As a company with an unbroken lifespan of over 125 years, the details of our history are many. So rather than tell our entire life story, we have assembled a timeline featuring selected snapshots of our past: the highlights, interesting facts and anecdotes. By keeping an eye on the past we stay in touch with the stories and ideas that capture the spirit of the organisation.
Is there such thing as a greatness gene?
In 1885, an enterprising George Frederick Smith has the bright idea of setting up as a paper merchant in Hull's North Church Side, sourcing and distributing fine papers to commercial artists and printers in the UK. Later, with his son Thomas Brooke Smith, they form G F Smith & Son and develop a passion for paper and an eye for new business opportunities that lay the foundations of the GFSmith paper business we see today.
With similar entrepreneurial spirit, George's brother, Thomas James, along with George's other son Horatio, also sets up a business in Hull around this time. Selling cod liver oil and surgical dressings, the company soon grows due to increased demand during the First World War. In fact, such is the success, that the company started by Thomas Smith and his nephew goes on to became the global pharmaceutical giant, Smith & Nephew.
If at first you don't succeed, learn to play the organ
Much of the early success of GFSmith can be put down to the determination and ingenuity of Thomas Brooke Smith. As part of his vision to source and supply the finest papers, it is Thomas's ambition to make a contract with world-renowned American paper mill, Strathmore. So in 1902, he resolves to make the long boat trip to America in the hope of securing the business.
Once in the States, he makes several attempts to meet the mill's founder, Horace Moses, but is unsuccessful. Frustrated, Thomas finally takes the unorthodox decision to visit the man at his home, on a Sunday. Having turned up unannounced, the meeting does not start well. That is, until the mill owner's wife enters in a state of distress; the organist for her imminent church concert has been taken ill. Thomas, an accomplished pianist, gallantly steps in, earning the gratitude of Moses and securing a partnership between the two companies that has lasted for over a century.
1914 — 1918
Salvaged by a supplier
The First World War signals near disaster for G F Smith & Son and as they are unable to access or sell their paper stocks in Europe. The company is left with a large debt to its American supplier, which threatens to end the business. However, Strathmore has great confidence in the long-term potential of the company and they agree to take ownership GF Smith & Son and write the debt off. Herbert E Thomlinson is appointed as Managing Director and, from this point, the Smith family have no further involvement in the firm. However, under new management the company flourishes throughout the 1920s and 30s. The London sales office is opened and new Hull premises are acquired in Osbourne Street. There is also an investment in equipment, with embossing machines, guillotines and envelope punches purchased, marking the start of the company's offering of in-house services.
Give up or work from a garage?
The Second World War deals GFSmith two cruel blows. On the night of 8th May 1941, German aircraft drop 157 tons of high explosive and 20,000 incendiary bombs on the city of Hull. The premises of GF Smith & Son is completely flattened in the raid. Two nights later the London premises suffers the same fate. The principal assets of the company are reduced to piles of rubble. All stock, records and the majority of the machinery are lost, but thankfully, no one from the firm is injured.
Despite the company being reduced to nothing for the second time in 25 years, Herbert Thomlinson is not a man to be beaten. He rents a private house in Hull's Park Avenue, where its first floor becomes the offices and the garage acts as warehouse. This house is to be the company’s home for six years while GF Smith & Son is rebuilt from scratch – soldiering on in the spirit of the Blitz.
By 1945 the company has regathered its strength and looks for new premises. Despite much of its business being nationwide, the firm values its Hull roots and purchases an old ammunition store in Lockwood Street. New premises in London follow in 1948.
From office boy to MD
When John Alexander leaves school in 1950, he joins GFSmith's Hull branch as an office boy. Having worked hard and learned much, by 1965 he is made London Assistant Manager and Sales Executive. In 1971 he returns to Hull as Production and Marketing Director. Finally, following a restructuring of the board in 1982, he is made Managing Director of GFSmith. Suffice to say, the boy done good. John is one of many GFSmith employees that have spent their entire working lives at GFSmith.
TV turns the world onto colour
The swinging sixties witnesses an explosion of colour in communication. In particular, the introduction of coloured televisions tunes people into the immense power of colour in communication and advertising. It also opens their eyes to the impact of GFSmith's ranges of coloured paper, which are reappraised and utilised in new and exciting ways.
The decade of revolution in print
The sixties is a decade of key changes in the design and print industries. Prior to the introduction of the lithographic print process into the UK in the late 50s and 60s, textured and coloured stocks could only be printed in a limited way with selected processes: letterpress, silkscreen, embossing and die stamping. The print potential of GFSmith papers really hits home when lithographic technology stirs up a print revolution.
Buying back precious independence
Turmoil hits GFSmith in 1963 as owners, Strathmore, are themselves the subject of a takeover. The purchasers, the Hammermill Corporation, seek to concentrate their efforts on growing the home market and decided to put G F Smith & Son up for sale. Herbert Thomlinson, together with the company’s management team at that time, formulates one of the first management buyouts in the UK paper merchanting trade and successfully buys the company from its American owners. On 31st January 1963, after nearly fifty years, the company is an independent British company once more, a status it proudly protects to this day.
Design flexes its commercial muscles for the first time
The sixties sees the new breed of 'Graphic Designers' take control of print and paper specification. It is at this time that Graphic Design Degree courses are first introduced into most UK Art Colleges. Consequently, this period sees the introduction of many new, young and vibrant design studios. This quickly changes the route of design concept and print specification away from the printer to the designer. GFSmith are quick to target this new audience, and in 1964 Bill Mackay is appointed as GFSmith's design consultant and becomes an integral part of GFSmith’s marketing and promotional team. His guidance and creativity plays a major role in the company’s ongoing development and success over the next thirty years. It is Bill who is responsible for instigating GFSmith's strong visual identity, opting for a fresh, bold typographic style for promotional pieces.
A dedicated follower of fashion
As a response to the changing times, in 1967 landmark GFSmith paper range, Plan 8, is launched. It marks a shift in approach to paper colouring based on trend research. The product development team, in collaboration with design consultant, Bill Mackay, spends two years researching colour and fashion trends with the goal of creating a new range of eight fashion colours that reflect the mood of the 'swinging 60s'. The revolutionary new range includes colours which have never been seen in paper manufacture before.
The Seventies: Bad taste or a genuine love of colour?
The 1970s brings with it a kaleidoscope of clashing colours, but at GFSmith a long overdue rationalisation of the portfolio is underway; consolidating the existing product ranges, and developing the new collection called the 'Colour Programme'. This review is based on a report which investigated the perceptions and views of printers and design studio clients on GFSmith's product ranges and services. The most notable result of this is the new, comprehensive coloured paper range, Colorplan, launched in 1972. A total of 40 shades are selected from old product ranges and rebranded. Colorplan remains GFSmith’s most popular and successful range.
Also in this year, the GFSmith swatch chart, known as the Selector, makes its debut.
The Selector is an inspiring chart of paper swatches that displays the full range of colours and textures giving a immediate visual impact. GFSmith is possibly the first UK or European paper company to use this method of presenting and promoting papers.
One sheet of paper weighs in at 80 tonnes
GFSmith is the first paper company to introduce A3 sample pads for designers; a clever, but simple, promotional idea with massive potential. Sometime in the 1980s, a London designer is pitching to package an old established Malt Whisky brand. The designer’s client is Glenmorangie, one of Scotland’s most successful distilleries. The designer’s proposal is a rigid packing tube made from waste grey pulp board, covered with a printed lightweight paper wrap. Up against time, he picks a stock he likes from one of the many A3 Designer Pads lying around in his studio. The pitch is successful, and the client particularly loves the proposed paper, but no one is able put a name to it. The paper is eventually identified by the GFSmith sales team, as being Strathmore Brigadoon Royal White. Glenmorangie continues to use this concept and design format for all their malt whiskies for the next twenty plus years, purchasing up to 80 tonnes of Brigadoon per annum.
Popular hits of the 80s
Fashion is felt in the paper business as it is elsewhere, and GFSmith have always been at the cutting edge of design and colour trends. In the eighties it is the unique marbling effect of GFSmith's Parch Marque and the newly-launched Marlmarque, introduced in 1983, that become popular among designers. In 1989, sales peak at 563 tonnes, and 600 tonnes a year, respectively. In fact, throughout the 1980s and 90s, just about every restaurant or hotel in the country is using one of these two papers for their menus, wine lists, brochures and stationery.
Follow the design zeitgeist – or create it?
Keeping rhythm with the stylistic beat of the design world is a safe way for a brand to remain relevant in the eyes of their audience. However, for a brand that champions creativity, this is not enough. By employing the design services of design visionaries, a brand can skip ahead of the beat. The work done for GFSmith by Bill Mackay in the sixties and seventies was ground breaking at the time. In the mid nineties the company sets off on a brave new design direction with Bryan Edmonson at the helm. Over the next decade, brand communications agency Sea work takes the baton from Bill Mackay to work with GFSmith and develop an iconic visual identity that inspires a generation of designers.
Adapting to the digital age
Responding to the improvements in digital print performance in the 2000s, GFSmith launches its Digital Papers campaign. Utilising the Sapphire coating process, many of its uncoated papers, including the entire Colorplan range, now have guaranteed compatibility with the principal digital print systems: HP Indigo, Xerox iGen, Kodak Nexpress and Colour Laser technology. This major advance frees digital print from its historical limitations, allowing it to compete with traditional print methods on greater number of levels.
There's still much to learn from the ancient masters
Japanese papermaking has been revered for over a thousand years. GFSmith make their own connection with Japan in in 2010. Following a research trip to Tokyo by the GFSmith Product Development Team, a partnership with pioneering Japanese distributor, Takeo, is made. A meeting with Takeo President, Mr. Shigeru Takeo, revealed a striking correspondence between the two companies, in history, values and approach, which provided a strong basis for a working relationship. In the course of their visit the team discovered new textures, colours and papermaking techniques to inspire their European customers and compliment the GFSmith range.
George Frederick Smith
Thomas Brooks Smith
Horatio Nelson Smith
Herbert E Thomlinson