Object histories from my garden #8 – Pieces of 19th century clay tobacco pipe

A photograph of the collection of clay pipe pieces from the garden

Clay pipes are ubiquitous in Britain.  The small collection from my garden, extracted from all over the garden over several months, is meagre but the fact that those bits were there at all is still interesting.  Like willow pattern ceramics, I would be very surprised if there are not clay pipe pieces scattered in almost every garden in Churton, Aldford, Farndon and Holt.

The ones found in my garden are shown in the photo on the left.  I suspect that we missed quite a lot when we first started digging out old beds and introducing new beds.  The stem fragments, which survive better than the more fragile pipe bowls (see diagram below right for terminology), are far easier to spot on a river bank where they have been washed back to their original white, than in gardens.  In fields and gardens, they are earth-encrusted and the broken pieces of shaft look almost no different from short pieces of twig.  After I spotted a broken pipe bowl in the garden, I realized that they were there to be found and started looking for them.  Several more emerged, all pieces of stem, one including a mouthpiece.  Most of the rest of the photos in this post are taken from elsewhere to illustrate the points made in the text.  I found the Thames foreshore examples shown below when I lived in London.

Clay pipe terminology by D.A. Higgins. Source: National Pipe Archive http://www.pipearchive.co.uk/howto/date.html

A clay pipe consists of a long tube of white clay, which makes up the shaft, finishing in a bowl, which often has a small heel (also known as a  spur) to keep it upright when placed on a table.  As clay pipes were prone to snapping and could be easily replaced, their remains are littered throughout the country, turning up in fields, gardens, rivers and on building sites.  When I lived in London I found many decorated pieces on the Thames foreshore, including two complete short pipes, but all of the bits I’ve found in the garden have been completely unmarked by either decoration or manufacturers’ marks.

Clay pipes first started being produced at the end of the 16th century, in the wake of Walter Raleigh’s introduction of tobacco as a luxury item from Virginia.  Although tobacco was new in English society, it had been adopted on ships and was known in many parts of western Europe.  Its rapid success after Walter Raleigh introduced it was due to his launch of it into the upper echelons of society. Much the same happened with Chinese tea in the late 17th Century.  The Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders was granted a charter by King James I in 1619 and although a duty on the sale of tobacco pipes imposed between 1695 and 1699 appears to have lead to a hiatus in clay pipe manufacturing, this did not prevent its success spreading.  It rapidly found its way from the wealthiest to less privileged households.

Decorated bowl from the Thames foreshore

The pipe making industry had spread throughout England by the end of the 17th Century, when there were very few towns without at least one pipe maker, and there were over 1000 clay pipe makers in London alone.   As prices of tobacco fell and consumption expanded, the size of the pipe bowl increased.  There was another hiatus in pipe manufacturing around in the 18th Century, this time due to interruption of tobacco imports during the American War of Independence.  They came back into fashion in the 19th Century, when all sorts of decorations were applied, some of them real works of art.  These more rarefied pipes became more collectable and less disposable, although plain, unmarked pipes still dominated in the less wealthy echelons of society.  For many more examples of the sort of decoration that was fairly common, see the What The Victorians Threw Away website.

Makers’ marks. The two at the top are a single stem, with the name H. Dudnam from Plumstead clearly shown. At the bottom is a maker’s mark, EW, on the heel of a clay pipe bowl. All found on the Thames foreshore.

Some pipes were marked with the maker’s stamp, either on the shaft or on the base of the heel, enabling the manufacturer to be identified and a date to be assigned.  Some manufacturers became particularly popular, their names a guarantee of quality, and their pipes were priced accordingly. Pipe-making dynasties sometimes emerged, with the skills being passed from one generation to another.  There’s more about pipe marking on the National Pipe Archive website.

Longer pipes were more expensive than shorter pipes, because they more were difficult to make, and used more clay, although the shorter types were more practical, were easier to smoke without holding up, and were less prone to breakage.  However, longer pipes were preferred by connoisseurs as they cooled the smoke as it travelled from the bowl.  Other factors that commanded a higher price include the above-mentioned decorative embellishments, which became particularly popular during the 19th Century.  Some very special ones had elaborate sculptural elements, but are very unlikely to be found in agricultural village gardens.  A far greater number are unmarked in any way and are found everywhere, rural and urban.  Of course, where only small pieces are found, it is entirely possible that a different portion of the same shaft would have been marked and its bowl decorated; there is no way of knowing.

Clay pipes began to be replaced by wooden ones in the early 20th Century, and all were largely replaced by cigarettes in the mid 20th Century.

Clay pipes were made in moulds, although they had to be pierced with a long metal rod before being fired.  Any decoration or manufacturer mark was incorporated into the mould.  The mould seam can usually be seen on the pipe’s underside and the front and back of the bowl.  Often, the seam is disguised by being incorporated into a decorative motif, as shown in the thorn pipe photograph below where the seam becomes the stem of a plant and is flanked by leaves (click to expand to see the decoration on the bowl).

