This Article was written in 1990, and first published in ‘Cigar World’ the trade magazine of Hunters & Frankau Ltd.
It is reproduced by kind permission

Looking back on 200 years of sucess

Today Hunters & Frankau is the largest Havana cigar importer in the UK. Like all great ventures, it has reached that position as much by merging with, or acquiring other companies, as it has by excelling in its chosen business.

The result is a lineage of remarkable complexity from the late 18th century to the present day which reflects the ebb and flow of the fortunes of its trade not to mention the tides of history.

Three names of particular significance emerge from the firm's family tree - the earliest being Hunter, then Frankau and Freeman which, although not acknowledged in the company's title, is the one that lives on today through the company's chairman, Nicholas Freeman.


Originally the Hunters were an established family in the medical profession. Quite how and why the dynasty transferred its allegiance to cigars is not clear. Records show that one John Hunter, a surgeon in the City of London, decided to branch out from his profession and import leeches. Perhaps his dealings in tropical climes, where leeches flourished, brought him into contact with the cigar industry and as the enthusiasm for bloodletting declined he felt cigars offered a brighter future!

Certainly the Hunters had picked on a growing industry. In 1823 a modest 261 lbs. of cigars, around 15,000 pieces, were imported to Britain. By 1840 the weight of imports had grown to 234,000 lbs., about 13 million cigars.

As the taste for cigars increased in Britain, so the Hunters’ business flourished.

In 1873 John Hunter, grandson of the founder, felt he needed to broaden his base in the trade and started a programme of merger and acquisition which 13 years later put him at the head of a public company.

First he founded a company with Frederick Tayler, which took him into cigar manufacturing, an industry then in its infancy in Britain.

Then in 1882 Hunter & Tayler bought the long established company Wm. Leech and Sons who held a strong position in the Havana trade as a founding company of Havana Cigar Brands Association.

The company moved into Leech's spacious premises at 55 St. Mary Axe in the City.

55 St. Mary Axe
55 St. Mary Axe: The Company's HQ for 59 years until it was destroyed by enemy action in 1941

In 1886 the final move took place when John Hunter & Co and Hunters & Tayler joined forces with Havana Merchants A.G. Wiltshire & Co who had been their neighbours at 102 Fenchurch Street. The Company, called John Hunter Wiltshire & Co Ltd, was floated with a share capital of £100,000 and John Hunter was appointed Chairman of the Board.

Hunter Wiltshire boasted 'The largest duty paid stock in the Kingdom', and numbered many different Havana brands in its portfolio alongside Mexican and British made cigars.

For the next 20 years John Hunter Wiltshire prospered until in 1908 John Hunter, then in his late seventies, was forced to retire due to ill health. His last wish was to see the company re-embark on the acquisition trail.

In May of that year the company bought Morris & Elkan Ltd. Tobacco Brokers and Cigar and Tobacco Importers, for the sum of £25,600. Alexander Elkan, also a director of Carlins and Bewley & Co, noted retail cigar merchants, joined the Board and the company was renamed John Hunter, Morris and Elkan Ltd.

Arthur Hunter maintained the family continuity as a director but the chairmanship went to William Burton, a Hunter's man. Also on the Board was Stanley Phillips who became Managing Director until the 1950s.

Under its new name the company strengthened its manufacturing arm by buying J. L. Van Gelder & Co and extended its portfolio of imported brands with the purchase of Joseph Travers & Co Ltd.

In 1911 the company celebrated a major coup when it bought a controlling interest in Allones & Co in Havana. It obtained not only the factory but also the world-wide rights to the famous Ramon Allones brand which, as a leading 'independent' marque, gave Hunters protection against Buck Duke and his 'Combine' brands.

Ramon Allones became the company's principle brand and agencies were established for it all over Europe and the world. Sales flourished in the three years up to 1914 when the Great War placed severe restrictions on the market as a whole. Hunters retained the brand until 1932 when they sold it to Cifuentes & Co in a deal which allowed them to retain the exclusive rights to the brand in the UK.

