In an idyllic valley in Sheffield, England, the Sharrow Moor mill has been operating for more than 440 years, tucked away among trees, lawns, and Porter Brook's curving waterway. For those of us who comprehend time intervals by comparison to our oldest tin of tobacco, that's an impressive span.
The mill reaches into the past to 1581 when a cutter's wheel was powered via a waterwheel. Cutter's wheels were employed for sharpening blades of all kinds: scythes, knives, sickles, swords, and other necessary implements. Sheffield's reputation for fine cutlery dates to the 14th century (its steel industry accelerated in the 1740s with the discovery in Sheffield of harder steel) and all of those tools required sharpening and repairing.
It wasn't until Joseph Wilson's business at Sharrow Moor had been thriving for some time that the manufacture of snuff at the site began. He didn't suspect that he had started a business that would become Wilsons & Co., one of the foremost snuff manufacturers in the world.
Snuff is ground tobacco with a powdery consistency and is not suitable for pipe smoking, though some like to sprinkle a bit on the top of a prepared bowl for easy lighting characteristics and controlled modification of flavor. That method of use adds a nicotine wallop to the bowl, but the snuff should be chosen carefully lest it ghost the pipe. Snuff is traditionally inhaled (or snuffed) into the nose and was, for much of modern history, the most popular form of tobacco use. Doctors recommended it as a virtual cure for everything; it was more popular than smoking in Joseph Wilson's time.
Snuff ... was, for much of modern history, the most popular form of tobacco use.
James Hanson, Vice Chairman of Wilsons & Co., currently manages the company and is always cognizant of the long foundational history of Sharrow Mills. "Joseph Wilson was working in Sheffield on other mills around the 1720s, 1730s, coming to this site in 1737," says James. "He wasn't making snuff to start with. He was making scythes for cutting grass and wheat and hay, among other things."
Wilson's profession was metalworking and probably included sharpening, silver plating, and various repairs and manufacturing. "He was definitely doing something called drawing steel," says James, "which is pulling steel wire through an ever diminishing hole, making it thinner and thinner. That's how you make wire, which seems extraordinary now when you can buy it in a shop, but back then, if you needed some wire, there weren't that many people who made it. And I think that a lot of people needed wire."
Silver plating was a new technology at the time, and those craftsmen involved had to invent as they went. "It was quite a remarkable achievement. Wilson was a man of many talents who came across a recipe for snuff." It's a family story shared through 11 generations that a traveling Scotsman spent the night and as a gesture of thanks for the hospitality, shared a recipe for Scottish snuff. Given the value of these recipes at that time, it was an enormously generous gesture. Wilson already had the mill, was interested in snuff, and he added the water-powered machinery to grind snuff, expanding the business.
"He did very well with it," says James. "He built the water mill here. He developed sites and, with his sons, they grew the business to become very profitable, making effectively as much snuff as they could. And whatever they made in those days, they could sell. So they were in a good position."
Recipe secrecy is not important in modern times, but in the early years, it was essential that formulations remain tightly protected. Wilson had security. "It was important to maintain trade secrets. There is a room above where I am sitting at the moment, which hasn't changed an awful lot since about 1790, and that is where the trade secrets are housed. It's sometimes pointed out on the site tour as the mystery room or the secret room. But yes, attempts were made, in those days, to try and get the recipes of snuffs. They're written in code on the wall in kind of Dickensian writing on the plasterwork. To this day a very select, very small number of people have been in that room. We still maintain that security and mystique."
Mail was suspect, so Wilsons maintained a P.O. Box. "No mail was ever sent to the address in case it was hijacked and someone could find out what the recipes were or even what ingredients we were buying. Only about 10 years ago did we get rid of our P.O. Box and we actually had mail, for the first time, delivered directly to the building."
"No mail was ever sent to the address in case it was hijacked and someone could find out what the recipes were"
Interest in snuff espionage has waned over the years and security is not now such an issue. "And of course, like everybody, we've had to divulge our recipes to various governing agencies, like the European Union and the FDA as well. So yes, everything has changed."
