Victor Hugo Watson (1878-1943)
Master printer – the man behind John Waddingtons of Leeds and London

Victor Hugo Watson (1878-1943)One Friday evening in 1935, at home in Horsforth, Victor Watson suggested to his son Norman that he should try out a new board game from the USA called Monopoly. Norman played it all weekend, enthralled, and on Monday Victor made his first ever transatlantic phone call to acquire the UK rights for Waddingtons. He and his secretary taxied round London and spent hours in a Lyons tearoom at the Angel in Islington choosing London streets for the British version, finishing with the Angel itself. Monopoly was to become one of Britain’s favourite board games, its place names and rules etched in family memories: ‘Go to jail, go directly to jail’…!

Victor Watson had joined John Waddington’s printing business back in 1908. Founded in the 1890s by printer John Waddington, ‘long John’, tall and moustachioed, in partnership with the Grand Theatre’s flamboyant actor/manager, Wilson Barrett, it specialised in theatrical work – posters, programmes, souvenir albums. But JW was no businessman and the firm was teetering on bankruptcy when Victor Watson joined it as a lithographic printer. Five years later JW retired (under a cloud) and Victor, energetic and ambitious, took over as manager and in 1916 managing director. During the years that followed he transformed it into one of the largest printing companies in the country.

Although born in London, in Brixton, Victor had grown up in Leeds. His father was a commercial traveller, originally from Yorkshire, and after several moves the family settled in Leeds when Victor was about seven. They lived in Little Woodhouse and its narrow streets were Victor’s playground – he was a lively, sporty boy. There were eight children to feed so money was tight; Victor had to leave school at 13, starting work as a butcher’s boy. But his father insisted he learn a trade and at 16 he was apprenticed to a local printer: printing remained his life’s work.

In 1902 he married local girl Ethel Dawson and they moved to Belle Vue Place, where their first son Norman was born in 1903. Their next home was Ebor Place off Royal Park Road, living with in-laws, including Ethel’s mother, who worked as a cleaner at the Town Hall. Taking lodgers helped to pay the bills. Victor’s printing job was routine and he jumped at the suggestion he should apply to join John Waddington’s – the move was to transform his life.

From 1916, under his management, Waddingtons thrived and expanded. A London branch was established in 1919, and in 1921 the firm became a limited company and acquired spacious new premises in Wakefield Road, Hunslet. Victor was dedicated to producing only top quality work, teaming up with specialist artists and lithographers. The firm still kept its theatrical work, winning a lucrative long-term contract to supply the Moss theatre group, but they also became known for their fine advertising posters, particularly their splendid range of art posters for LNER, in the series Beautiful Britain and It’s Quicker by Train – York, Bridlington; the Yorkshire Coast etc: iconic images now enjoying a revival.

In 1922 Victor saw a new opportunity. Playing cards had become popular during WW1, helping to pass time for men stuck in the trenches. There was only one major supplier. He found ways round the technical problems of sourcing the right materials, precise printing, cutting and edging, and introduced imaginative new designs and marketing methods. With advertising packs like Beautiful Britain Waddingtons cornered the market. All this helped the firm survive the trauma of the 1926 General Strike, when Victor struggled to keep the factory open, and the subsequent depression. An innovative scheme with Wills for miniature playing cards in cigarette packs boosted sales. Card production continued even in WW2, at Churchill’s express command.

Then there were the games: Lexicon in 1932, the hugely popular Monopoly and experiments with new ideas for board games. Victor, working now with his son Norman, led the firm into other new areas of production too: packaging, jigsaws, maps, and during WW2 specialist government work, including the secure printing of bank notes. It was in 1943, in the midst of war, that Victor died aged 65, still managing director of the huge Waddington enterprise.

His memorial at Lawnswood celebrates his passion for printing and his love of music – there were regular musical evenings at his home at Clare House, Scotland Lane, Horsforth, where he and Ethel had moved around 1930. Sport was his other love: cricket at Headingley and golf at Horsforth and Sandmoor. He enjoyed a comfortable life – a chauffeur, regular stays at the Waldorf in London – but was known for his care and concern for his employees. His energy, acumen and dedication made Waddingtons of Leeds a household name.

[Waddingtons closed in 1994 – see ‘The Waddingtons Story’ by Victor’s grandson, another Victor Watson. The name still appears on packs of card, made by a different company.]


Eveleigh Bradford
April 2019