Collecting UK cards: Easy as A&BC
©2008 Nigel Mercer. Additional comments by Kurt Kuersteiner, Monsterwax Trading Cards
Going through some older files, I realized my last piece on Toxic High was my 100 th Wrapper article. (That's if you include the article I wrote that Les never printed. Haw-haw!) So it seemed like the perfect time to take a break and bring in some new blood. Enter Nigel Mercer. Nigel is a Australian collector of English Football cards, and he runs a website devoted to that subject at http://cards.littleoak.com.au/
Early in 2007, Nigel was contacted by Mr. Tony Coakley, one of the original directors of the A&BC Chewing Gum company. (A&BC is the company that licensed many of Topps' card sets and printed them for England, usually in a smaller format. Over 90 of those series were Non-sports.) Although now in his 80s, Tony was one of founding members of the company in 1949, and stayed with A&BC until its sad demise in 1974. Nigel wrote the following article based on Tony's recollections of the history of A&BC Chewing Gum. Nigel let us reprint his article, asking only that we remind readers that the article is copyright and may not be reproduced elsewhere without the permission of the author.
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A&BC Chewing Gum Ltd. formed in 1949, and folded in 1974. In its 25-year history it produced some of the best bubble gum and collectors cards ever seen in the U.K. The company has become a favorite amongst card traders and collectors for the quality, variety and imagination shown in the design and production of their gum giveaways. Their range covered film stars, the Beatles, the Monkees, Man from UNCLE, Civil War cards and banknotes, as well as an impressive range of English and Scottish football cards, pennants, pin-ups, emblems and crests. In the history of gum and trade cards, they will go down as one of the greats.
In 1949 there were many post war shortages in England, including the rationing of sweets, and very few products for children. In London four young men, all recently demobilized from their military service, Mr. Simon Anysz, Mr. Rudy Braun, Mr. Douglas Coakley and Mr. Tony Coakley decided to form a company with the aim of producing and selling chewing gum. Using the letters of their names they had wanted to call the company 'ABC', but the Aerated Bread Company (a company which existed from 1862 until 1955 and which was known as the A.B.C. Company) objected. Instead, the partners decided on the name A&BC Chewing Gum Ltd. Contrary to some common misconceptions the company has never been known as 'American & British Chewing Gum Ltd.', nor was it ever a subsidiary of Topps Inc.
The company began producing their gum in a small factory in Cricklewood, North London. Besides the four directors, there were five other employees in the early days. After a few years Mr. Anysz was bought out, leaving Messrs Braun, Coakley and Coakley in control. Douglas Coakley was in charge of Sales and Marketing, with his younger brother Tony in charge of factories, machinery and production. Mr. Braun was in charge of accounting.
Their main competitors in the gum market at the time were Anglo American Chewing Gum (Bubbly) and Wrigley. In those days England had no money and the Exchange control of the dollar was very tight. As imports were strictly controlled the market was wide open. Hard to appreciate now but A&BC managed to circumvent a lot of the problems that came with the importation of machinery. There were many difficulties, fighting the then establishment who thought Chewing Gum was disgusting and not worth considering giving them a license during this time of shortages; things were very restrictive. Since there was no sugar available without a license, one of the first ever-sugarless chewing gums were produced using an artificial sweetener, so that the product did not require sweet rationing coupons.
A&BC began by making a Chewing Gum in a twist wrap style, and then Douglas Coakley went to America on his honeymoon and whilst he was there, sought out anyone who might be selling machinery to mass produce chewing gum, since the required equipment was very specialized. By fortune he was informed of a chewing gum company who had gone into liquidation in Fort Worth Texas, he flew from New York and bought the equipment not knowing anything about machinery, he took the chance. A&BC were then able to produce their first proper chewing gum which was wrapped in the familiar style that is still used today; it was called "Everlast" chewing gum.
With the machinery that came from America, A&BC started to produce gum with cards. They had remembered the popularity of the children's craze for cards from before the War, and thought that cards would improve the sales of their gum. A short while later their first bubble gum was produced and included cards of Film & TV Stars, these were wrapped in a wax wrapper which also included an imaginary dollar bill in the printing, hence the name "Dollar Bubble Gum".
