A history of the snuff mills at Morden Hall Park
During the 18th and 19th centuries the prosperity of the Morden Hall estate depended on its snuff mills. Snuff was a popular tobacco product used before cigars and cigarettes became more fashionable. Today you can get a glimpse into the world of the mill workers in the education centre set up in the now retired western snuff mill.
The success of the snuff industry
The Morden mills are based on the River Wandle. The area around it has been a prosperous area for milling since the time of the Domesday Book (1086). During the 19th century, with an increase in the popularity of snuff, the Wandle valley became a ‘hub’ of tobacco and snuff manufacture.
Snuff was introduced to London’s elite around the year 1700, about fifty years before the original snuff mill at Morden Park was built. The trend for snuff-taking gathered pace throughout the century, becoming almost universal by the last quarter of the 18th century.
Snuff is a fine-ground smokeless tobacco product. The mills ground dried tobacco leaves into snuff between two stones. The resulting powder was left natural or perfumed with flower essences or spices. Gentlemen, and sometimes ladies, sniffed pinches of snuff from the back of their hands which gave them a swift nicotine buzz – and often made them sneeze. At Morden, the majority of snuff produced was the most common brown snuff, though a very dark, strong variety was produced in smaller quantities, as was a perfumed variety.
Running the Morden Mills
The eastern and western mills were built in 1750 and 1830 respectively while the Manor of Morden was held by the Garth family, who had owned the estate and title since the 16th century. They did not have a great interest in either the estate or the business however.
In 1834, an up and coming tobacco firm, Taddy & Co, part owned by Alexander Hatfeild, was granted the lease of the mills. In 1867, the Hatfeild family bought the whole estate. Hatfeild sourced his tobacco from plantations in Virginia. The snuff was blended and processed in the Taddy & Co factory in the Minories in London. The addition of the Morden mills completed the production line and enabled Hatfeild to greatly expand his successful business.
The mills at Morden produced 6000lbs of snuff each month. Memories of mill workers describe the working environment of a snuff mill as extremely dusty, noisy and uncomfortable. The Hatfeilds were comparatively good employers though, on hot days in the summer they would shut the mill down and let their employees work outside on the estate rather than putting up with the unpleasant conditions in the mill.
Decline of snuff taking
By the late 19th century, snuff taking had become less fashionable. This decline has been attributed to a generation of Victorians who considered snuff to be ‘flamboyant, vulgar and offensive’. Cigars had also become reasonably priced, so people were increasingly smoking their tobacco rather than sniffing it. In addition, the water mills were being outdone by their steam powered competitors around the country.
In 1922, the workers in Hatfield’s tobacco company in the Minories went on strike. No doubt motivated by declining profits in the business, Gilliat Hatfeild, Alexander’s grandson, shut down his factory and his mills.
He had been left with a large fortune however, and the running of the Morden Hall estate. As the mill workers had not joined the strike they were rewarded with jobs working on the estate.
The mills in the modern day
Following the closure of the mills they were used mainly as the estate workshop. The waterwheel remained in place in the 1930’ to supply power to various tools used in the workshop such as drills, planers and saws. The only piece of machinery preserved was the large cast iron wheel currently in the stable yard.
The buildings were also used to store all the equipment used on the estate such as the punts and rowing boats brought out for the garden parties organised by Gilliat Hatfeild for local children. You can read about these charitable parties which were the highlight of the locals’ year in another Morden Hall history page.
In 1989 the western mill was opened as a classroom and education centre. You can now enjoy an interactive exhibition on the life of the Morden mill workers in Victorian times.