Clay Pipes – A Complete History

Finds in Cambridge Complete the History of Clay Pipe Manufacture

“The range of clay pipes found (in Cambridge) provides a complete history of clay pipe manufacture.”

Recent archaeology reinforces the importance of social history finds and their interesting backstories – of places and their inhabitants. Clay tobacco pipes are commonly dug up in back gardens, old rubbish dumps and municipal flower beds across the country. Apart from making interesting diversions for gardeners, they also make excellent date indicators in post-medieval archaeological sites, because their design and process of manufacture has gone through gradual yet distinctive changes over time, making them easily datable. Cambridge is an exceptional hotspot for these curiosities. Because of its location and early international trade, by both road and river, the range of clay pipes found here provides a complete history of clay pipe manufacture.

History of tobacco

Sir Walter Raleigh is often credited with introducing tobacco to Britain. But early sailors and traders first brought it to these shores in the 1550s. However, Raleigh did help popularise smoking at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. At first, tobacco was expensive and the province of the well-to-do. The Cambridge finds suggest that the ‘town’ of the sixteenth century had a population of affluent locals and newcomers, students and traders, who embraced the smoking habit at an early stage. One of the earliest pipes ever found in the country was discovered at the back of the colleges in St John’s Wilderness.

Clay pipe finds in Cambridge

Over the years, the Museum of Cambridge has accumulated a large collection of pipes of all shapes, sizes and constructions. Some are on permanent display and many others are stored behind the scenes. Although the sites of many of the finds remain unattributed, two predominant sources have been identified.

The first is the area around Barton Road. Before 20th-century building, this countryside area was covered with gravel pits that were later used to dump the town’s rubbish. The second is our very own linear rubbish pit, better known as the River Cam. This gives us a full, if jumbled, history of clay pipe manufacture, which John Clements illustrated in his 2018 exhibition of ‘Finds from the River’.

The people of Cambridge have thrown and dropped huge numbers of pipes into the Cam over the centuries. And, as the town was an important port until the arrival of the railways, the international shipping trade supplemented the supply. Many foreign pipes, particularly from Northern Europe, have found their way onto its muddy bottom.

They then fell out of favour, being replaced by wooden pipes, cigarettes and cigars.

Hugh Scott’s collection

Initial finds

In 1914-16, a collection of fifty clay tobacco pipe bowls and a clay wig curler were among the finds at the site of Bredon House on Barton Road, Cambridge. This house was built in 1914 for John Stanley Gardiner (1872-1946), Professor of Zoology, and Edith Gertrude Gardiner (nee Willcock, 1879-1953), a biochemist. They lived there with their two daughters, Nancy (1911-c.1955) and Joyce (1913-1994), until after WW2. After 1965 it became part of Wolfson College.

Around the same time, an amateur archaeologist, Hugh Scott (entomologist, biogeographer, and then curator of the Museum of Zoology), moved into a new build in Millington Road. He found a large number of clay pipes and some clay wig curlers in his garden topsoil. The boys of Littleton House gave him further finds from a nearby large plot. This was a school for mentally disadvantaged boys which was supported by the scientific instrument maker, Horace Darwin. In all, 180 pipes, from 1.25 acres, formed Scott’s collection.

Cambridge Antiquarian Society

In 1916, Scott combined both sets of findings in a paper to the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. This was published the following year in Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society Volume 20 (1917). Catherine Parsons, one of the founders of the Cambridge Folk Museum, now the Museum of Cambridge, was on the society’s committee at that time. She was a prolific collector, writer and contributor to the society and to the museum. In 1937 she donated 143 of the objects from her collection of Cambridgeshire ‘bygones’. However, as far as we know there were no clay pipes!

Clay Pipes – A Complete History

In his paper, Scott seems to confirm that the sites at which the pipes were found were refuse dumps. Certainly other finds, including teeth of domestic animals, supported his premise. The majority of the pipes were also in poor condition.

The rich often considered pipes as objects of single use. It was also considered bad luck to throw away an unbroken pipe: the poor would smoke until their pipes fell apart or the stems were blocked. Often, people would shorten the pipe stems to make them useable for longer.

Pipe bowls

Because of the high price of tobacco, pipe bowls in the ‘early’ phase of smoking (1580-1660) were small and well-made. As the price of tobacco dropped, the bowls increased in size and quality deteriorated. In addition, the pipes developed large heavy stems and bowls. However, over time, manufacturing processes continued to improve while tobacco became cheaper. By the late 18th century, manufacturers were producing novelty bowls, complete with moulded designs of popular celebrities and politicians, commemorative events, and advertising wording. The artistic pipes reached their peak by the latter half of the 19th century. They then fell out of favour, being replaced by wooden pipes, cigarettes and cigars.

Clay Pipes – A Complete History

Origins of the collection

Scott assessed the possible age of his collections, together with their origins and possible makers. He concluded that the majority of his pipes were 17th century. The two collections (Bredon House and Millington Road) form an interesting series to illustrate the change in shape of the pipe bowl and heel over time. The photographs here show 16 of them.

Scott suggests that pipes 1-4 can be attributed to the late 16th or early part of the 17th century. A pipe much like number 7 was found in an old house in Crooked Lane, London, after the Great Fire of 1666. Pipes 8-10 show an enlargement of the bowl, which indicates a likely later date. Interestingly, the pronounced heel shapes of pipes 5 and 6 match those belonging to people who died of the plague in London in 1665, when smoking was much practised as a means of warding off infection. Some scholars suggest that these might be Dutch in origin. Certainly pipes attributed to the Dutch have been found in Cambridge.

Clay Pipes – A Complete History

Only two of Scott’s collection (pipes 3 and 11) bear a maker’s mark. He only managed to identify one local maker, Pawson. He was connected with 11, Sidney Street in Cambridge. Pipes 11-13 show further evolution of form and are characterised by big, flat heels. Several of this transitional type were discovered at St John’s College in 1881 and were attributed to the early part of Charles II’s reign. Pipe 14 is of the Dutch type associated with William and Mary c.1690s. Pipes 15 and 16 belong to the 18th century.

Clay Pipes – A Complete History

‘Finds from the River’ exhibit

The photograph below illustrates John with the exhibit ‘Finds from the River’ of 2018. The three boards show the pipes, most of which were found in the Cam when it had been drained. There are small bowls from around 1600-1680 and larger ones from 1680 to the mid-eighteenth century. There is also a mixed collection from the 18th century to the end of the Victorian era.

Next time the river level is lowered for building or bank work, or if you see a freshly dug flower bed, go and have a rummage. You never know what you may find.

Clay Pipes – a complete history of early smoking through clay pipes found all around Cambridge and preserved in The Museum of Cambridge.

Clay Pipes – A Complete History

Images copyright Peter Nixon.

WORDS Museum of Cambridge

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