Rare BBC video uncovered that reveals a very closely-guarded secret in Sheffield

A rediscovered BBC video dating back to the 1960s looks at the secret at the heart of a long-standing Sheffield business – the Sharrow snuff mill Wilsons & Co.

Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 6:50 pm
The Sharrow Snuff Mill still owned by family firm Wilson & Co
The Sharrow Snuff Mill still owned by family firm Wilson & Co

Reporter Cathal O’Shannon investigates how the mill, which is still operating today from Snuff Mill Lane, protects the secret of its recipe for the Tonight news programme. His report was broadcast on October 19, 1964. It has been released by the BBC archive as part of a series of fascinating vintage news reports about the region.

Standing in front of an ancient door in the 18th-century building, Cathal says: “This is a room with a secret. In more than 200 years, few have ever crossed its threshold.

“In there two men are mixing a secret recipe, a recipe which has been jealously guarded by their family for at least two centuries.”

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The old gearing running from the water wheel to the grinding gear at the snuff mill

He explains that the snuff mill is one of the oldest in the country and the snuff made there is still based on an 18th-century recipe.

A circular table holds a series of bowls and wooden tobacco grinders originally powered by a water mill.

Cathal reveals the reason for the secrecy: “The whole history of snuff has been rivals trying to pinch the other man’s recipe by theft, by bribery, by sharp practice. Of course, that’s not as common as it was many, many years ago but then the habits of 200 years die very hard.

"So upstairs in that little room they still closely guard the secret of the mixtures.”

BBC reporter Cathal O'Shannon in front of the secret door that fascinated him so much

Cathal says there is another secret to the original Best SP snuff first made by the firm established in 1737 – nobody knows what the initials stand for. Cathal says SP may stand for Spanish, referring to the tobacco, Sheffield’s Pride or, most likely Sweet and Perfumed as these are key elements of snuff.

Speaking to a head of the firm, unnamed in the film but almost certainly managing director Mark Chaytor, Cathal asks whether there’s still a need to protect the recipe as products could be chemically analysed.

He is told that one of the oils used is very complex so it would be impossible to identify the snuff’s component parts from chemical analysis.

The snuff mill boss not about to share his secrets with the BBC

Mr Chaytor says the recipe isn’t written down and only two family members know it. Asked if he is worried that it could be lost, he replies with amusement: “I think it unlikely that we’d both get run over by a tram at the same time”!

Later, Cathal tries the secret door and it is quickly locked from inside.

He concludes: “No, I’m afraid we’ll never learn what goes on behind that door. But so long as we have our snuff” – he pauses to take a pinch and blinks a lot – “who really cares?”

The company may be one of the oldest family-run firms in Sheffield but it has kept up with the modern world as well as its long traditions.

These days you can order snuff and smoking accessories, including clay pipes made on site, at the company’s website, https://sharrowmills.com/, or visit their Facebook page.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor