The Wills Family as Employers
The Wills Family played a leading role in the development of the U.K. tobacco industry and as a result became very wealthy. The business began as a small family partnership and thrived independently throughout the 19th century so that by 1901 it was the biggest and most prosperous tobacco manufacturer in the UK. W.D. & H.O. Wills led the successful resistance to the invasion of the U.K. tobacco market by the American Tobacco Company and together with 12 other UK tobacco companies joined to create the Imperial Tobacco Company in 1901.
The non-conformist Congregational background of the Wills family underpinned their sense of responsibility to those less fortunate than themselves and as they developed into 'Tobacco Barons' and enjoyed the wealth they had created, they always maintained a genuine concern for the wellbeing of employees and fellow citizens. Some of their more significant material benefactions are mentioned below. Members of the family involved in the business demonstrated leadership, astute business sense and an appropriate readiness to introduce technical innovations. The family were also innovative in their employment policies; today some of their actions would be seen as paternalistic in the extreme but in a time when there was little general concern for standards of living and working conditions, the 'Wills paternalism' must have been very welcome and provided some real practical benefits. Wills workers earnings were consistently more than 20% above the average and the annual company bonus or gift could push this comparison up to 40%! Paid holidays were introduced so that by 1891, all employees with at least one year's service were allowed at least one week's paid holiday - a benefit that was very rare at the time and was not to be granted generally to wage earners in the UK until the 1930s. Workers also enjoyed a range of welfare benefits including a Company doctor, a sickness benefit scheme and a Matron to deal with minor illness or injury at work. By the 1880's subsidised meals were being provided and the new factory built in Bedminster in 1886 included dining rooms and kitchens in its specification.
The Imperial Tobacco Company pension scheme was not introduced until 1926 but Wills had routinely paid ex gratia pensions of around 10/- per week to retired employees and in 1900, a scheme was introduced requiring employees to place 1/3 of their annual gift in the Wills saving scheme which would build up with interest added until they retired when they might expect to have access to a lump sum equal to about 12 years pay!
A Female worker who got married was expected to leave and become a full-time housewife but if she wanted to continue her employment she could ask to do so. This practice continued right up until the late 1960's although by then, it had become a quaint formality that the largely compliant workforce went along with and nobody bothered to question. Young Victorian or Edwardian male clerks at Wills who talked of marriage, could expect to be interviewed by their manager and strongly advised against their intentions if their salary had not yet reached a certain minimum! - An indication of the extent the Wills partners believed that they held a moral responsibility for the welfare of their workers which probably raised eyebrows even then!
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