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Remembering the B.A.T.

The factories of Liverpool will always be identified with the city’s prosperous economy throughout the past centuries and also for the proud generations of workers who occupied and fueled them. The industrious land Vauxhall housed an immense workforce, with a job always around the corner, they didn't come much better than in British American Tobacco on Commercial Rd, which opened its lines in 1902.

 

Scottie Press spoke with three ex BAT girls, sisters Brenda (Coffey) Thompson and Esther Coffey, from Vauxhall, and their friend Joyce Morgan from Walton.

All joining in the late 50s to the early 60s, Esther us she originally wanted a job in Tillerson and thought that was where she had applied until Brenda revealed it was actually the BAT!

Joyce, who lived in Walton, says a friend told her that jobs were going at the ‘BA’, she said, “I’m not going there, they’re all from Scotland road ya know – they’re dead hard!” but she ended up with the job and her mate never!                                

Recalling ‘Richard Gem’ & ‘Rally’ cigarette brands, they stated that although the workforce was 60% women, the privileges seemed to favour the men with the fellas getting 60 cigs at the end of the week and the girls only 50. 

 Brenda says, “The men could also smoke in the toilets but the women couldn’t!” and recalls a girl sneaking cigarettes out in a book with the middle cut out, until one day she was asked to see what book she was reading, which led to an on the spot sacking!

 

The B.A.T. Girls told Scottie Press they even got strip-searched to make sure they weren’t stealing, Joyce says, ‘We had nicknames for them [body searches] one was streaky bacon and another a ball of fat – we can’t tell you the other ones!”

Although, as the old saying goes, if there is will there is a way…

“I was the instructor, I used to borrow a big cardigan and hide all the cigarettes beneath – we used to get away with murder. At Christmas time you used to get searched going in for bottles, everyone took drinks in. I got caught by the foreman pouring drinks and when they asked me if I was pouring a drink, I said I’ve only got one left to pour now”, Joyce says.

The international tobacco giant brought its Americanised way of employment to Vauxhall, with on-site doctor, chiropodist and dentist, plus recreational shoe, record, jewellery and hairdressing clubs as part of the work package.

Esther says, “They looked after you and the pay was good as well”

The company would also hold Christmas parties and give out money for buying presents, which increased the longer you’d worked there.

‘The kids’ parties were fantastic, every kid got a present’, Brenda says.

The BA girls spoke about the employee social club and the camaraderie that built up between staff, Joyce says when her mum had been sick in the hospital the BAT bosses even paid for her mum to go into  private convalescence.

The benefits even extended to getting first served at bars around the city if they recognised you worked in BA as ‘they knew you had money’ but it did come with its downfalls, “Everyone knew where you worked because of the smell of you [tobacco] – it was in your hair and everything!’ said Brenda.

‘I remember my first day and the horrible smell of tobacco, even though I smoked!’ Esther adds.

As Vauxhall’s factories started to shut with major firms Tillerson and Tates & Lyle disappearing, thousands of workers soon became unemployed, leading to some BAT staff marching against Thatcher when the BAT first sent redundancy notices to 1100 staff, even though reports at the time recorded an increase in BAT’s production between 1977-1983.

Brenda and Esther left before the factory announced it was closing its doors on 24th November 1989, with Joyce staying until the end after her 26 years service. She says, “When I’d been at the BA for 25 years I got £450 and a plaque. When they took us over to Crabwall Manor and they informed us of the redundancies, me and my mates sent back our plaques – but we spent the money,”

“After the redundancy letter, we wrote to Mr Bannister, and we got called up the office and asked, ‘Do you realise what you have done? I think you will regret it in time’ … but I never have!”

The last days of factory life Joyce describes as ‘horrible’. The remaining staff went for one last bash at the pub and the BAT became the next industrial giant of Vauxhall to vanish. Brenda, Esther and Joyce stayed in touch and had a regular reunion with other ex-BAT workers nearly 30 years after it closed its lines.