George Ferguson talks about 25 years of the Tobacco Factory

April 26 2019

"I always thought of them as the mills of Bristol, and that they were fantastic."

George Ferguson outside the Tobacco Factory theatre

George Ferguson talks to South Bristol Voice about the Tobacco Factory story – and a few other things


• Tobacco Factory theatre will get a 999-year lease to secure its future

• The rest of the Factory building will go into a trust – once George has paid off his debts

• Does he fancy being mayor again?

• It was all inspired by the reuse of Manhattan warehouses in the 80s – but people thought George was mad to buy one in Bedminster


Details below of the celebrations to mark the Tobacco Factory’s 25-year anniversary


The Tobacco Factory story, in George Ferguson’s words

“I lived in Clifton Wood in the 1960s and we used to see WD & HO Wills on the roofs of the old factories, and as far as I was concerned that was Bedminster.

I always thought of them as the mills of Bristol, and that they were fantastic.

Some time in the late 80s, when Imperial Tobacco had moved to Hartcliffe, a couple of young women, one of whom had stayed with us as a lodger, came to see me and said could the Wills buildings be saved, as they were threatened with demolition. There was a plan to knock the whole lot down and build a housing estate. I gave evidence at a planning committee against this.

I went to Baltimore, New York and Boston to look at some of their regeneration at about this time because they had some really enlightened developers – especially considering that that was when Trump was building Trump Tower in New York!

The housing scheme [for the Wills buildings] failed. 

I thought it was such a waste to let them go. The Raleigh Road site then got sold on to a client of mine for £8 million, nearly 1 m sq ft, of which 800,000 sq ft was fantastic brick buildings.

But he lost his nerve. It then got bought by a Liverpool development company; they went into receivership. This was difficult times, in the early 90s.

The receiver went to a Bristol agent, who said the best thing to do was to knock it all down and sell it as building sites.

I thought I would put in a silly offer for one of the sites. This site was £400,000. I went to the demolition agent, Wrings, and I got them to give me a price for demolition. I said to the receiver it would cost £220,000 to demolish it, so I said I would give him £180,000.

He said £200,000 and you can have it, and I said yes – I hadn’t got the money! So I had to scratch around to get the money, I borrowed from family, sold things off, and I think worried my wife.

I bought it in 1993 and took possession in 1994. The receiver still thinks I stole it from him!

I’m always encouraged when agents think you are mad, because they just don’t get it.

I always wanted to do the unconventional. My [architectural] clients didn’t like mixing uses such as offices and flats. I wanted this to become an experiment in maximising the mix, exactly the opposite of what agents would tell people.

It was always with independents in mind – above the Tobacco Factory bar was the slogan ‘Strike a light for independents’.

Wills was the main employment for people around this area. I thought I couldn’t replace it on that scale, but what I could do is bring lots of little things in that employ people in different ways.

There were lots of things then setting up for visual artists, for example Watershed and then Spike Island, so I thought I would go for the performing arts, jazz and theatre.

I thought I would just make activities work in raw space.

We started with jazz in what was to become the theatre space – that didn’t really take off.

Then the Show of Strength theatre company moved from the Hen & Chicken, which had become too noisy as they were putting music on. They won some money from a football pools fund to put up some lighting. So we painted the theatre space black – they wanted me to take the [supporting] poles down, which I said was ridiculous, they have actually become the essence of the space.

Then Andrew Hilton came along in 1998 [with the idea for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory]. I thought having Shakespeare would never work in South Bristol, I laughed at the idea, said people were not used to that sort of thing.

He just liked the idea of doing Shakespeare in a found space that was not fancy. He had been involved in Show of Strength and had come to see the Wills Girls show. He just thought it was worth a go.

It was looking pretty difficult when we opened, we were getting tiny audiences, then he got a rave review in the Independent.”

Toby O'Connor Morse of The Independent commented on King Lear: "One of the finest productions of Shakespeare – or any other playwright for that matter – seen in Bristol in years.”

“Then it was Lynn Gardner in the Guardian, then the Times, and suddenly Andrew became the rising star of Shakespeare.

Because he was being absolutely faithful to the text, and he felt he was being more faithful than Shakespeare being put on in a fancy theatre.

St George’s in Brandon Hill were chucking out their pews, so we had those. We also had cheap plastic seats so we encouraged people to bring their own cushions, it was really uncomfortable – there was no air conditioning, it was hot in summer and cold in winter. The box office  was somebody’s mobile phone – it was as basic as hell.

Then we found that people are coming to the theatre but there was nowhere for them to eat, except for Ali’s Tikka Grill in Ashton Road.

