Black Cat Factory

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Modernist Britain

Outline image of Arcadi House

Image courtesy and © of Modernist Britain

From the website :

Standing on Hampstead Road in North London, opposite Mornington Crescent tube station and half a mile north of Euston Road, the Arcadia Works was built between 1926 and 1928 for the Carreras Tobacco Company. The company was established in 1788 and started business in London in the mid-1850s. By 1907 the company had a large works on City Road (which runs roughly from Moorgate north-west to Angel) in North London. By 1927 the company had outgrown its City Road works. The company commissioned plans for a new London headquarters for the company.

Arthur George Porri submitted plans for a classical-influenced building whilst architect Marcus Evelyn Collins suggested a stylised Egyptian frontage. The Egyptian style echoed the increasing influence of Egypt on art and design following the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. The Egyptian design was married to Porri's overall scheme. The design of the building was credited to the practice of Marcus Evelyn Collins and Owen Hyman Collins with A G Porri and Partners as consultant.

Marcus Evelyn Collins was born in 1861 and died in 1944. His father, Hyman Henry Collins (1883 - 1905) was a well-known architect having designed the New London Synagogue in St John's Wood, London. Marcus Evelyn Collins and Owen Hyman Collins worked in practice in London until March 1939 when the partnership was dissolved, although both continued in practice, albeit separately from the same office at 115 Old Broad Street in London.

Arthur George Porri was born in 1877 and died in 1962. He was also responsible for the Eli Lilly building on Kingsclere Road in Basingstoke. The building, a four-storey laboratory, is another Modernist industrial works.

The Arcadia Works, also known as the Carreras Cigarette Factory, is a large imposing building, with its frontage on Hampstead Road extending for more than 500 ft. The design comprises an, at the time, unique pre-stressed concrete frame. The company publicised the Arcadia Works as 'London's Most Hygienic Tobacco Factory', by virtue of its air conditioning and dust extraction plant.

The main entrance to the building is flanked by two 8 ½ft high bronze statues of the cat-goddess Bastet (Carreras used a black cat on its Craven A cigarette packaging). The main frontage comprises a central block of 13 bays with two lower wings of eight bays either side. The bays within the central section are separated by columns with Egyptian-stylised capitals.

The bays, from the first floor level, are filled with tall metal-framed windows. Window blanks disguise the floor level allowing the windows to rise uninterrupted for four storeys. Above, the company name 'Carreras' is spelt out in raised Egyptian-style lettering. Either side, for the outside ten bays, reliefs showing the face of Bastet are placed in circular recesses. Above, a further storey with metal framed windows is surmounted by a highly decorative, deep cavetto-form parapet.

The lower wings are simpler in design with mouldings separating the eight bays. These wings also feature the same deep parapet, although plain in decoration. At pavement level ornamental railings featuring Egyptian hieroglyphs surround the building. The rear of the building is much simpler, with plain walls with large windows. A tall chimney rises high over the building.

The building was officially opened with great fanfare on 3 November 1928. The pavements were covered in sand, opera singers from a London staging of Verdi's opera Aida and actors in Ancient Egypt-style costumes performed, while chariot races were held on the street. The company struck a commemorative medal in celebration for all 3,000 employees, with the inscription 'My Thanks For All Your Help - Bernhard Baron, Chairman, Carreras Ltd'.

In 1959 the Carreras company merged with the Rothmans company and the new company relocated. The Arcadia Works was put up for disposal. By that time the Egyptian styling had fallen out of favour. In 1961 all traces of Collins' scheme were obliterated, with the columns 'boxed' in. Renamed Greater London House, the Arcadia Works was used as office space.

In 1996 Greater London House was acquired by Resolution Property. Executive architects Finch Forman and design architects Munkenbeck and Marshall were commissioned to restore, as far as possible, the original Egyptian scheme. The project including reinstating two replica cats outside the main entrance. The restoration won a Civic Trust Award and a Camden Design Award, and the project was featured as Building of the Month in the RIBA Journal.

