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What ever happened to snuff?

Snuff hit Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Ben Duckworth discovers that it never really left.

A sketch of a bewigged barrister taking snuff, by Alger, c1880. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Of all the things to still make in Britain – snuff. I don't know anyone who admits to using it but this eighteenth-century dandy's habit lives on. We recently learned that some MPs take a pinch from a box kept at the entrance to the House of Commons chamber. I wonder if any have sniffed a little on their return to Westminster? What do they smell in it?

Time to try it. In front of me on my kitchen table is a small tin of something resembling finely sieved soil. This dark brown matter is called Kendal Brown. It is a premium product in its market, loved by aficionados. A footman claims to Sam in The Pickwick Papers that “coffee is the best practice”. I don't fancy sticking my Co-op Fairtrade Italian up my nose so I get straight into the real stuff. Shoving my nose into the receptacle to sense its bouquet, I make the schoolboy error of exhaling afterwards and blow it into my eyes. This ends a brief thought about plunging my head into the pile like Tony Montana in Scarface. After dealing with my stinging eyes, I pick a pinch out and sniff it up sharply. It smells gently ancient and is less intrusive up my nostril than I expected. To my surprise, I don't sneeze.

This is British manufacturing in 2013, with a strong whiff of a time when the French dethroned their king and Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The pinch somewhere up my right nostril has been made in the South Cumbrian town that the product is named after, at one of the few remaining factories in the UK. It was produced by a 50-tonne machine that is over 260 years old - believed to be the oldest piece of industrial machinery still in productive use in the UK. In 1792, it was bought second-hand by a nascent snuff company started by an ambitious man called Thomas Harrison. Its unknown Georgian designer did not build it to crush and grind tobacco stems and leaves. Originally the machine, which somehow lacks a nickname, was constructed to make gunpowder in the north of Scotland. The two manufacturing processes are similar. Harrison, fresh from studying the art of snuff in Glasgow, had it dismantled and carried by horses several hundred miles south where it has remained ever since.

Bob Gregory is director of Samuel Gawith Limited, the company that runs the antique machine. Mr Gregory is a menthol snuff man: “It is very good for when you've got a bad head cold or a hangover. It clears the head,” he claims. The machine is old but some things have changed. Flavoured snuff is the company's idea of modernisation. Traditional Kendal Brown remains the big seller but nowadays you can buy mandarin and cherry favours. Their website boasts of 'NEW!! GIN & TONIC snuff' - a whole night out to be enjoyed up your nostrils. Gregory, a gregarious man with a habit of introducing Dickensian flourishes into his speech, assures me the flavours are of good quality. “If you buy a packet of wine gums, the flavour in the wine gums is the flavour we use in the snuff, so to speak.”

Flavours are added at the end of the process. Samuel Gawith have about five different base snuff products made from tobacco originating in countries like Brazil and Malawi. The best product goes into the pipe tobacco that the factory makes. Snuff is made from what's left.

“You don't need to use the finest of tobacco leaf,” explains Gregory. “Half of the character of pipe tobacco is what it looks like. You want it to look nice. You use the best you can afford. With snuff, it's a powder. As long, as it looks like powder, then everyone is happy. You've got very little straw coloured snuff, light coloured, light brown, dark brown, very dark brown and black snuff. It doesn't matter so much with snuff as long as the colour is right.”

Snuff hit Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. London tobacconists placed wooden model Scottish Highlanders outside to show they sold it – as if snuff were the shortbread of the 1700s. The paraphernalia became embarrassingly bling. Lord Byron spent 500 guineas on “seven gold snuff boxes” and “seven snuff boxes of gold and silver gilt” in one shopping blowout. Beau Brummel was able to open his snuff box and sniff using only his right hand. But snuff wasn't simply a fashionable accessory for young men who had it all. Other classes just kept theirs in simple boxes that haven't made it into the British Museum. Coal miners were keen users as lighting up underground wasn't an option if you wanted to live long. Snuff-addict Charles Darwin, his moustache “slightly brown from the habit”, stuffed some up a monkey's nose to study its emotions. “It closed its eyelids whilst sneezing; but not on a subsequent occasion whilst uttering loud cries,” he recorded.

Now in 2013, the habit of snuff-taking continues as an underground habit, a “secret society,” says Gregory. A few bars offer it as an edgy drinks accompaniment. Tins and tubs containing it are hidden out of sight in the four central London tobacconists I visit. The Society of Snuff Grinders, Blenders and Purveyors is sadly defunct, although it is said you can join the London Snuff Club through a Charing Cross tobacconists. Instead, a keen, swotty community exists at snuffhouse.org and online shops like mysmokingshop.co.uk stock hundreds of varieties. Gregory admits the over-40s are the dominant consumers but remains positive that “the younger snuff taker is showing a lot more interest because he realises he can take it wherever he wants – on an aeroplane, for example.”

He recommends I sprinkle some on a poached egg. “Quite tasty,” he claims. Out of eggs, I add some to a chilli I'm making. It seems like something a cowboy might do. It's unclear what the Kendal Brown added in the final tasting, but the colour looked good.