on flue-cured leaf for cigarettes. By 1907, the British Central Africa Company had 14 barns for flue-curing tobacco, out of a total of 119 such barns in the protectorate. In 1908, the Imperial Tobacco Company opened a buying and packing station at Limbe.

At the end of the First World War, the company started a scheme for settling ex-servicemen on its undeveloped land as tobacco growers. About 50 men took up farms, usually of 1,000 acres. The largest tobacco farm was owned by I. Conforzi (Tea and Tobacco) Ltd.

Between 1920 to 1924, many servicemen failed as none had a farming background or any farming training. Some survived until a drastic fall in prices for flue-cured tobacco after 1927, but then took up whatever employment they could find. After 1927, the production of dark-fired tobacco by African farmers, either estate tenants or on Crown lands, overtook that of flue-cured tobacco, and the British Central Africa Company, which already had a scheme for its tenants to grow tobacco under supervision, became mostly a broker for the tobacco those tenants produced.

In 1973, the Imperial Tobacco Company, having become increasingly diversified by acquisition of (amongst others) restaurant chains, food services and distribution businesses, changed its name to Imperial Group.

  • James Gavin
  • Walter Herdzik