The Beginning

Factory Foundations

Building operations at Endsleigh Gardens, Euston Road, c. 1928 (St Pancras Church can be seen in the distance)

Hoardings and Foundations for new factory

Pictures of Mornington Crescent, with hoardings and during development

Factory Frontage

The huge factory built over the valuable garden space of Mornington Crescent,
Camden Town, N. London.

Note, on left, the original houses overshadowed by its bulk

Ground Plan of the Factory

New Factory for Messrs, Carreras Ltd., Hampstead Road NW1
Architects, M.E. and O.H. Collins .Contractors, Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons.

Aerial View of the Factory

The aerial image from the Britain from above website shows the enormous expanse of the factory building.

Finished Factory frontage

The new Carreras factory about 1929, in all its Egyptian finery

For more up to date images of the factory as it looks today - please return to the Black Cat Factory page

From the Camden Town Local History website

New Health

Mornington Crescent was only one of the many squares and crescents under threat by developers in the 1920s. Another was Endsleigh Gardens, opposite Euston Station. It had been an open space full of trees, but was now lost to the public. This is the block which now contains the Friends’ Meeting House. Coram Fields and many other green lungs were under similar threat.

In April 1928, ‘New Health’, a periodical which fought for open spaces in cities and the health which they could bring, was up in arms about the planned loss of Mornington Crescent Gardens. Fresh air was the sole known cure for killer diseases such as tuberculosis. Streptomycin, which emptied our TB hospitals in the early sixties, was thirty years away. New Health contrasted the trees and open space with the effect of a new factory on the area.

Captions from 'New Health'

"Look at this picture which shows the gardens at Mornington Crescent some years ago, when trees and shrubs and grass brightened the surroundings of this North London district."

"And on this, after the builder has fallen upon the ground and work has commenced for the erection of a great factory."

The New Health article went on to demand that all new factory building should be outside London as there was plenty of room in the countryside and London needed its open spaces to give the population fresh air and health. It was partly this thinking which would begin to empty Camden Town of manufacture thirty years later, well after Mornington Crescent Gardens had been built over and, incidentally, just when Streptomycin was beginning to solve the Tuberculosis problem.

The Carreras 'Black Cat' Factory

In 1927, when the factory was being designed, interest in Egyptian history was widespread. Lord Carnarvon had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen a few years earlier and a number of 'Egyptian' buildings were being erected at this time, including the Hoover factory on the A40 into London and a cinema in Essex Road. The association with Black Cat cigarettes, then a popular brand, related to an earlier period in the Company history. A Spanish nobleman by the name of Carreras, banished from his country, set up in London's Wardour Street and began trading as a tobacconist/herbalist. He had a black cat which, on sunny days, sat in the window of his shop. Londoners wishing to buy tobacco used to ask cab drivers to take them to the tobacconist's shop in Wardour Street with the black cat in the window, because the name Carreras was difficult to pronounce. Thus the Black Cat name became famous. The combination of the Egyptian theme and the Black Cat, led to the Egyptian Cat Goddess, Bast and helped decide the system of decoration. Local people still call the building the Black Cat Factory.

The new factory was to be enormous - the largest reinforced-concrete factory in the country. Five floors would completely fill the gardens. Not an inch was to be left and everything green would disappear.

Five deep light wells were to penetrate the building, bringing light and air to the interior, while the top floor was to have north-facing lights, so that heat would not build up in strong sunshine.

Pictures of the building under construction show three tall steel towers, the forerunners of our modern tower cranes, and huge walls of wooden shuttering for the concrete. Trams and buses with outside staircases pass along Hampstead Road. When built, the whole of the exterior (except the coloured parts) were rendered in white cement and sand to give a warm stone-coloured finish. The brilliant Egyptian decorations were produced by mixing ground glass with cement and grinding off. Thus the colours were permanent and, when dirty, could be washed.

The First Reactions

In 1928, the reviewer in 'Building' was very doubtful about the design of the factory. The idea of dressing up a modern factory as an Egyptian temple was disturbing, but the mass of the building, its form and general composition, were unexpectedly beautiful. He closed his eyes to the decoration and looked at the building beneath. The 'sense of beauty' given by the gentle inward slope of the walls, typical of  Egyptian building, is particularly satisfying.

