Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind them, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we take a look at Waddington’s, finding out how an apprentice printer became Britain’s biggest games manufacturer.
In the late 1800s, John Waddington completed his apprenticeship and set up a company with Wilson Barrett, manager of the Leeds Grand Theatre. The company, Waddingtons Ltd, produced colour posters and advertising material for theatres. Their first print shop was on Camp Road, close to where Leeds University currently stands.
Due to a clash of personalities, Waddington ended up going it alone, but soon ran into financial difficulties. Frederick Eley, manager of the local branch of the National Provincial Bank, bailed him out, and suggested Waddington form a private limited company which he did in 1905. John Waddington persuaded his other shareholders that they needed lithographic equipment and hired Victor Watson as lithographic foreman.
John Waddington again encountered money problems in 1913, and resigned from the company, but his name lived on. The other directors wanted to fold the business but Victor Watson convinced them to continue with himself as manager. He managed to make the company a success and the following year, they moved to bigger premises in Elland Road close to the football ground. On Good Friday in 1915, this factory burnt down, but undeterred, the following day Watson bought another printing firm which was going out of business. In 1919, the company joined the Master Printers’ Federation and in 1921 became a public company.
In that same year, Watson became joint managing director and Eley became chairman, when the company moved to a new site in Hunslet. It was already a nationally well known company, and new techniques in photographic printing enabled them to produce first rate playing cards and cement a reputation internationally. Their first cards incorporated advertising on the back including their ‘Beautiful Britain’ series of playing cards subsidised by the Great Western Railway Company.
Demand for standard playing cards, was so high in the 1920s that a new factory was built in Keighley producing 30,000 packs of cards with single colour backs. They also remained one of the biggest printing companies in Britain, and in 1924 they produced the largest poster ever created, a 10ft by 40ft advertisement for the British Empire Exhibition
In the 1930s, Watson invested his own money in Satona Ltd, a manufacturer of cartons treated with paraffin wax. Waddingtons bought the company and started producing orange juice cartons to sell in cinemas.
Their venture into board games began in 1935 when the Parker Brothers sent Waddingtons a sample copy of their new game, Monopoly. Watson asked his son Norman to have a look and see what he thought. He played it all weekend and was hooked. On the Monday morning he persuaded his father to make their first transaltlantic phone call. They were granted a licence to produce the game, with dollars being replaced by pounds, and all the names changed to London streets and landmarks.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Waddingtons were asked to produce low denomination bank notes valued 2d6s and 5s to replace coins. This was an extremely high security operation with few people knowing about it. The notes never entered circulation and at the end of the war were destroyed. They did however produce foreign banknotes under an agreement with De La Rue in London whose factory was bombed. Famously Monopoly sets were sent to prisoners of war held by the Nazis, which secretly contained maps, compasses and real money in order to help them escape.
In 1943, they opened a new factory in Gateshead where they produced plastic backed playing cards including a design by Picasso. By the end of the war, they were also producing Easter Egg cartons for Cadbury. In the 1950s, they created a subsidiary company, Summitt Games, named after their first board game. This subsidary company was created purely to sell their board games. Waddingtons also formed a joint venture with an American company to form Eureka Waddington whose primary aim was to produce trading stamps. This led to Waddington’s printing the famous Green Shield stamps.
In 1951 the company passed into the hands of a third generation when Watson’s grandson also called Victor joined the business and remained there until his retirement in 1993. In the meantime Waddington’s have produced many of the well known board games enjoyed by families across the world. These include “Cluedo,” which was based on a game developed during the war years by Anthony E. Pratt. Some minor changes were made from the original, which featured ten suspects instead of six. The names of Mr Brown, Mr Gold, Mrs Silver and Miss Grey were permanently excluded from board game history, while Colonel Yellow was changed to Colonel Mustard, and “Nurse White” changed to plain “Mrs White.” Amazingly some of the weapons were also exluded from the game, including an unexploded bomb and a red hot poker! Some of these have since appeared in spin-off versions of the game. The first UK edition of Cluedo was launched in 1949 and has become an all time board game classic enjoying several new editions throughout the decades and even a TV series.
Famously Victor Watson, who was made chairman in 1977 and is known in business circles as the man who managed to fend off the advances of Robert Maxwell, who attempted a hostile takeover in 1983. The popularity of TV game shows in the 1980s led to Waddington’s producing many of their board game spin-offs, such as “Blockbusters, (1986)” and “Wheel of Fortune (1988).
By the time the company was bought by Hasbro in 1994, they had produced many games which have become household names (either original or under licence) such as Risk, Subbuteo, Cluedo and Sorry; and Lord Zed’s Card game (rebranded as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers). In the 21st Century they still continue to produce games under the Hasboro name, bringing their games onto online platforms as well as through traditional board game formats. Sadly in February 2015, Victor Watson died aged 86, the last remaining connection to this truly Yorkshire firm.
In the next post in this series, we will look at Standard Fireworks.
Further reading for this article:
How it all began: in Yorkshire by Maurice Baren (Dalesman)