The Water Wheel
Much of the site, however, has not changed and is maintained in original condition for its historical relevance. "We have the oldest working water wheel in the United Kingdom," says James. "It was built around 1750 and is still working. Imagine a worker back then looking at that. It was a phenomenal harnessing of the power of water from our reservoir. It isn't a flowing stream; we open a tap and the water pours onto the top of the wheel. It's called an overshot wheel with the water pouring on top, filling up the buckets, and gravity turning the wheel. That power is then transferred 90 degrees vertically, up a big wooden mast and into the room two floors above it, turning the mortars and pestles, which in turn grind the tobacco. And as they grind the tobacco into a powder it spills out over the top of the mortars; that's how snuff was made back then."
The preserved areas of Sharrow Moor are saturated with snuff. Beams in the attic appear to be composed of snuff, the fine powder caked evenly and universally, with several thigh-high piles of snuff on the floor. It is not a room that is utilized for modern operations, but it is a profound look into the past.
The water wheel is 19 feet in diameter and almost five feet wide. A doorway inside the mill is generally kept closed but offers a look at the wheel from a level near the top, and it is a dark and damp place. There's a safety barrier, but falling through that narrow doorway would be cold and unpleasant on the way down, but invigorating when reaching the surface of the water a hundred yards downstream. The wooden wheel itself replaced its predecessor at least 200 years ago. That this gigantic machine from a different time is still capable of working is a wonder well worth preserving.
While the mortars and pestles are no longer employed for snuff manufacture, they still operate as always and are loud, large, and impressive tools in this dramatic process. "They're currently a living piece of history. They're so important as a heritage." The site is listed as an official historical location. "We wouldn't be able to move them. We can't dismantle them. We wouldn't want to do any of those things anyway. If we can maintain them so that they still work for a visitor to see, that's an incredible thing. They're a piece of history and they need to be maintained and preserved."
... he mortars and pestles are no longer employed for snuff manufacture, they still operate as always and are loud, large, and impressive tools
Before being ground, tobacco would arrive at the mill in hogsheads. Hands of tobacco were removed and sorted, with some graded for rolling rope tobacco. While Wilson's no longer manufactures rope, it was for generations a staple of the company's production, and there have been a lot of generations. Jeremy Archdale, whose great uncle was a Wilson, is the current owner of Wilson & Co. and represents the 11th generation of his family's ownership.
After its veins and stalks were removed, the tobacco would be chopped and dried for about a week in a special room, up to 8,000 pounds at a time, according to a Fall, 2006 article in Pipes and tobaccos magazine. It goes on to describe the next operation, involving the machines that can grind that tobacco into snuff:
In a building filled with impressive old machinery, the levels on which the mortars and pestles grind the snuff are easily the most awe-inspiring. Opening the sluice gate, the water from the millpond cascades over a large wood and iron over-shot wheel that is likely at least 200 years old, located in the mill's cellar. The wheel drives a horizontal shaft that runs through the wall and into the next room, where it is geared into another shaft that runs vertically through the two upper stories and powers the eight mortar and pestle combinations on each floor ...The building gently shakes as the 16 pestles grind around their 16 mortars, making a loud scraping noise as metal grinds against wood.
The mill is almost as interesting from outside. Architecturally enticing, its ancient brick walls climb from the scenic vision of the winding millpond, an idyllic reflecting pool that doubles the property's enchanting attributes via reflection. The mill is a scenic, architectural, historical, and mechanical wonder.
The mill is a scenic, architectural, historical, and mechanical wonder.
Modifications to the mill have been numerous. A fire in 1763 destroyed much of the mill, but its rebuilding was subsidized by a collection taken nationally. The mill rendered tax revenue and services that were too important to let disappear. "Then in 1898, I think it was," says James, "we built what was called then, the new mill. It had the modern grinding machinery in it, which was steam powered. So it worked on the same principle. It had mortar and pestles, but they were in a slightly different layout and they were all driven by a steam engine. Luckily we had the river, so we had plenty of water to create steam. All we needed was a heat source. And I think that was either coal or coke, and we had a big chimney built. In its day, that was modern snuff grinding equipment."
