Leeds cigarette card club is playing to its strengths

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A cigarette card collectors club started just after the Second World War in Leeds is still going strong today.

The Yorkshire branch of the Cartophilic Society of Great Britain (CSGB )meets at Calverley Methodist Church on the first Sunday of every month.

David Benson, who turned 71 on Thursday, has been involved with the group since 1982 and is now its secretary, says they still have a strong membership.

The cards they collect and trade were once given away freely with packets of cigarettes and other products but today they can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds. In America, one card was reputedly sold for $1m.

Mr Benson said: “People aren’t aware our society still exists but it’s going strong. There are a number of reasons people collect them, for me I had an interest in Scouting and so that’s what got me hooked. I collect anything to do with Scouting. I was never a scout but my sons were and my wife, Avril, 71, is a Queen’s Guide with the Girl Guides and later a Brownie leader.

“When Scouting started in 1908, cigarette cards were huge business, it was a big form of advertising and well before television.

“They started because to begin with cigarettes were sold in packs of five and they would often get squashed, so they came up with the idea of inserting a bit of card and that grew into advertising and making them something people would collect.”

Mr Benson, who used to smoke 30 cigarettes a day but gave up on the spot when he was diagnosed with diabetes more than a decade ago, said: “Cards can go for anything from a few pence to several hundred thousand pounds. One in the US recently sold for $216,000.

Mr Benson related the story of Honus Wagner, a US baseball player from 1897 to 1917 who, along with many of his fellow players, was portrayed on one of the early collectable cigarette packet cards.

“He was very anti-smoking,” explained Mr Benson. “And he complained about being on the cards and demanded to be taken off. As a consequence, there are only about 11 of those cards in existence.

“When the owners of his former club recently decided to offer one of his cards in a raffle, they raised something like $2m, but then they bought the card back from the winner for $1m.”

These days, most trades are done at fairs or on the internet and while you might think cigarette card dealing is an ‘old man’s game’, the Leeds club can boast a 29-year-old and a 15-year-old.

The Yorkshire branch began meeting in Leeds Library back in 1948 and later moved to the museum and later still the Labour Party rooms in Otley, before finding a home in Calverley.

While cigarette cards are no more, trade cards are still issued by many companies, M&S and Tesco being just two.

Father-of-two and grandfather to four Mr Benson admits to owning around 50,000 cards, or as he puts it “two wardrobes full”, his collection having started thanks to a family member donating around 4,500 mint condition cards.

“We’d taken the kids to see their grandparents and it was a rainy day and I think the kids were carrying on and, well, granddad liked his afternoon sleep, so he disappeared upstairs and came back down with a tin full of these cards, which the kids loved. He ended up giving me about 4,500.”

Mr Benson worked mainly as a development manager in the textile trade but also served 14 years with the Territorial Army and is an accomplished French horn player, having over 50 years experience, formerly being the principal horn with Leeds Symphony Orchestra.

He added he once bought an album full of cards for £12, only to discover some of the cards inside were worth far more than that.

Sam Whiting, 29, a project manager with BT, is webmaster for the CSGB and a member of the Yorkshire branch. He said: “It’s a window on social history, it shows you what was popular at the time.

“They were given away with cigarettes but also later with tea and chocolate - these are what we call ‘insert’ cards, whereas the modern day equivalent are the ‘commercial’ cards children might buy in shops - so things like Pokemon.

“In the beginning, people collected them avidly because they were colour pictures of all kinds of things, animals, people, places, many of which they had never seen before.

“I’ve been interested since about the age of 13 when I found my grandfather’s collection in a tin and decided to track down the cards he hadn’t managed to collect.”

The association’s new website can be found at: www.card-world.co.uk