Of course, the inside walls are vertical, as with Egyptian mud-brick building, but from the outside they slope inwards, gradually tapering in thickness to the top. An inward slope, or batter, is very rare in reinforced-concrete work, but when we see the factory today, with the Egyptian fancy dress gone, we see the building as the reviewer in Building imagined it and so can judge it on architectural merits alone. The reviewer too was very impressed with the beauty of the vast concrete interiors, 'unplastered and straight from the shuttering (just stoned down and white-washed over)’.  Although he did not know it, this as an early example of New Brutalism, but the coloured decoration protected it from that name at the time.

The History of the Rothman Tobacco Firm

The modern firm of Rothman had been founded by Bernhard Baron, who had come to England from Kiev, via the United States. There is an old news film about the opening of the Carreras factory which seems to be from another age. It records the opening ceremony and shows Baron being greeted by a vast crowd. Apparently almost all the 3,000 workers, mostly women, are waving at him. Other pictures show them crowding into the main doors on a working day in such numbers that the scene looks like Wembley five minutes before the kick off.

The original silver nitrate film has been transferred to video, silent and jerky. Short panels of text say:-

'800 men built the House of Carreras, the largest reinforced concrete building under one roof in Great Britain, in 18 months.'

'The modern factory designed after the Egyptian goddess Bast, the Cat Goddess, is guarded by two bronze cats of ancient Bubastis ten feet in height.'

'The flanking pillars, 47 feet high, with brilliant and handsome colourings ground from glass, to outlast the centuries; with the winged orbs of Rah, the sun God above.'

'2.800 tons of steel rods and 77,500 tons of concrete were used in the building of Britain’s largest factory.'

'Nine acres of floor space were covered with 400.000 square feet of Canadian maple.'

Our modern reaction to the film is very different from the impression it must have made on its first audiences, because we have the advantage of hindsight. In the nineteen-thirties we regarded cigarettes as a source of harmless pleasure. We watched Hollywood films and copied the way the film stars lit their cigarettes. Whenever an actor on the stage needed some 'business' to cover a pause, or hoped to take the audiences' mind off the quality of the dialogue, he flourished a cigarette case. Every theatre programme used to carry the acknowledgement, 'Cigarettes by Abdulla', because Abdulla gave free cigarettes for use on the stage.

Thus, when Carreras moved to Camden Town here was pleasure and relief at the prospect of employment. Hundreds of people would have the chance to work in a modern factory which had the latest air conditioning. The film opens with pictures of the park at Mornington Crescent, full of small trees, almost as Ginner and other artists in the Camden Town Group had drawn it before the First World War.

It then traces the making of cigarettes in their millions. Women open bales of tobacco leaves and rapidly strip out the hard central vein, with the dust of broken tobacco leaves rising in their faces for eight hours a day. This was passive smoking, but nobody knew. Smoking cigarettes was glamorous, not stupid. Reading the laudatory film captions about the new factory, we are shocked. Not until the computer death figures began to appear nearly forty years later, did we realise the danger of cigarette smoking, while the risk to passive smokers like these took us even longer to recognise. Watching the film today we look on now helpless, unable to warn them of their likely fate.

All methods of advertising were used to keep up sales. 'Club brand’, made at the Mornington Crescent ‘Arcadia Works’, was the first to give coupons which could be exchanged for goods of all type. In that realistic 1930 world, some of the most popular 'prizes' were boots and shoes. Smokers came to the main entrance, collected their footwear and changed into the new ones at once. So many left their old boots and shoes on the doorstep that one boy had the special job of collecting them every few hours to keep the place tidy. Mr King remembers going up the splendid 'marble' staircase and handing in the coupons. His brother too got his first overcoat with coupons.

Every street in Camden Town provided workers and, since it was the policy to employ families wherever possible, whole households worked there together. This made for a more stable workforce and created a subtle type of discipline. If a younger member of the family was not behaving well, a word to an older relation often settled the matter. This policy of employing families was pursued by Gilbey's and other local factories until the 1960s, when the patterns of employment and the early breaking up of families into separate households, often living far apart, made it impracticable.