A short pipe that has little decorative bumps on the bowl and stem called “thorns” (pipes featuring this are referred to as thorn pipes).  This one also has a button mouth piece and decorative leaf motifs along the mould seam at the front of the bowl.  Found on the Thames foreshore.

The pipes were then left to dry before being fired in a kiln.  Before being shipped, the mouth piece, the very end of which was often defined by an additional ring of clay, was painted with red or, less usually, yellow wax to prevent the smoker’s lips sticking to the clay.  The wax, which presumably wore off quite quickly, didn’t do much to prevent damage to the teeth.  Habitual pipe-smoking led to damage to the teeth, as well as the lungs.  A Museum of London study of skeletal remains excavated from a Victorian cemetery in Whitechapel found that in many cases teeth had been worn down by pipe-smoking, with some having a circular hole when the jaws were closed, formed in two or four teeth.

The oldest objects to emerge from the garden so far have been later 19th Century, and that seems a probable date for these pieces too.  It is impossible to extrapolate from a single pipe bowl, but that one example is so simple and basic, that it was not something that would have been singled out by someone wealthy.  This was an everyday item, nothing special, like a lot of the decorated ceramics and embossed glass found in this garden.

Piece of a bowl with spur, and piece of a stem with button mouthpiece. From my garden in Churton

Having found many really fascinating examples on the Thames foreshore, the small crop of unmarked clay pipe remains from my garden seem a little underwhelming by comparison, but the pipe pieces tell a more localized story of their own.  Without a maker’s mark to work with, there’s not a lot to be said about these specific examples, and that’s rather frustrating because there has been a lot of great research that has helped to develop clay pipes as archaeological tools to understand the pipe-making industry, the tobacco industry, and how both shed light on economic and social history over the centuries of their usage.  Even simple questions of source and distribution are unanswerable when the maker cannot be identified.  On the other hand, these pieces fit in with the general theme of the 19th century objects from my garden, which all of which are nicely made and look good, are robustly made and standardized, and fairly low cost.  Still, they were nice-to-have, not must-have items and suggest that the people who lived in the house were sufficiently well off to indulge themselves from time to time.

Broseley Clay Tobacco Pipe Museum. Source: Visit Bridgnorth

I initially thought that at least some of the pipes from which the pieces came could have been made in Chester, where there were multiple pipe-makers, some of them producing pipes of very high quality that were in demand both within and outside the immediate area.  Many were exported in great volume up until the 18th Century.  An example is the clay pipe works where the Roman Gardens now stand, with the kilns lined up along the side of the city walls.  It turns out, however, that by the early 19th Century the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes in Chester had collapsed.  The main source of clay pipes in the general area in the 19th Century was Broseley in Shropshire, a few miles to the south of Telford, which had been producing clay pipes since the 18th Century.  The Broseley Pipeworks, for example, was established late in pipe-making history, in 1881, and only closed in 1957, now a small museum.  Realistically, unless I find something more diagnostic, there’s no way of knowing where these odds and ends originally came from.

If you are in the Churton, Aldford, Farndon and Holt general area, and you have found clay pipe remains in your garden, especially if there are any type of markings at all, it would be great to hear from you.

For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page


Books and papers

Another photographs of Churton clay pipes from my garden

Ayto, E.G. 1994 (3rd edition). Clay Tobacco Pipes.  Shire Publications

Cessford, C. 2001.  The archaeology of the clay pipe and the study of smoking.  Assemblage,  Issue 6, August 2001

Dagnall, R.  1987.  Chester Pipes in Rainford. Society of Clay Pipe Research, Newsletter no.15, July 1987, p.10-12

Davey, P. 1985. Clay pipes from Norton Priory, Cheshire. In (ed. Davey, P.) The Archaeology of the Clay Tobacco Pipe IX. More Pipes from the Midlands and Southern England British Archaeological Reports British Series 146i and ii. p.157-236.

Nevell, M.D. 2015.  The industrial archaeology of Cheshire: an overview. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, 85 (IV), p.39-82

Pearce, J. 2007.  Living in Victorian London: The Clay Pipe Evidence.
Part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded study ‘Living in Victorian London: Material Histories of Everyday Life in the Nineteenth-Century Metropolis’ Award Number AH/E002285/1 led by Dr Alastair Owens in the Department of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London

Sandy, J. 2019.  Clay Pipe Making: The Victorian Way. Beachcombing Magazine, volume 11, March/April 2019

Victoria County History 2003.  Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: The economy, 1762-1840, the demise of old Chester. A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003, p.172-177.


Victorian smokers had rotten teeth to match lungs


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