What ever happened to snuff?

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

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.

 

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

Ben Duckworth is a freelance journalist and former editor of Total Politics magazine.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition