Importers & Distributors of the Finest Cigars

Below is an extract from an article written by Simon Chase (former marketing director) on the history of Hunters & Frankau.


The story goes back to the first half of the 19th century when a young Jewish boy called Joseph Frankau left Germany and came to London to make his fortune. In 1839 the name of J. Frankau & Co. appears in the trade directory for the City of London as a dealer in cigars and leeches. Although an odd combination today, believe it or not, when I was researching our history for our bicentenary in 1990, I found several other companies doing the same thing in those days.


Concurrently another young man from Germany, Herman Upmann, who worked for his family’s bank in Hamburg, was dispatched to Havana to set up a branch there. By 1844 Hermann was not only managing a successful finance house, but had also
diversified into cigars with a factory and a leaf tobacco business.


It is likely, although there is no evidence, that the young Upmann and the young Frankau had been acquainted in Germany because from 1844 onwards J. Frankau & Co. was appointed as the H. Upmann agent for the United Kingdom, a relationship that continues unbroken to this day.


But things did not always run smoothly. During the early years of the 20th century, Hermann Upmann’s descendants reneged on the sole agency agreement they had with the Frankaus and sold their now world famous cigars to other British importers. We know this because Gilbert Frankau, Joseph’s grandson, became a famous author of novels as popular as those of, say Jeffrey Archer, in their day. He also wrote an autobiography called “Self Portrait”. In it he explains how in 1914 he successfully renegotiated the sole agency for Upmann in the UK. “With that contract, we could easily raise more capital.” Frankau wrote. “In my opinion there’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing except a European war.”


The First World War spelt the end of the Frankau family’s involvement in the cigar trade. Gilbert went to the trenches where he suffered from shell shock. His mother died and, in 1916, J. Frankau was sold to a company called Braden & Stark.


The war’s aftermath rocked H. Upmann too. In 1922 the bank went bust and the cigar business, which included not only the factory in Havana but also the rights to the brand worldwide, was bought by its largest customer: its British agents – J. Frankau & Co.


In 1935 another British company, J. R. Freeman & Son, bought J. Frankau. J. R. Freeman was a highly successful family-owned business dating back, like Frankau, to the late 1830s. Their skills were in manufacturing for the mass market, although they also produced hand made cigars in Britain. Rumours abounded that H. Upmann was suffering from being managed at arm’s length from London and the Freeman family felt their manufacturing know-how could turn it around. The idea of entering the prestigious Cuban cigar trade appealed to them too.

Donald George DG Freeman


As it happened the Freemans discovered very quickly that H. Upmann could not be managed from the UK, which was why negotiations for the sale started between ‘D. G.’ Freeman and Alonso Menendez in 1936. They were concluded early in 1937 and J. Frankau retained the rights to H. Upmann in the UK as part of the deal.


Soon Menendez y Garcia got the factory back on its feet aided by the transfer of the new brand they had started to make in 1935 – Montecristo, which, in Cuba, has been made at the H. Upmann factory ever since.


The mention of Montecristo leads me on to the other component of Hunters & Frankau’s heritage, John Hunter & Co, because it was this company that first brought Montecristo to Britain. But don’t forget the name Freeman because it will recur.


This is where 1790 comes in. Records are scant, but we believe John Hunter, ironically enough these days, was a doctor of medicine. This view is supported by the fact that he, like Joseph Frankau, was also in leeches, a medical necessity at that time, as well as cigars.


Cigars were a small business in Britain back then, but John Hunter’s enterprise was well positioned to take advantage of what was probably the world’s first cigar boom. This took place in Britain from around 1817 onwards just after the Napoleonic Wars, during which the Duke of Wellington’s officers had picked the joys of Cuban cigars whilst fighting alongside the Spanish in the Peninsular War.


The business prospered during the 19th century gaining strength through a series of acquisitions and became a registered public company as John Hunter, Wiltshire & Co. Ltd. in 1886.


The start of the 20th century was a time when British companies made substantial investments in Cuba. Hunters purchased a number of factories and brands, but perhaps the most notable was Ramon Allones, which it bought in 1911.