So I thought, let’s have a look at food, and Teoh from St Paul’s approached me, and I loved his Chinese Malay place, and I though we made something that worked really well.

I learned all this from cities in the US, particularly Manhattan. This sort of venue hadn’t really kicked off in this country then. I know now everybody does it, with galvanised steel and concrete ceilings.

Everything I have done is stealing – I love recycling, and I have been most successful with recycling good ideas because there are very few new ones. I never did any surveys, it was all based on what gave me a good feeling. We didn’t know whether it would work.

It was November 2001, seven years in, before we opened the café bar, which really completed the picture. By then I had put in the workspace upstairs and people were grumbling that they couldn’t buy decent sandwiches. 

We opened the doors on the first day and it was as if a dam had broken, it was just extraordinary. 

I used to sleep on the floor in what is now the snug bar because up to that point this area was a bit dodgy, every night there was a car broken into in Aldi car park, and I was shouting down from my balcony. We had all this alcohol in the bar, and I thought they were going to break in. After a bit I relaxed.

The bar hasn’t changed much since – we changed the chairs because I bought a lot of old school chairs and they started breaking. A friend made the tables, and the slate bar was reclaimed from the laboratories that were upstairs. The top floor was full of pigeon and gull shit and buckets.   

I always thought the building was fundamentally fantastic, so now I had something good.

The secret of its success is I didn’t rush it, that was out of need because I didn’t have the money.

I needed to get people taking space in order to get me rent so that I could go to the bank and borrow some more money do the rest!

I credit Show of Strength, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Teohs and also Emma Stibben, who’s now a Royal Academician  and a brilliant artist – she did a lot of massive charcoal pictures of the demolitions of the factories – I would like to show the pictures here.

We had a really good range of creative businesses, and still do, with an emphasis on local Bristol businesses.

We had some in the lofts – there are seven, they have become mainly businesses but I live in one.

Upstairs we had Aardman sponsoring courses in animation with UWE and they also took space here while their building was being built.

I wanted affordable art in here, we should try to keep it to the hundreds of pounds rather than the thousands.”  

At this point he gets up to inspect a painting for sale on the wall beside us in the bar, and laughs – a spectacular abstract piece, it’s priced at £995 – just within his price limit.

“We are not a conventional art gallery, it’s an opportunity for people to show their stuff, and gives a bit of variety."

The future

“So now this year, as part of the 25th anniversary, I’m handing over the lease of the first floor to the theatre on a 999-year lease. The rest of the building will eventually go into a trust foundation for the artists of South Bristol, when I have paid off my debts. I know people think I am rich man, but I have always borrowed, otherwise I couldn’t have done all this.

I want to make sure that we can sustain the theatre forever and that we reach out much further and deeper into South Bristol.

Now I’m moving my old office in Great George Street which I’m converting to a house.  

Now we have small five acre farm in Backwell where we grow as much as possible of our own food – we have pigs, chickens, bees and are just about to start a mushroom shed. Our chef Charles has been really encouraging and he spends time out on the farm. It’s all just part of our belief  to serve the community and fill the market.

The brewery [Bristol Beer Factory, over the road] grew because I wanted to brew our own beer and that’s grown to be a very successful brewery, we have brought in Guy Newcombe who started Butcombe and chef Josh Eggleton as partners. I know nothing about brewing like I knew nothing about or theatre management and the secret is to find really good managers."

The transformation of North Street

"South Bristol has begun to change quite a bit; we know that south of the river has always been very white. I would encourage projects that enrich that mix, because I think we are all better off for it, and culturally successful areas are those that have mixed cultures, I make no apologies for that.

[In the early years of the Tobacco Factory] North Street was clinging on – it had the butcher, Lion stores, charity shops, and community-minded people like Ben Barker, who has been a great support. Southville Centre has been a great partner too.

People are rude about charity shops, but I think they are brilliant, great for recycling stuff. 

In 2002 or so, someone said they were opening a deli [Southville Deli, owned by Paul Wick] and Ben Barker said that would never work in this area! 

We started the market in about 2003 with my daughter and Charlie Bolton [now a Green councillor for Southville] who used to run it. It’s  real village round here. 

The first Lounge bar opened up after us [in 2002, on the other side of North Street] and now there are 100-plus, but I never wanted to do that. The only offshoot of the Tobacco Factory is the Grain Barge which is part of Tobacco Factory Enterprises.

I was always very conscious of gentrification – but do you not want to improve places? There is an inevitability of the high prices spilling out to adjacent areas.

