Wills Cigarettes – Smoked Success


Wills  was established in Bristol, England. It was also the first in Britain to make cigarettes in large quantities.

Henry O. Wills moved to Bristol from Salisbury in 1786 and, with the help of his business partner, Samuel Watkins, built a tobacco store on Castle Street. Wills, Watkins & Co. was the chosen name for their company. Watkins retired in 1789, and from then on it was known as Wills & Co. After that, from 1791 to 1793, the business combined with Peter Lilly’s enterprise (who operated a snuff mill on the Land Yeo in Barrow Gurney), and was known as Lilly, Wills & Co. Before Lilly’s retirement in 1803, the business operated under the name Lilly & Wills from 1793 until then.

The company was taken over by H.O. Wills’s sons William Day Wills and Henry O. Wills II in 1826, and the name was changed to W.D. & H.O. Wills in 1830. William Day Wills’s mother, Anne Day of Bristol, gave them the middle name. W.D. and H.O. Wills did not smoke at all. Other relatives joined too.  Henry O. Wills III joined in 1846, and William Henry Wills followed in 1858. In May of 1865, William Day Wills passed away. Two days earlier, he had stepped in front of a horse-drawn vehicle, resulting in the amputation of his left leg.

In the 1860s, the company outgrew its first location on Redcliffe Street and moved to a bigger building. In 1886, W.D. & H.O. Wills of Bedminster opened their East Street factory. After a decade of growth, the new factory didn’t have enough space to meet the company’s needs for the rest of the century. So, in the early 1900s, Bristol opened a second factory on Raleigh Road in Southville.

Cigarette sales contributed significantly to such expansion. From 1871 to 1974, the London facility produced the company’s flagship “Bristol” brand. A decade later, in 1888, the machine-made Woodbine was the most successful product. When Embassy first debuted in 1914, it wasn’t until 1962 that it was reintroduced with discounts. Capstan and Passing Clouds were other very well-liked alternatives. The firm also produced pipe tobacco, Golden Virginia hand-rolling tobacco, and cigars under the Castella and Whiffs names.

Cigars were made exclusively by women and girls until the year 1920. The women’s contract included the following obligatory clause:

“She shall not contract Matrimony within the said Term, nor play at Card or Dice Tables, or any other unlawful Games.”

Thirteen British tobacco firms approached the American Tobacco Corporation in 1901 with the idea of setting up a plant in the UK to avoid paying taxes. On December 10, 1901, the Imperial Tobacco Corporation was formally established with seven Wills’s family members serving as directors. Imperial Tobacco is still a major player in the global cigarette industry.

Christopher Wills, the great-great-grandson of H.O. Wills I, retired as a sales research manager in 1969 and was the last member of the Wills family to work for the corporation.

The company also had production facilities and administrative offices in Swindon, Dublin, Newcastle, and Glasgow, in addition to Bristol. The largest cigarette factory in Europe opened in 1990 near Hartcliffe, Bristol. It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1974. 

In 1988, Imperial Tobacco discontinued the sale of its Wills brand in the United Kingdom, except for its famous Woodbine and Capstan Full Strength brands.


The corporation was an early adopter of employee perks such as on-site cafeterias, free healthcare, sports centres, and paid holiday. Wills asked artists to make portraits of long-term workers. Some of these portraits are on display at Bristol’s M Shed museum and in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s collection. It was in 1893 that the W.D. & H.O. Wills Ltd Association Football Team was formed, and it was also that year that singing courses were offered to the company’s younger employees and female workers. In 1899, the firm gave 10 shillings per week to the spouses of Wills workers who were fighting in the Boer War.

ITC, previously the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of India Limited still puts the names W.D. & H.O. Wills on its cigarette brands Gold Flake, Classic, and Wills Navy Cut sold in India. There is a colossal percentage of the cigarette market held by these brands.

Cards for cigarettes

Wills was one of the first UK tobacco businesses to include promotional cards in their cigarette packs (1887), but they didn’t create their first set of cards aimed at a wider audience (‘Ships and Sailors’) until 1895. In addition to “Aviation” (1910) and “Lucky Charms” (1923), “British Butterflies” (1927), “Famous Golfers” (1930), “Garden Flowers” (1933), and “Air Raid Precautions” (1933) are some of the other Wills sets (1938).

Several sports collections were also issued by Wills, including cricket (1901, 1908, 1909, 1910), association football (1902, 1935, 1939), rugby union (1902, 1929), and Australian rules football (1905).

The Indian tobacco conglomerate ITC Ltd owns and produces the Navy Cut brand of cigarettes. One of the earliest filtered Indian cigarettes, it was introduced under the brand name Wills Filter.

Wills Navy Cut Cigarettes


Among the most well-known items produced by W.D. & H.O. Wills in the UK was Wills Navy Cut. In 1910, the “Imperial Tobacco Corporation of India Limited” (later shortened to “ITC Limited”) opened for business in Kolkata. Now, ITC has begun producing cigarettes.

In July of 1963, Wills Navy Cut Filter Tipped cigarettes went on sale in India for 10 Annas for a pack of 10. As many Indians at the time smoked traditional unfiltered cigarettes, the most pressing issue was convincing them that the filter was added to improve the flavour.

Since then, Wills Navy Cut was available in a flat 10-count pack identified by its bright red band. Together with the other leaves, the W leaf was included. The most notable evolution of the brand was the elevation of Navy Cut to its rightful position in the product line; the Wills Crest was also retired in favour of the traditional unicorns.

Production of Wills Navy Cut in the United Kingdom halted in 1988 when W.D. & H.O. Wills went out of business. Yet ITC, a separate firm, kept producing and selling cigarettes in India. It was still the case that “From the House of W.D. & H.O. Wills” appeared on the cigarette packages.

The 2012 redesign of Navy Cut introduced a fresh appearance for the popular style.


From the outset, the promotion centred on the premise that a filter is a missing piece to an otherwise perfect cigarette. The campaign was also groundbreaking because it put women at the centre of the movement.

The “Made for Each Other” advertising campaign was introduced by ITC Limited in 1965. The print ad depicted a doting husband and wife laughing together over a Polish jokebook. The goal was to make an emotional and aspirational connection with the target audience by emphasising the “perfect marriage” between tobacco and filter. To find a couple who were meant for each other, ITC launched the “Wills Made for Each Other” contest in 1969. Before India prohibited cigarette advertising in 2004, several posters were prominently displayed on street corners. As time went on, the “Made for each other” campaign gained more and more traction, eventually becoming one of India’s longest-running and best-known ads.

wills filter made for each other

Competition from alternative, cheaper filter cigarettes increased dramatically in 1968 and 1969. Despite this, Navy Cut’s market dominance persisted.

Navy Cut Kings debuted in 2009.

Several limited edition packs were also made available by ITC. The “Cricket edition,” released for cricket fans during the 1996 Wills World Cup, the “New Year’s Edition 2009,” and the “Hallmark of Quality,” with its distinctive crimson and gold marking, were all special editions. The phrase “Built for each other” appeared on the packaging of a commemorative “40 years of Navy Cut” box.

Although India accounted for most of Markets Wills Navy Cut’s sales, the brand’s wares also made their way to the UK, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.





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