Duncan Briars

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Compilation, courtesy Doug Valitchka


From the johnduncans.com webiste.


Little was it known that when a son was born to a Cigar traveller in Manchester, in May of 1879, that it would result in the founding of a firm of pipe manufacturers, which 80 years later would become a household name in most countries of the world. The traveller was Henry Duncan, and his John Louis.

John Louis Duncan loved selling, and as quite a young man acquired the agency for a Manchester manufacturer of hand cut cigarettes. His earliest traveling was done by pony and trap, which entailed an hour of horse-grooming before his evening meal and writing out his day's orders. Later John Louis acquired an 8 h.p. Swift, and became the first motoring traveller in the Tobacco Trade. He supplemented his wares by a still famous London Made brand of pipes and this was the beginning of his lifelong relationship with 'Briar'.

In 1889, at the age of 20, he formed his own firm of pipe makers with a few men and a couple of lathes. The first 15 years were a struggle, John Louis had a new business; growing unrest abroad leading to war and the added pressures of a son and daughter to raise alongside his devoted wife.

Time passed, and the business gradually prospered in the face of much longer established competition. More and more young staff were added to satisfy growing demand, in 1918 Miss Phylis Hall and a few years later Mr. George Walker joined the company, both later becoming active directors. (George Walker, who started working for Duncan Briars in 1922. In 1958 he left Duncan's having been head foreman in charge of production for over 35 years to start Northern Briar Pipes as a pipe repair service.) Then in the early 20's a valuable addition was made when Vernon McHardie took over as General and Export Manager, leading this small firm into the European and World Markets.

Three travellers were alread employed om England when the slump of 1926 to 1930 created a recession forcing most small businesses to shut down. Not This one. Staff accepted lower wages in an effort to keep the firm on its feet.

Prewar Years

Duncan's weathered the roaring stormy 20's and came back fighting into the 30's. This decade was one in which John Louis perfected many of his original ideas and marketed them with great success. He designed the Bandit rubber tobacco pouch so that it could hold 4 ounces but also rolled and banded on to any lesser amount, thus adjusting its size to the contents; making less bulk in the pocket and longer life for the tobacco.

For many years he had been conscious of the need for a pipe that could be held in comfort by the pipesmoker with dentures. When this became his own misfortune, he was more determined than ever that this need be fulfilled.

Many hours were spent developing a mouthpiece with a lip that could be held by leverage, and finally he perfected, and patented, The Original Duncan Dental Pipe, the first of its kind in the trade.

Although the pipe retailers were very skeptical, perseverance on the part of John Louis finally convinced them that the Duncan Dental was worth a try, and the response by the pipe smoking public meant that the Duncan Dental would quickly establish itself as a milestone in the history of pipe making

War Years

During all these years 'Duncans' as it was then called had always made pipes under the shadow of Smithfield Market. Then in 1940, after the terrible night in December when the German bombers visited Manchester, they were compelled to move higher up Shudehill to premises in the fruit and vegetable market.

The Second World War came and Robert Henry Duncan son of John Louis was serving with the Royal Artillery in the Normandy landings, and was away from the business from 1940 until 1946. During these times materials for pipes were almost unobtainable, but many substitute woods were tried, and although by no means as good as Briar root, they served to retain the smokers' interest in pipes.

In order to retain the services of their valuable labour force, contracts were accepted for small precision work from the Admiralty. It was a period of severe stress for all, working all day and air raid duty in the evening. Thankfully our staff were spared to return to full production in 1946.

40's to 60's

Pipe smokers are normally slaves of convention, yet in the late fifties the metal stem pipe wave swept Great Britain, and 'Duncan' was well to the forefront with their Delta Dri-Fashion Pipe. The pipe was a massive hit at home and overseas, and even though production has stopped many devout Delta smokers are still on the lookout for rare 'spare' bowls.

In 1967 new premisses were built 15 miles outside Manchester at the Lowton in Leigh, and the final move to the new factory was completed in 1970. So after 70 years in the shadow of Manchester Smithfield Market, Duncan Pipes were to be made outside Manchester, but still inside Lancashire!

New Age

The next twenty years proved to be both successful and diverse for 'Duncan'. By now Bob Duncan's son, John had been working for the company for five or six years, both in the factory and out on the road.

They had a talented and 'individual' teams of sales reps around the country who sold both pipes and the selection of smoker's requisites that 'Duncan' now sold. Bob and John imported goods from around the world, so they could offer retailers a fill selection of smoker's accessories. They launched many new styles and shapes, including the 'Nu-bent' and began to make pipes for other wholesalers.

End of an Era

In 1980 th epost of managing director passed to John, and by 1983 John's son Peter began coming to work in the warehouse on his school holidays.

The business became even more family orientated when Peter Wilson, John's brother in law, became Works manager and together many new innovations were brought to the fore. New techniques in automation and finishing were adapted from around the world. The pre carboned and carbon lined pipe; perspex coloured mouthpieces and high gloss poly finishes were just a few of the revolutionary changes that Duncans began to introduce to the pipe World.

But as the 1980's wore on the increase in publicity against cigarette smoking had an adverse effect on sales. Although not directly targeted, pipe smoking was beginning to feel the pinch of the anti tobacco lobby. So Duncans began to diversify into pouches and leathergoods, and John and Peter Wilson started a company manufacturing small leathergoods in Southport. By the time that John's son Peter joined the company in 1998, they were enjoying an upturn in sales.

However the market soon began to drop once more, many manufacturers were being bought out by larger companies; more able to survive because of their economies of scale.

Finally in 1994 Duncans Briars Limited was sold. The manufacturer of quality English pipes be a family firm was no longer in demand. Other cheaper materials could be found, and methods of manufacture had changed. So all agreed, if Duncans could not make pipes the way they wanted, they would not make pipes. Although a seemingly hard decision, John Duncan, his wife Diane and their son Peter, had been running two shops in Southport for a number of years, and it was through 'John Duncan's Pipes' that the family tradition was able to continue. Now in the 5th Generation, the Duncan family can proudly claim they have been 'Pipemakers to the Pipeman Since 1899'.

Contact Information

 Website: http://www.johnduncans.com
 E-mail: sales@johnduncans.com
 Phone: 01704 537686
 Post: 241 Lord Street
           PR8 INY

Ben Wade?

Ben Wade pipes
Images Courtesy of pipes2smoke.com

What is left over? Wilson worked the miracle of Ben Wade's resurrection buying the rights of the brand in 1998 from Dunhill. To keep things simple today's Ben Wade pipes are made as order production for him at the Walthamstowe plant - Parker Hardcastle Briar Pipes Mfrs. / Dunhill Pipes & Smokers Requisites.