In the same year, their printers suggested at the time of the Coronation to produce cards of the Queen with photographs by Dorothy Wilding as they had permission to produce these prints (a set of 24 'Royal Portraits'). This was controversial at the time as they were not of the Coronation and were seen as 'cashing in', though it did give A&BC publicity and increased sales.
With increasing sales A&BC quite rapidly outstripped the production capacity of their printers. One problem for the printers was their inability to collate the cards properly to try and avoid duplicates in the same wrapper; eventually A&BC cut and collated the cards themselves.
ALLIANCE WITH TOPPS
The Topps Company was founded in the U.S. in 1938, and begun producing Bazooka bubble gum after World War II. In 1950 Topps began including cards in with their gum in an attempt to increase sales. In 1952 the then President of Topps came to England and, while there, visited A&BC Chewing Gum. According to the recollection of the Coakley brothers he advised A&BC that they were getting nowhere and advised a tie up with Topps under a license agreement to produce some of their products. At the time A&BC ignored this advice and declined the Topps offer.
A&BC began to expand and after a further visit to America started making Ball Gum for the first ball gum vending machines in the country as well as for their other products. At this stage they were producing about 15 tons of gum each week. The company soon outgrew the premises in Cricklewood and around 1958 moved to larger premises at Colindale in North London.
In 1959, Topps again approached A&BC and this time A&BC were ready to listen. The two companies negotiated a license for A&BC to produce Bazooka Bubble Gum and to reproduce some of Topps' card gum series, starting with Elvis Presley, Flags , etc. A&BC also agreed to buy some old wrapping machines for the card gum and a new wrapping machine from Forgrove (U.K.) to produce Bazooka, after it had been sent to the States and modified, all very expensive. This then meant that after signing the license agreement, A&BC was committed to paying a percentage of their turnover of all products to Topps, and sticking strictly to the terms of the license agreement.
Over the next 15 years A&BC continued to produce their own series of cards, increasingly focusing on the popular football cards, though they also produced the Topps U.S. series range of cards. Regardless of the source, all A&BC cards were printed in England. A number of A&BC cards are recorded as having the initials 'TCG' on the cards, and A&BC on the wrappers. This is understood to indicate where the cards came from Topps but were wrapped into A&BC packets.
FOOTBALL (SOCCER) CARDS
The concept of producing football cards came from Douglas Coakley. A&BC Gum began with an 'All Sports' series in 1954, a set of 120 cards which included 36 footballers. They followed this in 1958 with a set of 92 footballer cards, and thus began a run of 16 unbroken years of football card production. During this 16 year period A&BC produced both English and Scottish sets, and included special issues and giveaways with many cards e.g. paper pennants, small black and white photographs etc.
Douglas Coakley was responsible for the design of the cards, plus signing up the teams and individual footballers (his brother Tony can remember seeing signed permission slips obtained by Doug as he toured around the training grounds). Later on Tony's son Sheridan, who created an in house A&BC Art & Development Department, joined him. A footballer series was produced every year in their thousands and therefore became the mainstay of A&BC.
In or around 1959, when the company was producing a Cricketer card series, the printers went on strike and only just managed to get the uncut cards delivered to the factory. That night there was a very serious fire at A&BC. After some time they managed to get back into production but they then decided to look for a bigger factory. A suitable factory was found in Harold Hill near Romford Essex, east of London where they remained for many years. They increased the factory footage many times and also bought the next door factory as the company expanded.
TOPPS & THE BEATLES
In 1962/63 Douglas Coakley approached Brian Epstein (manager of the Beatles) and his lawyer David Jacobs and obtained the rights and license to produce cards with the Beatles images and signatures. A set of 60 cards were first produced and issued, with immediate success.
Information of the series success was passed on to Topps in the U.S. and A&BC gave them the photographs and helped to negotiate the rights and license for Topps to produce these sets in America, leading to an enormous success there.