On Christmas Eve the family party often started in the factory. Any musicians were encouraged to bring their instruments. At about 3 o'clock, the band started at the top floor and formed a conga chain, dancing through the factory, floor by floor, until it emerged at the main entrance as an excited throng and held up the traffic in the Hampstead Road.

Camouflaging the Factory

In 1939 the factory was camouflaged in broad patches, which appeared to make it even more gaudy and conspicuous than ever, but it looked different from the air. After the War the camouflage was removed and the Egyptian decorations were restored. However, the proud boast of 'outlasting centuries' seemed unlikely to come about, for in 1958-60 the Carreras factory was relocated to Basildon, Essex. Some workers went with the firm to the new town, and its new houses, while others had to find what other London work they could. Rothman’s were to move again from Basildon to Aylesbury, but that factory too is now closed. One of the famous cats was in store and the other is at the Rothman factory in Jamaica.

Modernising the building

When Rothmans had left, the factory stood idle. The building was refurbished. Windows were replaced. All the glass-decorated pilasters were built in as square columns; the winged orbs of the Rah the sun god above the entrance were removed; the building was given a plain colour wash, and the factory could be seen at last as a modern building. With the Egyptian decorations removed, many ‘Egyptian ‘ features remained. There were still the ‘battered’ walls, sloping in gently towards the top; the cavetto mouldings at the roof; the Egyptian shape of the building, the tall, narrow window openings, used by the Egyptians; a row of circular patches along the front which were part of the original Carreras decoration; and the iron railings with their hieroglyphic motifs. Despite these traces of the past, it became the modern building with its simple inwards ‘batter’, first envisaged by the critic in ‘Building’, in September 1928

The factory was renamed ‘Greater London House’ and the Thomson Travel Company has been located there for many years.

The 1997 Changes

In March 1997 the building changed hands. The new Taiwan-based owners submitted plans to restore the building, replace all windows to match the 1920s originals and reintroduce the 12 foot high black cats at the entrance. The original columns, with their glass decorations have been too damaged by building them over into square columns for the originals to be restored, but new ones would be built over the top of the old and painted to the original colours. The huge black cats would be replaced, and an ‘Egyptian’ building was to become a post-modernist Egyptian one.

It is a very well designed building, with high ceilings and large open floors, ideal for a computer-run world. Modern offices bear little relation to the traditional office of high desks and coal fires. Dickens, who went to school just by Mornington Crescent, and Bob Cratchet, his clerk in The Christmas Carol, are both long dead. Instead of ledgers and dusty files stored in attics and tied with tape, each person has a computer. This can be plugged into any socket, or worked by batteries. Today many office workers are ‘nomads’, travelling around from site to site, customer to customer, and have no need for a permanent space. They can use any convenient empty desk and call up their files on their lap-tops. They have a cubic metre of drawer space in a steel filing cabinet, a lap-top computer and a car which doubles as an office.

Thus many modern offices need only a reception area; rooms for meetings; some small office cubicles where one can work quietly for an hour; a place where people can meet casually; and a kettle for making tea. Architects will need a drawing board and a computer, but even these may sometimes be shared. Solicitors still require a permanent room where the door can be shut and confidential matters discussed in private. Most work however is not very secret. It is routine and can be conducted in open offices.

This is the new pattern for Greater London House. A number of flexible office spaces capable of being used in many different ways, with good communications, minimal overheads and a newly refurbished Mornington Crescent Station outside.

Kentish Towner

A well written piece reproduced below - original source here

Early view of Factory

An early view of the factory (no provenance given) as it appears in the Kentish Towner

Carreras Art Deco Cigarette Factory, Mornington Crescent

The chequered history of the huge Egyptian-themed building that wiped out much-loved communal gardens

Could this be the most gloriously incongruous building in all North London? Giant Black Cat statues; oversized Art Deco grandeur; curious hieroglyphic stylings. Along with Western Avenue’s celebrated Hoover Building-turned-mega-Tescos, Greater London House (to use its bland current name) is among the capital’s finest eye-popping examples of Egyptian-influenced Art Deco architecture.

