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History of Rothmans factory recounted

October 31st, 2012
[by Coralie Smith]

Rothmans clock tower with Manoy houses behind

A big crowd of about 30 people attended the Motueka Historical Association's October meeting last Saturday to hear Geoff Tillson's recount the history of the Rothmans Tobacco Company factory.

Geoff started work at the factory on the corner of King Edward and High Street in 1961. He trained as a field officer and 35 years later when the factory closed Geoff was manager. He spent his last 2 years working for Rothmans managing their factory in Samoa.

The company was a good one to work for treating its staff well but expecting them to give their best. It was a time when tobacco was king and the district prospered from this now-despised plant.

There are many in the district who would still like to be growing tobacco - not for the end product but because of the stability and prosperity it provided.

Referring often to Patricia O'Shea's book "The Golden Harvest" which relates the history of tobacco production in New Zealand, including Motueka, Geoff went into more detail about the part Rothmans played.

A United Kingdom-based company, it came to New Zealand in 1955 although Rothmans cigarettes had been sold in New Zealand since 1935. It was the first company to offer growers a contract and finance them into the industry. It was also the first company to reward growers on a cost of production basis - something the industry had been fighting for for years.

Demand for tobacco was so high they encouraged everyone to grow and had farmers from the Waimeas, the Motueka Valley to Golden Bay and places in between grow a few acres. The field officers job was to visit the farms and help wherever they could from advising on soil type to irrigation to when to start picking and how to run the kilns that dried the leaf.

Geoff was assigned to the Waimea District and it wasn't unusual to get home after midnight or be called out in the middle of the night to assist with a problem. These were farmers new to growing and needed all the help they could get.

Geoff also described what happened on a daily basis at the factory where the growers brought their leaf to be sold. A complex array of machinery helped get the leaf into the condition required to store it for two years to mature before it was used in cigarettes.

The leaf was all sent to Napier where the cigarettes were made. Rothmans also brought in staff to grade the leaf for growers if they were unable to do it themselves.

When the government offered tobacco growers a compensation if they grew other crops such as kiwifruit or apples many took up the option. Little did they realise that these crops would have few of the advantages that Rothmans had provided, such as instant payment for their crop and a guaranteed price and market, or the financial help and practical help that had been provided in the past. They now had to wait to be paid and learn the hard way all the ups and downs of a new crop.

Tobacco ceased to be grown in Motueka as a commercial crop in 1996 and a very important part of its history and its economy was gone forever.

The clock tower, which became known as Rothmans clock tower, was actually built in 1956 by the National Tobacco Company which Rothmans had taken over. The rumour was going round town that National Tobacco Company was having money problems, so to prove they weren't they built the clock tower.

In later years Rothmans put in coloured glass panels and the name of the company. It often showed four different times on the four faces. Still there, it has always been a great landmark or to give directions from.

[The talk by Geoff Tillson was recorded. If you would be interested in listening to the whole talk get in touch with the Motueka and District Historical Association by visiting the research room at the Motueka Museum on a Tuesday or contacting one of the committee - details here.]

Rothmans tobacco factory, circa 1985


Comment by Shirley Frater:
[Posted 31 October 2012]

Wonderful article and photos. One appreciates the photos by John Sharp recording the happening that has become history. Thanks Gary for a great article. Any more coming? Majestic theatre?

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