One of the businesses synonymous with Albany Road and no doubt still in the memory of many people who grew up in the Roath area would have been the tobacconists Hopson’s. It was a lot more than just the tobacconist shop ‘House of Hopson’. It was the headquarters of a wholesale tobacco and confectionary business, Hopson and Son Ltd, the largest wholesale tobacconists in Wales. Hidden behind the shop frontage of 27 Albany Road was a cigarette warehouse where orders were packed for delivery all over Wales and the West of England area to shops, pubs and clubs.
Albany Road had been a residential street called Merthyr Road when first constructed. Slowly over the years the houses were converted to shop fronts. The stretch between Inverness Place and Arabella Street was one of the first to see such a transformation.
The business began in 1899 as a hairdressing and tobacconists shop. The profit at the end of the first year trading was 16s 1d. In the 1913 Cardiff Trade Directory the business is described as ‘Hopson H.A – hairdresser, confectioner, newsagent and tobacconist’. When the company first diversified into supplying cigarettes and tobacco to pubs, clubs and other shops the orders were delivered by bicycle and horse-drawn cart.
The shop had a touch of class about it, fitted out with walnut panelling that had been salvaged from the British Ocean liner RMS Olympic and had wall to wall red carpeting. The shop also had a kiosk facing onto Albany Road to cater for the smoker in a hurry. In 1967 the shop used to stock almost 200 brands of cigarettes and 300 blends of tobacco. The warehouse operation turned over 6 million cigarettes a week and had 110 employees.
What better way to get an insight into the history of the business than to look at the family history:
William John Hopson
The entrepreneurial spirit of the Hopson family can be traced back to William John Hopson. In the 1871 census we find William, then aged just 16, living independently in Hereford and working as a gentleman’s hairdresser. He was son of William Hopson, a trunkmaker, originally from Sedgeley, Staffordshire. William John Hopson marries Sarah Davis in Hereford when he is 19 and by 1881 has his own hairdressing business in Bedminster, Bristol. Ten years later, in the 1891 census we find he has decided to move to Wales and owns a gentleman’s hairdresser business in Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley. They have five children, one of whom is Henry Albert Hopson b.1874 in Hereford.
Henry Albert Hopson
Henry Albert Hopson originally worked as a hairdresser in his father’s business in Treorchy. He marries Katherine Saddler in 1898 in Cardiff. In August 1899 he opens the gentleman’s hairdresser and tobacconist business at 27 Albany Road, no doubt with his father’s support. In the 1901 and the 1911 census we find the Hopson family living at the Albany Road address. By 1934, when the business of Hopson & Son Ltd is registered, Henry is living at 13 Southcourt Road. Henry Hopson passes away in 1936 and the business is passed onto his son Clifford Allison Hopson.
Clifford Allison Hopson
Clifford Hopson was born in 1904 at 27 Albany Road. He trained as a ship’s engineer and worked on vessels in Cardiff docks but gave it up when he was 32 and took over the family business when his father died young. He expanded the business significantly, both via growth and acquisition. Like many businesses of the time there were annual staff outings to places of interest such as Torquay, Windsor and Bude. As well as the outings there was the legendary Christmas Dinner, traditionally held at the Angel Hotel, as a way of saying thank you to the staff. He died in 1961 aged 57.
Alan Clifford Hopson
Alan Clifford Hopson was born in 1938 and takes over the reins of the business when he was just 22 years old. After leaving Cardiff High School at 16 his father had trained him up to run the business, sending him around different parts of the organisation and having him work in the packing warehouse. He was sent on courses and even over to Cuba to learn the fineries of cigar making etc. Alan’s father had already been diagnosed with the leukaemia hence the need and urgency to learn the business as his father’s health deteriorated. When Alan took over the business continued to prosper but eventually in the 1980s external forces such as supermarkets being able to source cigarettes at discount prices from suppliers and the public’s growing awareness of the health issues began to impact trade. The business went into voluntary liquidation in Nov 1986. The Albany Road shops and warehouse were sold and are now occupied by the Iceland supermarket.
So what went on in that warehouse behind the tobacconist shop? Early every morning a fleet of Hopson & Son white vans with their gold leaf lettering would load up in the yard before heading up to the valleys and further afield to make their deliveries. Once they had departed it left room in the yard for the wagons from the cigarette companies to edge their way in through the arched entrance on Arabella Street, testing the driver’s manoeuvring skill to the maximum. Whilst they went for a celebratory cup of tea an army of employees would speedily unload the wagon with the aid of rollers and neatly stack the boxes. It’s hard to believe these days that some suppliers transported their cigarettes on flat bed wagons with just tarpaulin tied over the top of their valuable loads.
Later in the day the reps would arrive back from their rounds, clutching the orders that needed to be typed up by the office staff upstairs before being sent down to the warehouse for assembly.
The Albany Road premises were just one of a number in the Hopson business There were shops as well as smaller warehouses throughout Wales and nearby areas, including Chester, Haverfordwest, Newtown, Merthyr and Swansea. Just off Newport Road in Cardiff was the confectionary warehouse.
And how do I know all this? Well, I was fortunate enough to have a holiday job there for many years. It was there that I earned my first wage, £9.47 for a week’s work back in the 1970s, handed to me in a buff coloured packet and tiny wage slip and a national insurance number that has stayed with me all my life. Before I learnt to drive I worked in the warehouse assembling orders, unloading the wagons and running up and down stairs with the orders. After passing my test I was trusted with delivering the orders and filling in for drivers when they were away on their holidays. It taught me a lot, not just the geography of South Wales. You may go to school and college to learn the academic stuff but it was doing jobs like this that you learnt your life skills.
The business at the time was run by Alan Hopson, the third generation of the Hopson family to manage the business. He wasn’t one of those managers to hide away in an office. He would turn his hand to anything that needed doing and lead by example. Outside work he was just as energised whether it be with youth work at Albany Road Baptist Church, roadie for the local Unit 4 pop group or charity work with the Cardiff East Rotary Club where among other things he led an initiative to support disabled sports. As if his life wasn’t busy enough already you can add to that being a Director of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society. He lived by the motto of ‘Service before Self’. Alan sadly passed away in 2011, also from leukaemia. Thank you Alan for teaching me so much.