Friday, 31 March 2017

The Snuff Mills of Morden Hall Park

Once upon a very long time ago snuff was all the rage. It started with the indigenous tribes of Brazil, and was carried back to the Old World by the Spanish, who established the first European snuff mill in Seville in the early 16th century.

The French ambassador, Jean Nicot, is credited with bringing snuff to the attention of his Queen, Catherine de Medici. Poor old Catherine had been plagued with headaches, which she was persuaded to treat with snuff. Miraculously it  seemed to work! And the grateful queen promptly declared that snuff should henceforth be known as Herba Regina, the Queen's Herb. Having won the royal seal of approval it quickly became popular with the French aristocracy.

From there the fashion for snuff soon jumped the Channel to take hold amongst the great and the good here in England. Soon snuffing was all the rage, with many extolling its excellent curative properties. It was sniffed into the nose, delivering an instant nicotine hit, and leaving a lingering smell. And back in the day, when the world tended not to smell too sweet, that scent in the nose would have been a welcome relief from the everyday malodors that otherwise assaulted the senses. Often snuff was blended to secret recipes with other spices, herbs and floral essences. Famous blends such as Scotch and Welsh, English Rose (supplied free of charge to MPs in the House of Commons after smoking was forbidden in the Chamber in 1693) and Lundy Foot gained popularity. Before long there was a huge selection of blends delivering different scent sensations to appeal to just about every olfactory caprice; some were dry having been roasted and then ground very fine whilst others were more moist.

  The Snuff Mill, Morden Hall Park, London
The Snuff Mill, Morden Hall Park, London
George III's Queen Consort, Charlotte, was known as Snuffy Charolotte, thanks to her devotion to the stuff. She had a whole room at Windsor Castle devoted to her stash of snuff and her collection of snuff paraphernalia. George IV had his own exclusive blends.  Lord Nelson, the Iron Duke (of Wellington), Alexander Pope, Benjamin Disraeli and Samuel Johnson were all keen snuffers. With the growth of 18th century coffee house culture, the nation's enthusiasm for snuff grew in tandem with its addiction to caffeine fad to become a firm fixture in the daily lives of the chattering classes.

The Snuff Mill, Morden Hall Park, London
The Snuff Mill, Morden Hall Park, London
Poor people smoked tobacco, whereas the upper classes sniffed snuff. An elaborate paraphernalia of beautifully decorated snuff boxes, snuff rasps (tiny nutmeg grinders for grinding your own snuff on the go) and elegantly embroidered silk handkerchieves to contain the inevitable sneezes became fashion must-haves for the beau monde, giving them an excuse to flaunt their wealth with more conspicuous consumption. Snuff and its accoutrements marked you out as a toff.

And with this growing mania for snuff, mills grew up around the country to meet demand. Most of the snuff sold in London during the eighteenth century was milled here in the Wandle Valley. In the days before steam power, the River Wandle was considered perfect for harnessing with water wheels to drive the mills. There were half a dozen snuff mills back in the day, centred around the town of Mitcham. The snuff merchants of London would prepare the tobacco leaves in their London premises, and then have them transported out here to be milled. At the mills the leaves might be roasted (depending on the blend) and then ground before the merchants would whisk them back to London to add any other special ingredients required to produce their unique blend of snuff. Snuff recipes were carefully guarded trade secrets.

The Mill Cottage, Morden Hall Snuff Mill, Morden, London
The Mill Cottage, Morden Hall Snuff Mill, Morden, London

Here in Morden the first snuff mill, powered by water from the River Wandle, which wends its way through Morden Hall Park, was built in 1750. The huge waterwheel powered edge runner millstone grinders like the one displayed out front to grind the tobacco leaves into a powder.

Morden Hall Park, Morden, London
Edge runner millstones used for grinding snuff

Business was brisk and a second mill was added in 1830 to meet the growing demand. Another water wheel was added, which powered an alternative system of production using mechanical pestles and mortars. The two systems of grinding were distinct and produced different textures of snuff. The estate came into the hands of the Hatfield family in 1834. They were big in the tobacco trade, owning their own plantations in Virginia from which they imported tobacco to grind here in Morden and sell to the London market.

The Snuff Mill Water Wheel, Morden Hall, Morden
The Snuff Mill Water Wheel, Morden Hall Park, Morden
The parkland at Morden Hall is a beautiful setting for the snuff mill. It was first owned by the monks of Westminster Abbey. And in my book it makes for a first class place to go for a walk. The rush of the fast flowing streams mixed with birdsong is a heady mix on a bright spring morning. The old sluices and weirs that were used to harness the power of the river are still in evidence.

And across the water stands the rambling grandeur of Morden Hall, which was built in the 1770s on the profits of the snuff mills. No one lives there today, but it can be hired out as a rather grand wedding venue.

The splendid White Bridge leads across from Morden Hall to the rolling meadows of the Deer Park and on to the marshes where boardwalks lead out across the waterlogged wetlands. 

The boardwalks are wonderful, leading you out into the heart of the wetlands. Signs told us to watch out for kingfishers, little egrets, mallards and herons. I can't tell you how delighted I would have been if I'd seen a kingfisher, but sadly none of them seemed to be around when we strode past. We met a few very handsome mallards, but that was it.

And we got to enjoy some very splendid Marsh Marigolds. I don't know what their proper botanical name is, and I don't much care either: Marsh Marigold sums them up perfectly in my lexicon.

And when you've had your fill of all that wonderful wildlife and industrial history you can take a look around the second hand bookshop in the Stable Yard. We came away with an impressive armful of good reads. There's also a rather lovely coffee shop in the Potting Shed, which is dog-friendly and there's an on-site garden centre, which is, for my money, the prettiest garden centre you're likely to find anywhere. They told us that it was the very first garden centre that the National Trust ever opened, and is well worth checking out.

All the best for a lovely weekend,

Bonny x

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