If you haven’t heard of James Fox, the tobacconist, either in its (famous) London shop location or its original in Dublin, you’ve missed out on one of the great experiences and pilgrimage sites for pipe smokers from all over the globe. And I do mean missed, at least insofar as Dublin is concerned, because the glory days—for pipe & tobacco enthusiasts—are largely gone.
In Ireland these days there only remain two great pipe and tobacco shops: Peterson’s on Nassau Street in Dublin, and the less well-known but perhaps more remarkable M. Cahill & Son in Limerick. 1
But let’s get caught up on James Fox. From their website history:
We have been trading in fine tobacco and smokers’ accessories from 19 St James’s Street [London] for over 225 years and our customers have included discriminating smokers from all walks of life – from commoners to kings. Among them have been Sir Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, British and Foreign Royalty, the officer’s mess of famous British regiments, and the leading lights of the stage, film, sport, tv, radio, music and literature.
Our world famous tobacco business started with Robert Lewis, who began trading fine tobacco in St James’s Street in 1787. James J Fox was formed in Dublin in 1881 and opened its first tobacco shop in London in 1947. Fox acquired the business of Robert Lewis on 14 September 1992, uniting two of the most respected names in the cigar world. Both companies now trade as JJ Fox (St James’s) Ltd and run the cigar departments of Harrods and Selfridges.
Frederic James Fox (1913-1990)was born in 1913, the fourth of five children and the youngest of James Fox’s three sons. He found himself in charge of the family business, a single cigar shop on Dublin’s Grafton Street, after the untimely death of his two brothers. Stanley Fox was shot dead by armed thieves thought to be members of the IRA in 1926, while Ronald (Biffy) was missing in action over the Dutch coast in 1942 during an RAF mine laying mission.
Freddie, not content with just one shop, took the business from strength to strength. He established a successful import and wholesale business in Ireland alongside the world’s first Duty Free outlet which expanded the retail cigar business into London.
He developed numerous brands including Punch Nectares, Bolivar Amado, Hoyo Royal Hunt and La Corona Policromia, and established the Astor Tobacco Company.
His enterprising nature also saw Freddie acquire and develop a successful import and wholesale business in the Channel Islands; and he oversaw the origin of the business’s entry into the property markets, developing several high profile office buildings in St Helier, Jersey including Sir Walter Raleigh House on the Esplanade.
Freddie Fox died in 1990. He is still sorely missed by his family, friends and colleagues from the cigar industry.
Were he to be asked to comment on his career achievements, he might say:
“Not bad for a beginner.”
(You can read about Freddie and Harry Kapp’s friendly rivalry in The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson, p. 144.)
My wife and I were privileged to spent the greater part of an afternoon in the downstairs office of Yiorgos Manesis, manager of the Dublin store, last June, where he treated us to some fine Irish whiskey as we smoked and talked about James Fox’s presence in Dublin, past and present, and the shop’s four collaborations with Peterson. Visitors to James Fox today won’t be greeted by pipes and pipe tobaccos (although they are there, if you look closely), but an array Irish whiskeys and a humidor of the world’s fine cigars.
“We’ve seen big changes over the past few years,” says Yiorgos. “Traditionally we were a cigar, tobacco and pipe retailer since 1881, and it was only about 12 years ago that we ventured into spirits. We started off with wine, but went on to premium spirits, mainly Irish whiskey, scotch, cognacs and gin, which we saw people were getting interested in. A lot of our trade is with tourists passing by in the area, and their interest meant that these were taking more and more space in our shop. But cigars, tobaccos and pipes is where we came from, and while our range is smaller now than 10 or 12 years ago, it’s still something we feel very attached to. And despite all the health warnings and regulations, it’s something we’ll be selling for as long as we can.
“When Madden, the original tobacconist whom James Fox worked for retired, the landlord knocked down building, built it again. James Fox took the lease for entire ground floor. Their used to be two entrances, then back in the 1990s we split the shop, and there’s a tourist office on the other side. It was always about pipes and cigars and tobacco.
“They used to make their own pipes here, a small factory for a few years. It didn’t last long, and only two or three people worked there. I don’t know if they were turning bowls, or just getting bowls and finishing them here. They were involved in all parts of the tobacco business—they were making pipes, hand-blending their own pipe tobaccos. And Freddie Fox, who was Robert and Stuart Fox’s [the 5th generation owners] grandfather, was a very intelligent, savvy man.
“We had a machine here for sealing the pancake tins, and would you believe, we had a guy who came out two or three times a week to go through those tins. Here in these underground rooms there’s quite a bit of humidity, and if he spotted any little bits of rust on the tins, he’d sand them off! The machine that sealed the tins was very noisy, because it’s a tiny room, and there was a lady who’d sit there all day long and seal those. It was a different world back then. We had a porter, would you believe it, whose only job was to make deliveries for us to different parts of town?
