Snuff in 19th Century Norfolk

Snuff, high society’s choice of tobacco inhalation, first appeared in England in the middle of the sixteenth century, along with tobacco imports from America.  Sir Walter Raleigh is usually supposed to have been the first to bring it home to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but Leonard Bolingbroke, of the Norwich Science Gossip Club, feels that it was more probably Ralph Lane (a lesser- known English explorer of the same period) in 1586.

The Norfolk Record Office has the typed lecture notes which Mr Bolingbroke, solicitor and Registrar of the Diocese of Norwich, used for a talk to the Club in the late nineteenth century (NRO, BOL 1/90, 739×2). He talks about Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America in the fifteenth century, when ‘the natives not only smoked tobacco, but they inhaled the powder of it through a cane half a cubit long into their nostrils.’ (A cubit is about 18 inches or 45.72 centimetres).

Notes for Leonard Bolingbroke’s talk on tobacco and snuff. NRO, BOL 1/90, 739×2

Snuff was, at first, not as popular as tobacco. ‘Early snuff takers had to grind his [sic] own snuff in a grater or grinder’, Mr Bolingbroke continued.  ‘These were made of metal, wood, ivory or bone and beautifully carved or engraved. These days they are very rare.  They are not to be confused with a nutmeg grater.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, snuff was being produced commercially and its use increased hugely.  A great variety of types of snuff became available, for example Masulipatam, Grimston’s Eye and Maccaboy.  This last was produced in Martinique and the word became an expletive used on the floor of the Stock Exchange in London.

Snuff boxes became collectors’ items, and could be made of silver, steel, pressed horn, wood and ivory.  They varied in price from two pence (in pre-decimal currency) to £2,000.  A large collection is held at Strangers’ Hall, Norwich in the reserve collection. Some are of papier maché, painted with great artistic skill. Others were like miniature books and even a coffin! Richard Bullard, of the Norwich brewing family, had a snuff box with the London hallmark for 1850, presented to him on his retirement from Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in London (NRO, BR 138/3).

The energy for the commercial process to make snuff out of tobacco leaves was often a windmill.  A snuff mill was once situated on Carrow Hill, in or near the Norwich Black Tower.  According to the Records of the Norfolk Windmills Trust (NRO, C/WT/1/19/115) ‘one of the towers of the old city walls is called the snuff tower, since it was surrounded by a windmill grinding this commodity’.  In 1783 it was occupied by Walter Livingstone, snuffmaker and tobacconist of No. 52, Market Place. The mill, later used for spinning cotton, had its machinery removed in 1833 and in the same year the Black Tower was struck by lightening and destroyed.

A panoramic View of Norwich by John Ninham c.1780 shows a close-up view of the Black Tower with its windmill in the foreground.

Mr Bolingbroke notes that even in the nineteenth century there was ‘an enormous amount of tobacco smoking literature, both for and against it on health grounds.’  Snuff was not liable to cause lung cancer, but it could trigger nasal and mouth cancer. 

30-year old Ruth Bullard, from Sporle, was admitted to Norfolk County Lunatic Asylum on 25 May 1878, after becoming depressed following her mother’s death. The Case Book (NRO, SAH 267/275) states that:

She showed great preference for her own society & shunned her relatives without reason. She has continued to get gradually worse, & for the last fortnight she has been very restless & unsettled, suspicious of her friends whom she fancies are plotting against her & trying to poison her, altho’ there is apparently no ground for this idea. She is sullen & reticent, indifferent to food, & gets little or no sleep.

Over the following months Ruth received treatment. On the 20th July Thomas J Compton writes

She has lately taken to taking large quantities of snuff & she is always more irritable & quarrelsome when without this stimulant.

It seems for those that were already addicted to snuff going without it caused other issues.

Entry in the Norfolk County Asylum Case Book for Ruth Bullard. NRO, SAH 267/275

Today, snuff is available over the counter in most European tobacco shops, although the same age restrictions apply as other tobacco products. Despite its popularity decreasing over time, it is said to have made a slight comeback in England in the late 2000s when the smoking ban can into effect.

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2 Responses to Snuff in 19th Century Norfolk

  1. Alan says:

    Thank you Victoria, interesting as always.


  2. Kevin Lee says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you very much.


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