As the progressive spirit and indelible social changes of industrialisation swept the world, the great tombs of Tutankhamen and his bejewelled, mummified ilk were being revealed along the Nile, proving a popular theme for industrialists wanting to make the thrusting testosterone-heavy corporate HQ statements of the day.

Until 1926 the site had held a sweep of communal gardens fronting a quite desireable Mornington Crescent, part of the Duke of Bedford’s swanky Estate. But a wily developer managed to snap up the land rights to the gardens; the horror at their destruction actually proved enough to spur the foundation of the Royal Commission on London Squares.

Looking on the bright side though, the subsequent erection of such a colossal work facility saved Mornington Crescent tube station, under the shadow of closure since 1924. And despite its Crescent oasis-obliterating birth, the aerial shot from the year of completion shows a rather grand addition to the stuccoed terraces and railway lines all round.

Harrington Square sits opposite, barely recognisable as a much smaller triangular feature of the 1840s Bedford Estate back in those days. Heavy bombing of Euston in WWII, followed by 1960s tower block brutalism saw the forced return of a more communal garden space to the area, providing today’s almost rural snatched vistas of the vast building (main pic).

Named as Arcadia Works after the previous Carreras factory on City Road which it replaced, the project was the brainchild of Russian-Jewish-via-America philanthropist and inventor Bernhard Baron, who had come up with a revolutionary cigarette-making machine that earned his fortune.

Bernhard Baron on dedication day

Inauguration Day entrance

Bernhard Baron

Excellent historical shot of Bernhard Baron being taken and recording for posterity the position of the cats and decorative detail - shame no colour images are available.

Here he is posing for the paps at the dedication of the brand new factory in 1928, when he was to proclaim it – without so much as a whiff of modern day emphysemic irony – as a most “healthy and pleasant place to work”.

The Carreras company’s origins are unclear, however Charles Dickens refers to the poor Spanish residents clustered around Somers Town in ‘Bleak House’ and census data reveals generations of tobacco traders in the area bearing the name for almost a century before. The ‘Black Cat’ brand of tabs was central to the global image of the company by the 20s, and Egyptian tobacco the weed of choice, so the theme of the building obviously made sense.

Commemorative Medal given to all employees on the opening day, November 3rd 1928 - image courtesy & © of cjbalm.com

It was wildly embraced. For the opening, actors in Egyptian regalia performed dramatics and a chariot race was even held along Hampstead Road. But alongside their architectural pretensions, the Carreras bunch were real innovators.

They had been the first fag company both to introduce cork filter tips and offer gift coupons in packets, both revolutionary moments in smoking’s chequered commercial history. The new factory was proclaimed to be the world’s most advanced, and was the first in Britain to make use of pre-stressed concrete and the radical technologies of air conditioning and dust extraction.

Image courtesy & © of cjbalm.com

Carreras Advertisement

There was an honourable effort to support workers and their families at the factory and it produced a happy working environment. In Camden History Society’s millennium project ‘Catching the Past’, a series of interviews with ex-employees reveals such workday features as subsidised lunches, sports tournaments, a Miss Carreras beauty competition and an active C.A.T.S – the Carreras Amateur Theatrical Society.

Colour-coded uniform collars ensured that workers did not stray from their correct floor on the eight story complex and there was a ban on all cosmetics for fear they might taint the tobacco, but people stayed with the firm as lifelong loyal employees.

The dream was to end in 1958 with the announcement that production was to move to Basildon in Essex, which for all intents and purposes was the countryside. Around two thirds of the staff took up the offers of resettling in houses there, commuting back to Camden Town until the move of the factory was complete.

The huge building was commandeered by the GLC who, as well as renaming it, stripped out all the quirky Egyptianisms, preferring an en vogue municipal feel as the 60s swung into action. One of the original Black Cat statues went to Basildon, the other to the company’s factory in Jamaica. Once again at Mornington Crescent, the conservationists were in vocal uproar.

The Black Cats today

Yet in the late 90s, with the GLC but a local governmental memory, a new sympathetic Taiwanese owner secured its immunity from the wrecking ball and work began to reinvent it as a ‘meeja’-focused business centre, including the restoration of almost all of the original design features. It was an award-winning execution.

So now we have faithfully true new Black Cats, jolly Lower Nile colourwash detailing and an Art Deco sight to behold as we trundle through the patchwork of styles and eras that litter Hampstead Road and Euston today. It really is a huge place that thoroughly deserves celebrating its cheery if vaguely ridiculous historic scrub-up.

And the Carreras company qualities of innovation-in-product, workplace and seismic social upheavals are back too, courtesy of current residents like internet fashion dynamos ASOS, global media giants EMAP, marketing gurus Wunderman, spinal fitness gym Kieser Training and the British Heart Foundation.

Mr Baron, who died only a few months after the opening, would surely be lighting up a ‘Craven A’ if he knew how the building has been preserved.

ASOS - 2007

The building's distinctive Egyptian-style ornamentation originally included a solar disc to the Sun-god Ra, two gigantic effigies of black cats flanking the entrance and colourful painted details. When the factory was converted into offices in 1961 the Egyptian detailing was stripped out, but was then restored during a renovation in the late 1990s. Replicas of the cats now sit outside the front entrance and about 80% of the original Art Deco details have been reinstated.  

But walk through the Art Deco doors and the visitor is rapidly transported ‘back’ into the 21st century. Greater London House is home to the British Heart Foundation, Young & Rubicam and Revlon, but the biggest occupier is online fashion and beauty retailer ASOS. Beyond the building’s main reception, ASOS’s stunning double-height central feature atrium links a new ground floor reception through to a first floor with kitchen and breakout zone plus a new staircase leading up to the second floor.

Asos interior Asos interior

I remember my disappointment when we entered that shiny new interior all those years ago and now Asos have completed the re-vamp - the links take you to a .pdf presentation of the entire makeover - for the 21st century, yes, but at the cost of the original? It doesn't cut it for me.

The company moved into the building in 2007, where it took over part of three floors. Following a two-phase refurbishment project, the organisation – which is aimed at 18-34 year olds and sells both branded fashion goods and its own range of clothes – occupies 37,000 sq ft of the ground floor with its own entrance; the entire first floor (54,000 sq ft); and second floor (54,000 sq ft); half of the fourth floor (30,000 sq ft.) and 13,000 sq ft on the lower ground. This equates to 49% of Greater London House

Wonga - 2014

Unwelcome publicity for the former Carreras Headquarters as reported in the Daily Telegraph

Wonga brings its staff together in cat-protected office

Payday lender brings staff to new office at Greater London House

Black Cat Factory

Greater London House is an art deco building that began life as the Carreras Cigarette Factory, and is notable for two giant Egyptian-style cats which guard the entrance  Photo: Rex

Wonga, the payday lender, has united all its London staff in one office for the first time in an effort to encourage greater co-operation across the business. The company has closed two London offices and moved its staff into a new home in Camden. The new office, at Greater London House, is now home to Wonga’s 200-plus UK staff who were previously on the north edge of Regent’s Park and in Chalk Farm. The location was chosen by new chief executive Niall Wass – who took over from founder Errol Damelin in December – to allow greater efficiency between different teams and to allow space to grow. As well as payday loans, Wonga offers loans to small businesses, and has a product in the online retail payments market. It is known to be looking at a number of other “disruptive” areas in the finance arena.

A source said the move to new offices was the next step in the generation of the start-up, and would allow more optimal working. The company has 700 employees around the world, with the second-largest group being in Germany, as a result of last year’s acquisition of BillPay.

The iconic building, opposite Mornington Crescent underground station in north London, is also home to Asos, the online retailer. The art deco building began life as the Carreras Cigarette Factory, and is notable for two giant Egyptian-style cats which guard the entrance.

A Wonga spokesman confirmed the move.

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Page updated 14th December 2017 (G)