History of the Association

Here is a first hand account of how the association was formed, written by Donald C Higgins, our Honorary Secretary.

“In the late autumn of 1975 I received a letter from the late Ken Barnes, then Managing Director of Ben Wade/Charatan Pipes, suggesting to me that I should form an Association of Tobacconists who could join together to improve the lot of those who dealt almost exclusively in tobacco and tobacco products and thus help to keep them and their shops in the High Street.

I telephoned my good friend Alan Darbey in Cardiff, who sadly passed away in 2003, and read the letter to him. We both agreed that it was a great idea and I contacted Ken and told him that I had spoken to Alan and that we would like to have a meeting with him but that as it was quite close to Christmas suggested we meet early in the New Year (1976).

Alan Darbey at the time was the immediate Past President of the National Union of Retail Tobacconists and I was a National Councilor and President of the South West Area. Ken invited his Sales Manager, John Barber, to the meeting and it was agreed that we should invite a number of Specialist Retail Tobacconists to a meeting in Birmingham. Ken would identify his top 15 or so accounts and we would invite them to a meeting with the purpose of exploring the possibilities of creating an Association. All the letters were typed by Ben Wade/Charatan who paid all the postage and enclosed a stamped address envelope for replies. At this stage we invited Gerald Lando, the then President of NURT, to join Alan and I, and the three of us signed all the letters.

The meeting was called for the 10th of February 1976 at the Excelsior Hotel, Birmingham Airport and the rest – as they say – is history.

The meeting was attended by 12 tobacconists, 4 guests and 9 apologies for absence were received. It was unanimously agreed that we should form an Association and it was decided to call it The Association of Independent Tobacco Specialists which over the years has become known worldwide as AITS.

It would be impossible to detail all that has happened during the past 34 years in this introduction, but it would not be right if I did not mention the National Tobacconists Trade Exhibition which we have organised every year since 1980 and the Annual Dinner of the Association every year since 1981. On the death of Alan Darbey in 2003, we introduced an award in his memory called The Alan Darbey Lifetime Achievement Award, and this is presented to a person in the tobacco trade who it is considered has contributed greatly to the tobacco industry over many years. The award has become one of the highlights of the Annual Dinner where it is presented each year and is cherished by all those who are fortunate enough to have been chosen to be honoured in this way. The Association has also contributed over £40 thousand to the Tobacco Trade Benevolent Association where it has 21 named pensions.

It is thanks to Ken Barnes for having the foresight all those years ago for suggesting an organisation to support the Specialist Tobacconist as it is because of him that it was founded. We must thank the distributive trade for their support over the years and remember at all times the debt of gratitude we owe all those members who gave their time freely and so generously in those early years, all those who have done so over the succeeding years and those who continue to fly the flag for the future. These are the reasons that AITS has flourished over 34 years and continues to do so today”.

Donald C. Higgins
Honorary Secretary
June 2010

Minutes of the inaugural meeting can be downloaded here.


1964 Rupert Davies
1965 Sir Harold Wilson
1966 Andrew Cruikshank
1967 Warren Mitchell
1968 Peter Cushing
1969 Jack Hargreaves
1970 Eric Morecombe
1971 Lord Shinwell
1972 No lunch was held
1973 Frank Muir
1974 Fred Truman
1975 Sir Campbell Adamson
1976 Sir Harold Wilson – Pipesmoker of the Decade
1977 Brian Barnes
1978 Magnus Magnusson
1979 J. B. Priestley
1980 Edward Fox
1981 James Galway
1982 Dave Lee Travis
1983 Patrick Moore
1984 Henry Cooper
1985 Jimmy Greaves
1986 David Bryant
1987 Barry Norman
1988 Ian Botham
1989 Jeremy Brett
1990 Laurence Marks
1991 Sir John Harvey-Jones
1992 Tony Benn
1993 Rod Hull
1994 Sir Ranulph Fiennes
1995 Jethro
1996 Sir Colin Davis
1997 Malcolm Bradbury
1998 Willie-John McBride
1999 Trevor Baylis
2000 Josh Ackland
2001 Russ Abbot
2002 Richard Dunhill
2003 Stephen Fry