Ramon Allones went on to become Hunter’s principal brand in the UK right up until 1970, although in 1927 it was sold back to a Cuban company, Cifuentes y Co., which owned the Partagas factory in Havana where the brand has been made ever since.


Robert and Joan Freeman with Pepe Garcia and Alonso Menendez New Year 1939.

Robert and Joan Freeman with Pepe Garcia and Alonso Menendez New Year 1939.


It was in 1935 that Menendez y Garcia appointed Hunters to distribute their fledgling Montecristo brand in the UK. This was two years before the H. Upmann deal, and it is said that Hunter’s Managing Director, Jack Benham, who was later killed serving as a pilot in the Battle of Britain, created the then revolutionary design for Montecristo’s emblem and box.


It was thus that the two companies, Hunters on the one hand and Frankau on the other, the former distributing Ramon Allones and Montecristo, and the latter H. Upmann, faced the upheaval of the Second World War.


In 1940 strict dollar controls were placed on British businesses. Cuba was in the dollar area and no dollars could be spared for anything as frivolous as cigars. The total ban on the cigar trade between Britain and Cuba persisted until 1953 and restrictions were not finally lifted until 1973.


Needless to say the post war period heralded radical change. In 1947 Robert Freeman, ‘D.G’s’ son, sold J. R. Freeman including J. Frankau to the tobacco giant Gallahers. Robert joined Gallaher’s board, but it didn’t work out, so in 1953, just as the dollar controls started to be lifted, he left taking J. Frankau with him. A year later he bought John Hunter.


The Freeman family kept the two companies trading separately, but they now had a strong position in the UK Havana trade. Nevertheless the outlook for tobacco was considered so bleak that Robert Freeman decided to form a public company with leaf broker Roy Siemssen as a vehicle for diversification and, in 1957, created the Siemssen Hunter Group.


In 1962, Nicholas Freeman, Robert’s son, joined the Group on the cigar side. His first move was to integrate its cigar interests under one roof. And so, in 1963, Hunters & Frankau was born.


Nicholas Freeman

Nicholas Freeman

Nicholas went on to become Managing Director, then Chairman of the Seimssen Hunter Group but, as so often happens, he found that diversification was not the route to a golden future, particularly when your first love is cigars.


In 1979 the Group was sold but Nicholas engineered a management buyout of the cigar division and Hunters & Frankau became a private company with the Freeman family as its principal shareholders.


I witnessed this stage in our history because I had joined the company in 1977. Perhaps the most lasting memory I hold of this era is the celebration of our bicentenary in 1990.


Nicholas Freeman, a renowned party giver, spared no expense at a dinner for 250 people at London’s Mandarin Hyde Park Hotel. The guest list read like a Who’s Who of the cigar world. Jack Wintermans from Agio in Holland, Heinrich Villiger from Germany, Danny Blumenthal of Villazon, Leopoldo Cifuentes, Richard Dunhill, Theo Folz of Consolidated Cigar (now Altadis USA), who was slightly disconcerted to be seated next to Francisco Padron of Cubatabaco; they were all there along with many more. And to cap it all Edgar Cullman Snr proposed the toast to the Freeman family.


I still have a copy of Edgar Cullman’s speech, which reminds me that he not only gave a demonstration of rolling a cigar, but

Jemma Freemanalso told the assembled company that his father had sold the US rights to the Montecristo brand name to the Menendez and Garcia families in the early 1930s for $1.00 – perhaps not an outstanding example of the Cullman’s undoubted business acumen.

As the celebrations receded, it was time for change once more. Later that year Hunters & Frankau acquired

a company called Knight Brothers, which held the UK agency Romeo y Julieta and had recently been taken over by Cuban interests. In exchange for stock the same Cuban interests took a share in Hunters & Frankau, which is how we came to be closely allied to the Cuban cigar industry.


Finally, in 1993, we bought Joseph Samuel & Son, which had always been one of the biggest Havana cigar importers in the UK, and became responsible for all the Cuban brands in Britain.


Then in 2000 a sad note entered the story when Nicholas Freeman died at the age of 62.


Nevertheless the Freeman tradition continues, now in the form of the first female member of the family to work in the cigar trade. Nicholas’s daughter Jemma joined the company in 2001 and in 2005 was appointed to the role of Managing Director.