News | Published September 14 2018

Snuff Said 

Alongside the doorkeeper’s entrance to the House of Commons is a wooden box, adorned with a metal plate listing the names of every doorkeeper who has held the post for the last seventy years. Inside lies a large quantity of snuff, the smokeless tobacco that is sniffed or snorted, providing a direct nicotine hit and a lasting scent. Far from being purely decorative, this box serves a vital purpose in the political process of the country: providing each MP with an unlimited, on demand supply of the snortable tobacco. 

Smoking has been prohibited in the Commons chamber, public and member’s lobbies and the committee rooms since 1693. Erskine May’s A Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, published in 1884, outlines the ruling: “no member do presume to take tobacco in the gallery of the House or at a committee table”. To appease the sitting MPs and their smoking habits, snuff became the only form of tobacco permissible to consume in the chamber. 

Key Facts
  • Smoking has been prohibited in the Commons chamber since 1693.
  • The responsibility for replenishing the snuff box falls to the doorkeeper.
  • The box is constructed from reclaimed wood, taken from the frame of the old chamber door which was destroyed in 1941.
The last record of an MP dipping into the box dates back to 1989, when 1.5 oz of snuff was consumed at the cost of 99p.

In more recent times, the importance of the box has waned. Few sitting MPs exercise their snuff privileges but the box, and its contents, remain. Attention was drawn back to its existence in 2012, when Caroline Lucas seized upon it as an emblem of archaic practice within Parliament. Lucas called for MPs to deliver the Commons out of the “snuff age and into the 21st century”. Following this, Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham, Rehman Chishti, produced a request to Parliamentary authorities, inquiring about the levels of snuff consumption within Westminster. The response came back swiftly but ambiguously: no records of usage or cost are kept. The last record of an MP dipping into the box dates back to 1989, when 1.5 oz of snuff was consumed at the cost of 99p.

Not everyone is against its place in the chamber, however, and former principal doorkeeper Robin Fell, who is in charge of the box and the distribution of its contents, described his responsibility as a “great privilege.” The cost of keeping the supply topped up also falls on the doorkeeper, although this does not seem to cause too heavy of a financial burden. Mr Fell told the BBC’s Simon Francis in a 2013 interview that thus far into his stewardship there has been no need to visit the tobacconist: “it's not a serious drain on my emoluments, because when I took over the job, my predecessor left me with a nice supply of snuff and I haven't had to replenish it yet.”

The box itself is imbued with Parliamentary significance. It was constructed from wood salvaged from the frame of the old chamber door, which was destroyed by a German bomb in 1941. Its very existence is inherently tied to its place in Parliament: offering free tobacco samples is illegal throughout the rest of the country, a law that is only avoided because of Parliament’s immunity as a royal palace. Members are able to choose from a selection of different tobacco types, ranging from milder versions to what Mr Fell described as “weapons grade” snuff.