Around this time Topps saw that the A&BC Chewing Gum Company was a good business, and decided to buy out Rudy Braun, which turned out over time for A&BC to be an error of judgment. This was just after A&BC's biggest year, mainly due to The Beatles Cards, the increase in sales of the Footballer series, and their other products.
THE END OF A&BC GUM
After many years there was a falling out between A&BC and Topps, and litigation followed. While A&BC were preparing for the court case there was a large fire at their factory in Spilsby Road, Harold Hill around Guy Fawkes night in 1972 or 1973. Tony remembers that it must have been around 8pm when the alarm was sounded, as he remembers that they had friends to dinner and one of them came out to the factory with him. Tony remembers that after the fire they were back in business fairly quickly as they had taken out consequential loss insurance coverage.
The Coakley brothers ended up with a month of litigation in the High Court in June 1974. After an expensive month in court the brothers lost the case and, as per their license agreement, the business was wound up.
Some lawyers have since expressed an opinion that A&BC should not have lost the court case, but they did. It cost the Coakleys dearly as they had sunk everything into the Company and also suffered the expense of the Court case. At the time the company folded it had 350 employees. They had to leave behind six Card Gum wrapping machines, producing 200 packs per minute, and wrapping machines for Bazooka which wrapped at 500 pieces per minute, usually worked on 3 shifts. Most of this machinery had been either modified or made by A&BC in their own engineering works under the supervision of their Chief Engineer, Mr. Charlie Ford, who had worked for the company from its inception.
1974 brought a sad end to a great story. The company is now gone, but certainly not forgotten, particularly by card aficionados. Mr. Tony Coakley remembers that it was a fun business producing products that appealed to children, and that there was never a dull moment. When things went right, when developing or installing new machinery, planning factory extensions, there was great satisfaction to be had. For 25 years, the best part of their working lives, A&BC Chewing Gum gave Douglas and Tony Coakley hard work, success and satisfaction. According to Tony, despite the frustration and difficulties, 'Success is always fun'.
Topps Chewing Gum took over where A&BC Chewing Gum ended. They produced their first set of football cards under the Topps Bazooka Limited name in 1975. They continued each year until 1981, after which they became occasional producers of football cards. In 1995 they acquired Merlin, and became major producers of football cards again in the late 1990s.
CARDS & STICKERS BY A&BC, 1953-74
Cards and stickers produced by A&BC Gum (in chronological order of production, by year), excepting football card issues.
The information in the following table has been compiled from a number of sources, but primarily from American & British Chewing Gum Ltd. Cards (A.&B.C.), The London Cigarette Card Company Ltd., Guide Book No. 3, Published 1981, 2nd Revised Edition 2004.