But what’s really strong about this area is that there is a lot of social housing, and I think that while the demographic may have changed, there is a very healthy mix. A lot of the people that I drink with in here have been here forever.

I would hate it to become like Shoreditch so that virtually the whole of the old population has gone." 

Being mayor

"People stop me in the street every day [and ask me about being mayor again]. No. I’m sorry I didn’t win [in 2016, when Marvin Rees became mayor of Bristol], I’m even more sorry now that I see what’s happening and not happening, but I’m much happier making things happen by other means.

I had to stop all that [business] activity for four years. 

I’m really pleased I did it, I’m really proud of what I did achieve, but I don’t want to flog a dead horse. I’m still extremely angry about the demise of the arena, and about high buildings, for which most places are inappropriate in Bristol. 

I’m disappointed at the lack of action in dealing with the car and residents parking, and the stadium parking.

The mayoral system is idea for metropolitan areas and I strongly feel we shouldn’t have two mayors. Manchester has a good structure: I think Andy Burnham acts almost as a prime minister of the north. They have got the metropolitan [council] areas, the policing area, and a health region with the same boundary, and I think that’s what we should have.

If I had had the chance I would have stood for metro mayor, but it didn’t exist then [in 2012].

If you have a metro mayor and a city mayor I think you have weakened both positions. I would revert to a leadership model for the local authorities and invest more into the metro mayor – which should be for the Bristol and Bath city region – it shouldn’t be [called] the West of England, which nobody in London knows where it begins and ends.

Bristol and Bath can be a fantastic partnership for investment, for the environment, for business, instead of taking pot shots at each other.

I supported a referendum when it went through the House of Lords even when I was mayor. I thought it was right that people should have a choice."

On being in Southville … or Ashton?

"This is Ashton. I think Southville has slipped into our address because that’s what everybody thinks now, and when you get an article about this area that’s what they say. Southville was originally a tiny area. The whole thing is just Bedminster to people from the north of the river."


The celebrations

A WEEKEND-long celebration will mark 25 years since the Tobacco Factory was saved from demolition and began its long journey to becoming South Bristol’s best-known cultural destination.

The building was bought by architect and ex-mayor George Ferguson in 1994, years after Imperial Tobacco moved to Hartcliffe and left BS3 full of empty warehouses and offices. The renovation took until 2000, but during the six-year works there were pop-up events, leading up to the opening of the café bar in 2001.

Not put off by the lack of electricity, running water, heating or seating, Bedminster’s own theatre group, Show of Strength, began putting on shows in 1994, starting with A Journey to Bristol, a short 18th century comedy which they performed around the whole building.

In 2000, the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company opened, with a single mobile phone as a box office. Despite a shaky start, its King Lear was acclaimed by  the Independent as one of the best productions anywhere in the country. The theatre’s reputation was made – regardless of the unashamedly industrial event space, and rickety plastic chairs.

Shortly afterwards Teoh’s Asian restaurant moved into part of the ground floor (now occupied by the Thali).

Mr Ferguson was regarded with bemusement when he first proposed to take on the building and turn it into a centre for independent cultural events and leisure. Now the Tobacco Factory is a South Bristol landmark, credited with helping spark the transformation of North Street into one of Bristol’s best and most vibrant shopping and leisure streets. 

The celebrations start on May 1 with an exhibition in the main bar of artworks depicting the building and activities connected to the Factory. Artists include Victoria Willmott, Rebecca Howard, Freya Cumming, Susie Brooks, Gail Reeve-Jones, Lucy Davey, Linda Joy and Andy Sonar.

The anniversary weekend is on May 25 and 26, when live music and DJs will play in the bar.

Outside in The Yard, Saturday will see circus performances and workshops on aerial skills with Cirque de Silk.

Upfest artists will be live-painting in the Yard and there will be kids’ crafts from Cre8, and street food galore. 

A special video piece has been commissioned  from Limbic Cinema which will be projected onto the building from the Yard in the evening.

in the theatre upstairs, there will be an exhibition of the story of the Factory building from 1912, and audio memories from cast and staff of past theatre shows, as well as performances by the theatre choir, and puppetry.

On Sunday there will be the regular Producers Market, from 10am-3pm, a tradition that began in 2004 with a monthly market which became so popular it’s now held every week.

Raleigh Road will be closed to enable a street banquet, also from 10am-3pm, when people are invited to share food and drink with friends and family – and make new friends!

Live street music will be followed by DJs in the yard from 3-9pm, with  live swing and dancing from the Gin Bowlers at 8pm.

More details at