That time-proven production setup worked up until the 1960s, when another new mill was built, this time running on electricity. "Everything was then condensed down into one quite small machine, which was doing what was being done by much bigger machines, previously. It was the modern machine of its age and is what we are still using now."
Markets for snuff are particularly brisk in Germany and Switzerland, with Belgium and Poland also large consumers. Wilsons snuff has not been available in the U.S. for the past few years. "But we're very keen to try and get into America, again," says James. "We had some success there and then we faltered when the new rules came in and we were not grandfathered with the FDA yet. But that is hopefully about to change very soon."
Ancient and gigantic mortars and pestles are caked with snuff
Traditional Clays No More
The earliest invoice in the company's archives
Wilsons & Co. has held to the past in more ways than snuff making. For many years, the company's line of traditional clay pipes was famous and popular. Married couple Bill and Dot Young made 300 or more pipes a week, using the hundreds of pipe molds still on the property, many dating to the 19th century. Their approach to these pipes was entirely traditional, save for the use of a modern kiln.
When the Youngs retired a few years ago, sadly, the pipe making ended. "We couldn't find anyone to take over from them. And the cost of making the pipes was becoming higher and higher. People just weren't willing to spend over five pounds for a clay pipe. It became unprofitable for us at that point. It was a great shame, but we had to discontinue the clays.
"We still have all the molds. Maybe one day someone can restart making them. It is a shame, but we're a modern company now and have to think about what's popular and going to meet today's demands. So we don't only make snuff; we handle other products nowadays. We make a chewing tobacco, a twist, a little rope of tobacco which is cut into portions. We export that to Denmark. And we're now a major distributor of pipes and pipe tobacco, as well as other smokers' requisites."
As for the snuff itself, Best SP is still among their best sellers. It's from the original recipe that started it all, and was the only formulation the company had for several decades. No one knows for sure what "SP" signifies; that particular piece of information has been lost. "There are all sorts of theories," says James. "Some say it might come from the word "Spanish," because that's where a lot of snuff originated before it was made in the UK. But in truth, I don't know. No one here has ever really known what it stands for."
Other popular snuffs made by Wilsons & Co. are SP 100 and SM 500. "'Menthol snuffs are very popular these days. 'SM' actually stands for Sharrow Medicated, but you're not allowed to use the word medicated now for a tobacco product, understandably. So, it's just called SM 500, which is a heavily mentholated snuff. And then we have one which is even stronger called Dynamite. Again, very popular. Then, surprising to me because I very much enjoy the mentholated snuffs, one of the bestsellers is something completely different. It's called Irish High Toast, and it's the plainest, driest, most powdery snuff we make. It has very little moisture content. I don't care for it, but you have to have a variety of offerings. Some people like some things, some people like others. Irish High Toast is very, very popular. Just not with me."
"Menthol snuffs are very popular these days"
Wilsons of Sharrow Moor is a remarkable place and a living museum, but tours are few, largely because the expense of repairs is exorbitant. Wear-and-tear on the machinery is to be avoided because there are no replacement parts to order online. Necessary parts must be crafted by hand. "We've not kept up any regular tours," says James. "There has not been a period of modernization; things are pretty much as they were. All that has changed, I think, are the health and safety regulations. For the general public, we're not really a safe visit. We'll do special demonstrations for special people, friends and customers and the like, but we no longer offer tours."
James clearly takes his position seriously as a steward of this historical site. "We are caretakers of the history represented here. It's a fully functioning manufacturing facility based in, effectively, a museum. And so the two have to live and operate side by side. There are various parts of the building that we can't use for manufacturing. They just sit there and the company really survives, in many ways, to look after the historical assets that we protect."
"It's a fully functioning manufacturing facility based in, effectively, a museum"
Sharrow Mills is a place whose grounds are almost fairytale and whose intact and working machinery is almost miraculous. Many who enjoy tobacco also enjoy history, especially tobacco history, and this small Sheffield mill resonates with hundreds of years of rich tobacco trade. One could almost call this cozy little corner of England a romantic fable, except that it is very real and an impressive monument to the manufacture of tobacco.