Year of issue / Set name / Size
1953 Film and T.V. Stars (25)
1953 Film and T.V. Stars (48)
1953 Film and T.V. Stars, 2nd series (48)
1953 Film and T.V. Stars, 3rd series (48)
1953 Royal Portraits (24)
1954 All Sports (120)
1955 Film Stars (48)
1958 Planes (120)
1958 Railway Engines (48)
1958 Real Colour Films (size ?)
1958 Space Cards (88)
1959 Cricketers (48)
1959 Elvis Presley (66)
1959 Flags of the World (80)
1959 Railway Engines (72)
1959 T.V. Westerns (56)
1960 Exploits of William Tell (36)
1960 Funny Greeting (66)
1960 Golden Boys (36) / (40)
1961 Cricketers, Test Series (48)
1961 Fotostars (40)
1961 Funny Valentine (66)
1961 Who-Z-At-Star? (70)
1962 Sir Francis Drake (25)
1962 Wacky Plaks (88)
1963 Flags of the World (80)
1964 Beatles (60)
1964 Top Stars (50)
1964 Top Stars (40)
1965 Beatles (40)
1965 Beatles, 2nd series (45)
1965 Civil war banknotes (15)
1965 Civil war news (88)
1965 Pop Stars Fab. Photo Stamps (96)
1965 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (55)
1965 The Rolling Stones (40)
1965 Winston Churchill (55)
1966 Batman (44)
1966 Batman (55)
1966 Battle (73)
1966 Flags (40)
1966 Military Emblems (24)
1966 Silly Stickers (37)
1967 Batman (44)
1967 Batman (38)
1967 Batman (55)
1967 Christian Names (56)
1967 Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (25)
1967 Magic (36)
1967 The Monkees (55)
1967 The Monkees (55)
1967 The Monkees Hit Songs (30)
1967 Ugly Stickers (44)
1967 Wacky Labels (37)
1967 You'll Die Laughing (48)
1968 Bazooka Joe and his Gang (60)
1968 Comic Book Foldees (43)
1968 Famous Indian chiefs (22)
1968 Hip Patches (200)
1968 Nutty Initials (49)
1968 Planet of the Apes (44)
1968 Punch Out Jigsaw (16)
1968 Superman in the Jungle (66)
1968 The Legend of Custer (54)
1968 Wanted Posters (16)
1969 Battle of Britain (66)
1969 High Chaparral (36)
1969 Huck Finn (55)
1969 Land of the Giants (55)
1969 Man on the Moon (74)
1969 Put-On Stickers (33)
1969 Star Trek (55)
1969 Tattoos (16)
1969 The Champions (45)
1970 Crazy disguises (24)
1970 Grand Prix (27)
1970 Lotsa Laffs (55)
1970 Love Initials (84)
1970 Mickey Takers (52)
1970 Mini-Toons (12)
1970 Monster Tattoos (16)
1971 Banknotes (17)
1971 Car stamps (21)
1971 Flags (73)
1971 Stacks of Stickers (44)
1972 Fantastic Twisters (54)
1972 Olympic Posters (16)
1972 Olympics (36)
1972 T.V. Cartoon Tattoos (15)
1972 The Partridge Family (55)
1973 Military Look Silk (151)
1973 Walt Disney Characters Tattoos (15)
1974 Kung Fu (60)
1974 You'll Die Laughing (66)
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Thanks to both Nigel and Tony for shedding light on this interesting overseas subject, and allowing us to reprint it here. To contact Nigel Mercer, you may email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have a good memory of foreign monster sets, you may have noticed two significant omissions in the aforementioned product list. They are:
1964 Mars Attacks (55)
1966 Outer Limits (50)
Why were they not included? Because they didn't want the public to know they published them! The cards don't show A&BC anywhere on them. Just as Topps had used a faux name in the USA to throw concerned parents off their scent, A&BC also copyrighted the series under the new name of "Bubbles, Inc." They must have figured it would offer a barrier against a potential public backlash and/or boycott. The British versions say "printed n England" on them, and are smaller than their American cousins (slightly smaller than 2.25 x 3.25 inches) which is typically the case with UK cards. Ironically, both of these "undercover sets" are among the most treasured non-sports sets produced by A&BC, so they certainly miscalculated when it came to predicting positive publicity!
Also worthy of note are several series that A&BC published that never made it past Topps' test card phase in the USA, like Land Of The Giants and Superman In The Jungle . There are also some A&BC sets that were never published by Topps at all, either as regular or test sets, including High Chaparral and Girl From U.N.C.L.E . Collectors on a budget can buy the smaller A&BC versions of expensive Topps sets like Civil War News, although some series redrew a few cards with inferior art, and even pulled controversial cards from the set, as did the Battle series .
I was living in the UK in 1974, and although I missed out on all their earlier issues, I did collect the A&BC You'll Die Laughing series . Whenever I look at those cards, they take me back to a distant time and a far away place. I thought England was so cool because they had neat-o monster cards, something I had yet to discover in the USA. Little did I realize that it was the very last series that A&BC would ever publish. However, any sadness that may have resulted from that knowledge would soon be forgotten once I got home and saw that the original source of the sets-- Topps--was cranking out even more titles on even bigger cards. Still, one can't help but feel regret to see a great British card company come to close. To paraphrase a very English slogan: A&BC is dead! Long live A&BC!
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