Stanley Phillips
Stanley Phillips: Brought Montecristo to Britain

The inter war years saw the birth of the Montecristo brand in which Hunters played a vital role.

This premium cigar was introduced in 1934 by Menendez y Garcia and named the H. Upmann Montecristo and came in a range of five sizes.

A year later Menendez y Garcia approached Stanley Phillips to see if he would take the brand in Britain. The idea appealed to him but only as Montecristo as the H. Upmann brand was firmly in the hands of his competitors J. Frankau & Co

This was agreed and Phillips set his young nephew, Jack Benham a director of Hunters at the time, to design a livery for the brand.

A Box of Montrecristo

Benham developed the theme of Alexandra Dumas' legendary Count of Montecristo with the emblem of crossed epees surrounding the ‘fleur de lys'. The finished design in red and gold on a bright yellow background surrounded by a chequered strip must have shocked the trade’s traditionalists as it resembled no other Havana cigar packaging at the time!

Tragically Jack Benham was killed during tile Second World War and did not live to see the brand grow into its position as the world's largest selling Havana which it holds today.

The Second World War put enormous strain on Hunters. The importation of Havanas was banned for 13 years and on their return in 1953 they were subject to a rigid quota. The company fell back on its British cigars like La Geldera and La Espana but times were not what they had been.

Resources were pooled in 1942 with W. Klingenstein & Co with whom Hunters had enjoyed a special relationship for more than 40 years.

Ultimately, in 1953, ownership of John Hunter Morris & Elkan, passed to the Freeman family who already owned J. Frankau & Co.


History does not record whether John Hunter knew Joseph Frankau but it is likely they were acquainted as they shared the same trade in a similar location.

Joseph Frankau, , a German Jew, came to London in the late 1830’s from Frankfurt. Early commercial records list the company of Friedlander & Frankau as traders in leeches and cigars.

By 1844 the firm of J. Frankau & Co emerged at 33 Great Ailie in the City of London in the same business.

In that same year Herman Upmann gave up his European banking career and set up in Havana as a banker and cigar maker. As the century progressed the association between J. Frankau & Co and H. Upmann became closer and closer resulting 70 years later in the Frankau's owning both the factory and the brand at the outbreak of the First World War.

The Frankau dynasty followed the classic pattern of family businesses. Joseph, the immigrant, worked hard to establish the company. Arthur, his Eton educated son, built on those foundations to create a sound business, but under Gilbert, the third in the line, the company lost its way.

Arthur was probably responsible for this turn in events because of his marriage to a lively lady named Julia Davis! She became a celebrated novelist under the name of Frank Danby producing a series of books lampooning well known figures at the time with titles such as 'Pigs in Clover' and 'An Incomplete Etonian'.

Her literary ambitions rubbed off on Gilbert. Having been catapulted into the family business on his father's death in 1904, he wrote his first novel in 1904 and then left England to travel in 1912. He served in the Great War with distinction and afterwards became as famous a novelist as his mother had been. In 1916 the family decided to sell J Frankau & Co to rival company Braden & Stark.

Gilbert's last contribution to the trade was to write a novel entitled 'Peter Jackson - Cigar Merchant' in 1919, which recounted his wartime experiences and gave a fascinating insight to the trade before the First World War. Artistic talent lived on in the Frankau family with Gilbert's daughter Pamela, also writing novels and his Brother, Ronald, pursuing a career in show business.

Ronald's grandson Nicholas also took to the boards and is to be seen today in repeats of television's ‘Allo, Allo’ series.


James Reykers Freeman
Family gallery:
James Reykers Freeman ...

At the same time as Joseph Frankau arrived in London, James Reykers Freeman set up business as one of the first British cigar manufacturers in Hoxton, East London.

George Freeman
George Freeman ...

The business prospered though four generations – as J.R. Freeman it passed to George Freeman, then to the legendary "G.G." Freeman and onto Robert Freeman the father of Hunters & Frankau’s present Chairman, Nicholas.

D G Freeman
Donald George Freeman ...

It was D.G. who, with his father, moved the main factory from London to Cardiff in 1908 where it remains today. He masterminded the introduction of brands like King Six and Manikin.

Together with his three sons. DG built J.R. Freeman into the second largest cigar manufacturer in the UK with a thriving export business.

Early in the 193O's Freemans bought J. Frankau and one of their first moves was to sell their share in the H. Upmann brand to Menedez y Garcia for $100,000 while retaining the UK rights to the brand, just as Hunters had done with Ramon Allones.

During the Second World War, Frankau, under the Freemans, pioneered the expansion of the handmade Jamaican cigar market and, in partnership with Menedez y Garcia, set up a factory on the island which served them until Havanas returned to the market.

Robert Freeman
Robert Freeman ...

In 1947 Robert Freeman was approached by Gallaher Ltd to buy his business. He agreed and JR Freeman and J. Frankau passed to Gallaher and Robert became their main board Sales Director.

In 1953 Robert Freeman left the Gallaher board leaving JR Freeman behind but taking J. Frankau with him. He then extended his position in the Havana trade with the purchase of John Hunter Morris & Elkan. Thus 163 years later the lineages of John Hunter and Joseph Frankau came together. However, it was decided that two houses of such long tradition should trade separately.

Together the two companies had a formidable range of brands with sole agencies for Montecristo, H. Upmann, Ramon Allones, Cabanas and Santa Damiana from Havana.

With the company going from strength to strength Robert Freeman decided to join forces with leaf brokers Siemssen Threshie to form the Siemssen Hunter Group and went public.

For the next 22 years Siemssen Hunter developed its activities in cigars and tobacco with the addition of W.P. Solomon & Co and diversified into publishing, at first under the chairmanship of Robert Freeman and subsequently under Roy Siemssen.

Nicholas Freeman
and Nicholas Freeman, the current Chairman

In 1962 Robert's son Nicholas joined the group on the cigar side, confirming his position as the fifth consecutive member of the family in the cigar business. He masterminded the amalgamation of John Hunter, Morris & Elkan and J. Frankau & Co into Hunters & Frankau, in 1963, which coincided with the firm's move to premises at 10 Snow Hill, London EC1. From then on Hunters & Frankau rapidly increased its share of the Havana market. It was the first company to seize the opportunity presented by the explosive growth in the catering industry at that time. David Baxter, the company's MD, pioneered restaurants and hotels with Havana cigars and was responsible for creating the first restaurant humidors - as familiar a sight today in restaurants of quality as are champagne buckets.

Montecristo led the growth and Hunters & Frankau ‘s share of the market, which had been 24 per cent in 1965, reached 45 per cent of the UK market by 1972.

The addition of Davidoff in 1970 further strengthened Hunters hand and their market share rose to 50 per cent.

From experience gained in the catering trade, Hunters decided to seek a good quality cigar brand to broaden their portfolio and in 1971 they succeeded in obtaining the sole UK agency for Agio cigars from Holland.

In 1979 Nicholas Freeman, in partnership with Hambros Bank, made arrangements to restore Hunters & Frankau to the status of a private company with the majority shareholding in the hands of the Freeman family. This was achieved in October of that year.

Since then the company's position in the Havana trade has been strengthened further with the agency for Cohiba cigars in 1984.


1990 has proved to be a milestone in the company's long history not only because it marks its bicentenary , but also because it has seen a further major development.

In July, Hunters & Frankau acquired. for shares, the old established cigar importing firm of Knight Brothers who hold the agency for Romeo y Julieta. the UK's second largest selling Havana brand. Today Hunters & Frankau is the most important Havana cigar importer in the UK with sole distribution rights to Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta. Cohiba, H. Upmann, Ramon Allones, La Gloria Cubana, For de Cano, Quintero and Troya. To this range is added Agio and Panter cigars from Holland and Elizabeth Shaw chocolates, giving Hunters & Frankau an important presence in both the tobacco and catering trades.

What the future has in store can only be a matter for speculation. Suffice it to say that a company whose owners and managers have had the skill and acumen to survive and prosper for the last 200 years should be well prepared to deal with the challenges of 1992 and the 21st century.