13 January 2011

An old Wandle snuff mill

The Wandle at Morden Hall Park

Several months ago I paid a visit to the autumnal glories of Morden Hall Park, which is situated 2.5km and a speedy six minute tram ride southeast of Wimbledon (Phipps Bridge tram stop).  Aside from the pretty grounds, the main feature of the park is the collection of buildings that sit bestride the Wandle River, which formed a key part of the local economy for generations.  The sturdily-built river races at the centre of the park once held a pair of mill wheels, and whereas many Wandle mills were traditionally devoted to grinding corn, these mills performed their duties to produce a much more rarefied commodity: snuff.

The habit of taking snuff, ground-up tobacco leaves which are inhaled rather than smoked, was first observed by Europeans on Columbus' second voyage to the Caribbean in the mid-1490s.  Following the gift in 1561 of some snuff to Catherine de' Medici by Jean Nicot, the French ambassador in Lisbon (and the man after whom nicotine is named), the snuff-taking began to take hold as a pastime of the wealthy and the aristocracy.  By the 18th century it was a symbol of class distinction.  The upper classes took snuff, which was more expensive due to the production process and the addition of perfumes and colouring; the poor smoked plain tobacco.  According to Jordan Goodman's 1993 book Tobacco in history: the cultures of dependence, the rituals surrounding snuff taking became a key signs of its acceptance into the heart of high society:

Snuff taking differed from tobacco smoking in many ways.  In the first place, the taking of snuff became highly ritualised.  For those who prepared their own snuff, a practice that became increasingly fashionable during the eighteenth century, the principal devices were the snuff box and the rasp.  The former had its origins in the tobacco box of the seventeenth century but, unlike its predecessor, it contained only the tobacco product and therefore could be quite small.  Snuff-box making became an art in the eighteenth century and the range of design, material and size was bewildering.  Not only was every known metal used but so were natural materials such as ivory and shell as well as the increasingly popular fine porcelain [...]  Giving a snuff box as a present became a present became a sign of exalted gift-giving: Marie Antoinette had fifty-two gold snuff boxes in her wedding basket.  While this may seem extravagant, it should be remembered that in the eighteenth century the snuff box was the equivalent of jewellery and not only did the snuff box change with artistic fashion but anyone who was anyone needed to have a variety of these boxes.  As Louis Sebastian Mercier noted in his description of Paris in the second half of the eighteenth century: 'One has boxes for each season.  That for winter is heavy; that for summer light.  It's by this characteristic feature that one recognises a man of taste.  One is excused for not having a library or a cabinet of natural history when one has 300 boxes...'
But despite its fervent and affluent supporters, there were plenty of scare stories circulating against snuff use, in part inspired by medical concerns.  One such complaint is recorded in a letter dated 6 March 1809 from a Mr James Hill, quoted in Wilfred Henry Prentis' self-published 1970 book, The Snuff-Mill Story:

                                James Hill, 137 St Martin's Lane
Dear Mr Urban,
[...] I know a lady who took the cancer in her nose and died, that had been in the habit of taking snuff.  The doctor that attended her insisted that there were particles of glass in the snuff she had used visible to the naked eye, and that these, having been strongly pulled up, had lodged in the cartilages and bones of the nose, and caused the disorder.  On analysing it, he found that rotten wood, pieces of old coffins etc., ground down and mixed with powdered glass, red and white betony, and other cheap cephalicks constituted the chief ingredients in the snuff she had bought and used, etc. etc. 
One loyal writer responded to similar criticism in an edition of the New Monthly Magazine published in London in 1821, in which he waxed lyrical on the joys of snuff:

[The snuff critic] may denounce our noses as "dust holes" if he will - but what precious dust!  - what an aider of thought! - what solamen curarum* - what a helpmate of existence ... what a soother of irritability, as Sir Joshua found it.  Let this anti-nasal disclaimer just step into Messrs Fribourg and Pontets, and he'll soon see, in the formidable array of of robust and well-battalioned jars, what an unequal contest he has undertaken to wage against one of the most popular usages of his country: - jars containing every modification of sternulatory materials, collected from every quarter of the globe, and sanctioned, many of them, in emblazoned characters, by the highest names in Europe, from Hardham's No.37, for rough sneezers, down to the delicate and costly Maccabau, whose essence is so subtle and pervading that, like Desdemona's charms, it makes the "senses ache" with exuberance of delight.
[* Latin: the comfort of cares] 

Morden Hall Park snuff mills
The Morden Hall snuff mill operated from the mid-18th century at the peak of the snuff-taking craze, until 1922 when the habit was fast disappearing.  According to Judith Goodman's book Merton & Morden (Chichester, 1995), 'from 1760 the Polhill family leased the snuff mill from the Garths.  They were followed by Taddy & Co. in 1845, and then by Alexander Hatfeild in 1854'.  For most of the period the area was a semi-rural settlement on the far outskirts of London.  It was possible to 'go up to London' for the day by coach or on horseback, but Morden itself was not part of the great metropolis.  

Gilliat Edward Hatfeild (1864-1941), the last owner, closed the snuff mill once and for all in 1922.  The mill workers had gone on strike to support their colleagues in the rest of the cigarette industry, but Hatfeild was having none of it.  Perhaps he saw the dwindling demand for snuff and seized the opportunity to exit the industry.  He went on residing in Morden Cottage next to the mill-race.

Morden Hall
Morden Hall itself, the adjacent manor house, was owned by the Garth family for four centuries from the time of the Dissolution during Henry VIII's reign until it was sold to tobacco merchant Gilliat Hatfeild (1827-1906, the father of G.E. Hatfeild, above) in 1872.  During and after the First World War the Hall became better known for its contribution to the medical wellbeing of Londoners.  Again according to Goodman:

[I]n the First World War Gilliat Edward Hatfeild’s Morden Hall became at his wish a military hospital.  There were 68 beds, and, as the men regained strength, they had the freedom of Hatfeild’s park.  After the war Morden Hall became an annex to the London Hospital, receiving women and children as patients.  The hospital closed in 1941, with the death of Mr Hatfeild.

Visitors to the park today will note that one of the mill wheels remains in place on the mill-race sans paddles, and nearby several old mill stones are scattered as a testimony to an industry that employed generations of Morden locals and fed a habit that in its heyday was the talk of high society.   

Old mill stone

Morden Hall Park mill-wheel
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