In these days when smoking is almost regarded as a crime and cigarette packets are soon to be sold in plain wrappers, it is hard to remember when the tobacconist’s shop was a familiar sight on every high street.
These specialists, with their array of colourfully packaged cigarettes, cigarillos and snuff along with the pipes and other paraphernalia were exotic places where the smells of Turkish, Russian and Virginian tobaccos, Cuban cigars, Rangoon cheroots, black plug and scented Dutch mixtures filled the air.
Falkirk had a large number of tobacconists over the years but without doubt the High Street emporium of James Clarkson and Son was the most celebrated. At the start of the 20th century the growing popularity of cigarettes brought 101 different packets with fantastic names like Passing Clouds, Prize Crop, Craven A, Black Sobranie, Sweet Afton, Pasha, Wild Woodbine, Guards, Camel and Cogent and as children we used to collect the fronts of the packets and swap them like the football cards that were often given away with the cigarettes.
Even more difficult to understand today was ‘taking snuff’, in other words, sniffing up a pinch of finely ground tobacco and very much the favourite of the gentry – I remember little round tins with names like ‘The Parson’s Pleasure’!
The original James started out in business in 1875 down in Grahamston and at first he sld some quite unusual non-tobacco products. One advert addressed to “All Moulders” offered ‘superior West of Scotland moulders’ tools’ including ‘flange bead upsets’ and ‘pipe sleckers’. However, the tobacco business flourished and in the 1880s he was able to build several houses and shops for rent in Dalderse Avenue and a tenement building in Grahams Road along with a second tobacco shop. In 1892 he acquired the business premises of Mr Rennie at 93 High Street and the shop we all remember best opened its doors.
The successful family business passed to the second James and expanded again with a second shop in High Street and another in Vicar Street and by the 1920s the firm had added a whole range of other household goods to the well known tobaccos. The business survived into the 1960s but the trade declined and Clarkson’s is now a part of our history.
The family had another claim to fame. The third James, who trained as a dental surgeon, was a student athlete at Edinburgh University in the 1920s along with the celebrated Eric Liddell of ‘Chariots of Fire fame’. On one memorable day he managed to beat the great man in a student competition, something that the world’s greatest sprinters failed to do in the years that followed.
Like Eric Liddell, James went on to serve time in a Japanese internment camp and his extensive correspondence from there to his Falkirk family is a fantastic record of an astonishing period of history. It is rightly treasured by James’ daughter Margaret at her home in Maggie Woods Loan where I had a chance to hear the story of that great race and of those family tobacco shops where she helped out over 50 years ago.