IT’S a family-run firm with a nose for success – and this anniversary is not to be sniffed at.
Wilsons Of Sharrow, the world’s oldest snuff-making mill, will this week celebrates its 275th birthday.
For almost three centuries workers here have produced tobacco-based-powder – which is inhaled through the nostril – to send to users across the globe. Today, it is one of only four such plants left in the UK.
“Let me guess your headline,” says owner Jeremy Archdale, the eighth generation of his family to run the mill, set in a rural idyll off Ecclesall Road. “Our achievements can’t be sneezed at?”
And the sentiment is certainly right.
Because even in double-dip UK, this snuff is the stuff of success. Last year alone the 10-staff company sold some 50 tonnes in more than 60 flavours – including bubblegum, Irish coffee and the legendary Sheffield Pride 100 – to users as far away as Japan, New Zealand and the US.
“We find we tend to do quite well during recessions, actually,” says Jeremy, who started at the firm in 1965. “Recessions and world wars.”
Some history then?
Wilsons – official name Wilsons and Co (Sharrow) Ltd – was founded by one-time Master Cutler Thomas Wilson as a silver-plating firm in 1737.
The giant water wheel which powered it then still works today. “We switch it on once a month to make sure it’s still going,” says mill manager Dave Atkin.
But Thomas’s son Joseph – himself a renowned metaller – grew increasingly restless with the business.
“They say at some point he stumbled on a secret snuff recipe and decided to use the mill to produce it,” says Dave. “It was a bitter business in those days. There are tales of rivals trying to steal his recipes by using spies. Even today, we keep the recipes under lock and key.”
Those rivals never managed to snuff out Wilsons snuff, though.
The company thrived through the 19th century – various tins and jars from the period still litter the mill – and eventually came to be one of the popular global brands. Introducing those different flavours, as well as new textures and packaging, has ensured it remains so.
“Why have we been so successful?” shrugs Dave, who has been with the company 15 years. “I don’t know. There have been some health issues around snuff – although it’s obviously not on the same scale as smoking tobacco – but it provides pleasure.
“For some reason there’s an idea it’s an old man’s hobby but in Switzerland, which is one of our biggest markets, the average age for taking snuff is 24. And since the smoking ban young people are taking it in pubs here.”
No-one knows the company’s exact anniversary date but a party for customers and suppliers is being held on Friday.
And, now, what next at 275-years-old? To remain successful, it seems. And, just as significantly, to remain a family firm.
Jeremy again: “That is important to us,” he says. “We’re winning but we’re winning the way we want.”