Helsington Snuff Mill
In the 1800's the River Kent powered 5 sets of water mills within the Kendal town boundary. One of these was Helsington Laithes Snuff Mill. Used by Gawith Hoggarth for over one hundred years, it was the last working water-powered snuff mill in the country and one of the few remaining operational water driven industrial plants in the country.
The mill is situated on the south side of Kendal and there has been a complex of mills at this location since the 13th century, being used as corn mill and then following a period of dilapidation and non-use was requisitioned for polishing marble. Gawith Hoggarth took over the mill in 1887/1888 shortly after William Henry Gawith and Henry Hoggarth had set up their own tobacco and snuff company and it continued in use for grinding snuff until 1991.
The waterwheel was unusual in that it had a timber main shaft and the radial timber paddles where fixed to a cast iron framed wheel. There was also a sliding hatch to regulate the height of the incoming water so hit the wheel at the right place. The wheel was an undershot wheel, with the water from the mill race hitting the wheel at the bottom and causing it to turn anti-clockwise. This then drove large iron gear-wheels and shafts and turned the main horizontal shaft that ran along the length of the roof and powered all the belts and vertical gear shafts. The water flow could be regulated by a control handle inside the mill building, opening or closing the sluice gate. The machinery ran at a speed of around 12hp and individual pieces of plant could be disengaged from the main drive if not needed.
The main mill building was one large room housing the pestle and mortar mills, the revolving drum mills, an iron mixing pot and sieves. The large pestle and mortar mills consisted of four wooden mortars, each having a single pestle and was used to grind the coarser, damper snuffs and then there were two revolving drum mills for the fine dry snuffs. In the latter, the tobacco was ground to a fine dry powder using 28 steel balls of differing sizes which were put in the drums and would move around as the drum rotated.
The main pestle and mortar mills came from a Scottish gunpowder works and were already installed in the mill by the time William Henry Gawith took over. Its thought the plant was put in there in around 1845. The rest of the machinery came from Natland Millbeck and from Lowther Street, inherited from John Edward Gawith's enterprise.
The mill was operated by two men and it ran all year round, although there would be regular flood alerts in the winter, which could cause production to be shut down for a few days. The millers had worked in the factory for several years before being trained up to work at the mill. The last miller was Alan Powley and he started at the factory at just 14 years old in 1940 with Samuel Gawith (IV) as his boss.
The leaf would arrive from the bonded warehouse, via Lowther Street, having come from far flung countries and would go in the large wooden chests into the tobacco store and drying shed, opposite the main mill building. The tobacco leaves would be blended before being laid out to dry from the heat coming through the floor, until it was dry enough to grind. The tobacco leaves would be ground for around six to eight hours in the pestle and mortar mills, with a further seven hours required for finer blends. The revolving drum mills took around 10 hours to reduce the tobacco to a fine dust. The snuff was then transferred to a paddle mixer, where moisture, salts and essences were added before it was put through a series of sieves. There were around 8 or 9 standard snuff bases made, which were then sent to Lowther Street for blending, scenting and packaging. At one time Gawith Hoggarth & Co was producing over 60 blends of snuff.
In the 1980's due to increased demand a small 'hammer mill' was installed which was electrically driven but aside from that everything else remained powered by the waterwheel.
Prior to its closure the mill was producing around half a tonne of snuff a week. Eventually when the last miller retired in 1990, health and safety regulations meant that it was impossible to carry on using the machinery and so the mill was closed down. The river had also begun to silt up and at times it was difficult to produce enough power from the waterwheel to drive all the machinery.
Initially John Gawith had talks with various museums and historical interest groups to try and preserve the mill and the machinery, however due to funding issues and the location of the mill, nothing came of this. In 1991 a trust was set up to oversea the preservation of the mill and the machinery and planning was applied for. Eventually due to financial constraints the mill buildings were sold to Chaplows who had the other former mill on the site. Under planning conditions the snuff mill building was to be converted to retain its original features and waterwheel and the machinery was to be transferred to Staveley Mill Yard, owned by a local business man, and to be reconstructed and displayed as a working museum on the river there. However, in reality the machinery was put into storage and apparently accidentally disposed of at some point during the development of the yard into a business park. The mill buildings under went some conversions and in 2013, the main mill building was sold to a third party. The drying shed was converted into a separate dwelling.
Unfortunately the internal and external works to the main mill building were not done in accordance with listed buildings regulations and the waterwheel has been allowed to fall into ruin. The local conservation officer and South Lakeland District Council are now involved to see what can be salvaged of the old mill and waterwheel.