“David McGrane, our former manager, used to blend tobaccos in great buckets, and every now and then Freddie would pick some up, take all the little parts out, then call David over and say [in a low voice], “There’s too much latakia in this!” But everything was hand blended. And of course, we had the same problems Peterson had when tobacco was hard to get and scarce, and like them, we had to outsource our tobaccos to Kohlhase & Kopp, probably around the mid-1980s.
David McGrane in back of the counter at James Fox in 2017
“There’s a very funny story about our tobaccos in a book written back in 1981 for the centenary of James Fox. 2 Back in the 1950s there was a pipe smoker who changed the blend he was smoking, and found his eyes were stinging him. So he went to the eye doctor and said, “Doctor, my eyes are stinging me. And the doctor says, ‘Do you smoke?’ and he says, ‘Yes, I smoke a pipe.’ And the doctor said, ‘What do you smoke?’ and the man pulled his tobacco pouch out and said, ‘I smoke this blend.’ Well the doctor told the man to come into Fox’s and show David or Oliver the tobacco, to see what was in it that was causing it to sting his eyes. You’ve probably had that experience, where the smoke gets in the space between your eyes and your glasses and it stings. So they were able to find out which tobacco it was. And the doctor was able to give him a prescription to come into Fox’s and get a blend of tobacco that contained X, Y and Zed that wouldn’t affect his eyes!
“In terms of pipes, Barling used to be a big seller here. We used to sell loads of Barlings. They weren’t selling many Petersons probably up until the 80s. James Fox had their own range as well, ten different shapes in four different sizes: small, medium, large and extra large. 3
“We went online in 2004, and at the time we had a small selection of Peterson pipes, and when I joined the company I was looking after e-commerce. The old James Fox website had about two pages of pipes, and I think there was about 12 pipes in a page and we said, ‘okay, we’ll make it 24 pipes a page—it looks nice and even. And we ended up buying a few more and a few more and a few more.’ So we thought, ‘why not make a pipes-only website?’ And we had good relations with Peterson and knew we get whatever we wanted to get from them. And when new pipes came out, they were always quicker to come over Sallynoggin to us on Grafton Street than they were to the other side of the Atlantic, and we had the advantage of a strong Euro. So people who wanted to get a new pipe early knew they could get one about a month earlier than everyone else. There was also very favorable pricing in Ireland at the time, cheaper than the rest of the world. So we were also working at suggested retail price.
“When we started working with Peterson, the System cost us I think € 49.95, and €110 is the suggested retail price, so pricing was very attractive, especially when they were buying without VAT. It’s only about two years ago where pricing and distribution has changed and Peterson is looking to have kind of a flat price all around the world, resulting in a big increase in prices for us, some of them even doubling up. I remember Conor Palmer saying at the time, ‘Guys, we’re actually making next to nothing here,’ and I could believe it.
“The cost of doing business in Ireland is very high, especially if you have a factory and have labor work involved, and for something like that you don’t get somebody to work with you for 10 euros an hour. There’s more of a skill to it, and if you want to keep people you have to pay them. So when Conor said they were going to have to put the price up, it was understandable.
“But when anything new came out, we always scrambled to get as much as we could, whether it was Christmas pipes or St. Patrick’s Day pipes or the Summertimes or Pipe of the Years, anything that was new was just coming in and going out for us. Maybe their idea was to level the playing field and let everybody get the pipes at the same time. But when the new pricing came in, we had our customers saying “what’s going on?” But the big problem was that not all markets followed, even to this day—if you look at the UK, they still have old pricing. We carry other pipes as well, of course, and they’re more uniform in their pricing across all the world markets. But the difference between the rest of the world and the UK at this time is severe. And until this problem is sorted out, it will affect what can get.
“We’ve always had a very good relationship with Peterson, even when they were two doors up the road at 117 Grafton Street, and we still do, both with the guys in the shop and at the factory. When you think about it, there were tobacco stores everywhere in Dublin. But now there’s really only two remaining tobacco stores in Dublin today: Peterson and the lady down in Limerick who runs M. Cahill & Sons [47 Wickham St], which has been there since 1870.
“Until about three years ago, we did a lot of business selling Irish plug tobacco outside of Ireland: Warrior Plug [Gawith, Hoggarth] and Revor Plug [STG], Yachtsman, Mick McQuaid—because you couldn’t get plug anywhere. But they’re all discontinued now except for Condor and Yachtsman. Ireland’s a very small market, and when the packaging regulations became more strict, they just dropped them. For tobacco companies, Ireland would be considered the same size as the city of Manchester, England: one city in the UK equals the entire Irish market!
“When plain packaging regulations came in, half of our machine-made cigars were just discontinued. We used to have our own cigars made under contract for us, but when the plain packaging came in, they just said ‘no, forget it.’ The display ban for cigarettes came in 2009, and at first we thought it was going to apply to cigars and pipe tobacco as well. But Rob [the co-owner] and David fought hard against it. They said, ‘What if somebody wants to come in and spend €1,000 on a box of cigars? How are we going to sell them?’ Cigars are not cigarettes—people want to see them, open the box, have a look at them, smell them. And actually, the three cigar shops in Dublin—Fox, the Cigar Emporium and Peterson—have an exemption from the law signed by the president at the time so we can display cigars and pipe tobacco on the condition that we do not sell cigarettes (which we did until 2009). The directive from the EU is there and says cigars and pipe tobacco should be treated differently from cigarettes. But each country can decide how far to go, and Ireland decided to put the same warnings on all tobacco products. But for as long as it’s legal for us to continue selling cigars and pipe tobacco, we’ll keep doing our best.
“About five years ago now we launched a web site just devoted to pipes and pipe tobaccos, Pipe Divan. We had so many products on the James Fox website that pipes were diluted in it. We wanted a pipes-only website that a pipe smoker could go in and see what we have without going through wallets and whiskeys and cigars. It took a lot of work, because we have a small operation, it’s just Peterson and myself. Up until 2017, every pipe that we sold I had taken pictures of. I’ve written every paragraph on that website—every word, every spelling mistake was me! We got the website as a shell, and we just had to populate it. But we had fun doing it.
“Because of all the recent changes, e-business has slowed down for us. We’re just a small team—two people—but we decided in August to take down Pipe Divan and move to www.jamesfox.ie.
THE JAMES FOX – PETERSON COLLABORATIONS
The Oak (July 2014)
“I don’t know what Fox did with Peterson before I joined the company. The first time we did a pipe after I began with Fox was not long after Conor Palmer joined Peterson. We went over and picked some bowls from the House Pipes, twelve straight and twelve bent, numbered them and put our logo on them, which we called ‘The Oak.’
“Each pipe was numbered x/12 individually on the shank and equipped with a hallmarked sterling band that carries the ‘Thinking Man’ as well as our own James Fox logo. The oversized billiard bowls were chosen with a view to lively grain accents, finished in warm brown color, and equipped with a vulcanite stem P-Lip mouthpiece.
The Hunter (September 2014)
“Then we also did a couple of ranges called The Hunter, with 9mm filters. Don’t ask me how we came up with the name—I don’t remember [laughs]! We went over to place the order, had a look at the new pipes. But we also went through the bowls that they had—there were some very unusual bowls from the B shapes that they had used for previous Pipe of the Years and so forth.
Fantastic stuff. So we found loads of lovely smooth and sandblasted B shapes, about six or seven shapes in smooth and in rustic. They were quite unique and sold very, very quickly, because there were some shapes there that Peterson hadn’t used in a long time.
James Fox 135th Anniversary Pipes (May 2016)
“Next came the James Fox 135th Anniversary Pipe, also with 9mm filters, which we were very, very fond of. I had actually kept #1, would you believe, and we ended up selling it by mistake! For that line, we picked six or eight classic shapes, and we were trying to figure out with David McGrane how we were going to make it different.
With our clientele being mostly tourists, green is always a popular color and Peterson’s Racing Green was always a very good seller. And I picked up a Rosslare—with the yellow stem—and I kind of swapped over the stem with a Racing Green Peterson we had to see how it looked. And I took a picture of that which we took over to Sallynoggin and spoke to Conor, and lo and behold, we had our 135th Anniversary pipe! We did a very nice engraving on the bowl. I remember I used to slag Conor when the St. Patrick’s Day 2017 came out, saying ‘I think I’ve seen this somewhere before!’ We had a good laugh over it. 4
Most recently, we did the Sionnach [Americans: sounds like “shun-ack”], summer of 2018, this time with no filter! Again, we wanted something different. We liked the red bowl and wanted to match it to something unique, and when I saw this mouthpiece color, Conor said they hadn’t used it before, with a kind of mint-green color to it.
1 I really, really didn’t want to share these photos from Rick Newcombe with you, because I was in Limerick in June and DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT M. CAHILL & SON. Arrrrggggghhhh:
You have been notified. BTW, Limerick is an extraordinary city & well worth 2 or 3 days of your next visit to Ireland. But don’t forget M. Cahill & Son.
2 Kenneth Ferguson, Fox’s of Grafton Street 1881-1981: History of a Family Tobacco Shop (Dublin: James J. Fox & Company, 1981). (Yiorgos is making copyright inquiries to see if we can offer the book as a free download.)
3 The practice of issuing the same shape in four different sizes can be seen to graphic effect in the 1896 Kapp & Peterson catalog.
4 Know your Irish slang! It’s a whole ‘nuther thang.
Yiorgos Manesis, James Fox, Rick Newcombe, David McGrane
“Barbie at James Fox” photo courtesy Chas. Mundungus
For further reading and viewing, check out this article on David McGrane.
David has also made the following short videos on YouTube:
A Guide to Plug Pipe Tobacco
A Guide to the New Pipe Smoker – How to Select Your First Pipe
A Guide to the New Pipe Smoker – How to Fill and Light Your Pipe