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Saturday, 17th May 2008

I do believe it was Napoleon that said England was a nation of shopkeepers. Things have not changed much since then. If you think of 'shopkeeper' as small business then things have not changed at all.

The type of business conducted has changed, as has the make-up of the people conducting it. I come from a family of shopkeepers. My parents have run butchers, grocers, hairdressers, TV installation, building, bakers and antique shops.

They were selling Queen Anne furniture and burning Victorian Pine.

I would probably being doing the same sort of thing but for large out of town supermarkets, ridiculous business rates and an ever shrinking economically active population in the area. That is the story all over, smaller shops close, gaps appear in the High Streets, there are less reasons for shoppers to go to the High Street as prices are perceived cheaper in the out of town shopping centres. Those that remain shopping locally either are economically disadvantaged, ie they do not have the resources to get to the out of town centres or they have a desire to shop locally for other reasons. Either way it seldom seems enough to keep the community going and shops have closed en-masse all the over country.

This is not sour grapes, we still own shops but it is not the economic model of the future, they are more historical anomaly than business decision. Like a lot of people I have very few points of contact with the local economy or indeed any real interest in it. I pay the ridiculous business rates every month (which I suspect rise more every year to make up the shortfall due to the shops which were closed the year before, finally buckling under business rates), I pay to have my rubbish taken away, I pay for flowers to be put up, I pay for security cameras to be placed in the town, I pay for security patrols to look after my shop windows and I subsidize local events that are no longer capable of making money in ticket sales. The council don't thank me, they beat me with a stick if I do not and then tell me I cannot walk my dogs on the beach.

Now I probably am moaning but I am illustrating the way in which an economy changes. Now I sell small bits of card worldwide and sell Pine which has been imported from poorer European countries. This just would not have been deemed possible (or profitable) in my parents time. They were selling Queen Anne furniture and burning Victorian Pine.

In 1914; Players, Counties and their Industries was released upon the smoking public. It was issued in two varieties, a numbered series and an un-numbered series. There are no other differences in the set.

The quick witted amongst you will have realised that there are far more counties than there are cards. This is most true and does mean that some of my favourite counties have been missed out.

Although it was potentially a fertile ground with which to base a set it only ran to 25 cards and there was no second series. It might have been planned (although I do not know) but perhaps the First World War caused more important matters to come to the fore.

Each card is horizontally divided in half. The top half has a colour illustration of the county in map form showing the major geographical features as you would expect in a fairly tiny scale atlas, along with the coat of arms. The bottom half of the card is used to illustrate the industry for which the county is considered famous. At the top of the card is the name of the county and at the base the name of the industry. In this way the set is very similar in format to Players, Products of the World first series

The reverse of the card is the almost as pretty with the more ornate of the John Player backs, in fact quite a work of art in which is set the text.

By 1914 Britain had more of an industrial past than it did industrial future but it still could be considered one of the great workshops of the world with little sense of irony. Today we get excited because we have some of the most creative special effects teams for the film industry in the world. Perhaps not the best, but some of the best.

The collapse of our heavy industries has been quite remarkable since the issue of this set. It would seem hardly possible in 1914 that we would not have any significant ship-building capacity before the end of the century. Indeed if we did not have in 1914 and 1939 life might be rather different today all round. Lucky for us then that Northumberland was known for its ship-building abilities in 1914 and that it was not the only centre of excellence for this most vital of industries.

That said, there are some interesting industries noted on the cards which do not easily fit in with the idea of the great industrial nation. For example:

Card 4 depicts Perth. This county is well known for Dry Cleaning according to the card (?!) The reverse of the card does this fair county a little more justice,

Details from Card
Perthshire
A Scottish county of much grandeur, being endowed by nature with high mountains and beautiful lakes; its salmon fisheries are of great importance. Perth, the county town, aptly termed 'The Fair City.' is beautifully situated on the river Tay, and is no less remarkable for its wealth of traditions than for its beauty of situation. Its industries are principally dyeing, dry cleaning and the manufacture of ink glass etc. Pop, 123,283

Quite interestingly this card, like others in the set, has not illustrated the industry which gets top billing on the reverse of the card. Although dyeing is first to be mentioned it is dry-cleaning that is illustrated. Perhaps the illustrator felt that dry-cleaning was a more visually rewarding topic. Although to be honest if the same diagram had the caption 'dyeing' I would be none the wiser.

The next card is Kent and this is a county of Hop Picking. I suppose hardly surprising as it is still well known for this particular occupation. This is perhaps one of the few cards which might not have been changed by the subsequent years. Bedford has the distinction of being a county that makes straw hats. This seems almost incredible as I am actually one of the few Brits that still wears a hat on a daily basis.

A good number of the cards are given over to the production of linen in one way or another. Lancashire: Cotton Spinning, Roxburgh: Wollen Manufacture, Nottingham: Lace making, Yorkshire: Worsted spinning, Ulster: Linen, Leicester: Hosiery. Each of these cards has an individual fighting with some horrifying piece of industrial machinery which has come straight out of the Victorian era and today would be considered likely to maim or kill just by looking at it. It is difficult to remember that when this set was produced some 80 odd years ago these machines were the cutting edge of a great empires technology.

Perhaps the strangest of all the cards is Cheshire (no 18 in the numbered series). It is not noted for its cheese manufacture (again why not is a mystery, there is no other card devoted to cheese) but rather noted for its block salt.

The reverse of the card does mention the manufacture of cheese (20,000 tons per year). The card explains there is an almost inexhaustible supply of rock-salt which is mined around Northwich. These form a splendid site when illuminated at night.

Salt was a rather important commodity in a pre-refrigeration society. I am not sure if there are any commercial salt mines left in the UK. I suspect this is the domain of another country somewhere who can produce the stuff cheaper.

Mining

This is not the only mining industry that has been hit hard. South Wales has been famous for coal mining since the beginning of the industrial revolution and before. Nowadays there are very few coal mines left. In fact Wales now has the highest concentration of Japanese owned plant in the UK. Not something very likely in 1914.

Cornwall had been known as a tin-mining area since the Roman occupation but now there is no longer a tin mining industry. The landscape is dotted with the remains of the tin mines, wherever you go, disused pit heads are open to the skies.

It would be an interesting exercise in recreating this set for the end of the century. I suspect rather like the difference between the expectation of violence in the New York underground and the actual likelihood of violence there is a very wide gap between what people think is a counties major industry and what actually goes on.

Soapbox

Although I have been beating on about the changing face of economic Britain as if it is a bad thing I do not believe it is. My parents earned their living one way I earn mine a different way. The net effect is the same, we earn a living. If I insisted on running a butchers shop in todays market I would probably have gone bust long ago. It is the same for counties only the Government did not let the industries die naturally, they poured huge quantities of public money into them in an effort to keep them going. It was my money they were spending. I know there are all sorts of arguements about key industries and the cost of keeping people from work and the fact the labour market is not flexible for all manner of reason but most of these things are arguements as to why things should stay the same. These same arguements fossilised our industries in ridiculous practices until the entire world had overtaken us, made the stuff better and cheaper. Now instead of a manufacturing base we have a tourist industry where people come and look at all our quaint old machinery. Eventually the inevitable happened, market forces won, and the counties were just not geared up for the shake-up this was going to cause. 50 years of change were compressed into 5 very traumatic years of misery as the industries collapsed, destroying people's lives in the process. After all I was no more likely to have been born a coal miner as I was a cigarette card dealer. 80 years ago I would have been foolish to think I was going to make a living selling cigarette cards. Back then I would have been a coal miner and with a name like Roberts, a darn good one.