Clay pipes, tobacco and stuff

We’re just coming out of a second period of nationwide lockdown and therefore my mudlarking trips to the foreshore have been few and far between. But this time things didn’t feel quite as frightening or restrictive as the first lockdown last March. I’ve managed some local Thames Path walks so at least I’ve been fortunate to be near the river, out in the fresh air, and I’m enormously grateful for that.

On my last mudlarking trip to the City of London foreshore, just before the second lockdown, I found a beautiful clay pipe, the stem broken but the bowl more or less intact apart from a slight chip. Once I’d gently prised it from the mud and cleaned it up I could see it was decorated. This was a joy as decorated clay pipes are much harder to find on the Thames Foreshore these days. Whereas once they were quite plentiful, literally tens of thousands if not more have been thrown into the river as rubbish, they are now rarer. Decades of mudlarking have inevitably impacted on numbers of these objects in the river, and you also need to be on a particular part of the foreshore in order to stand a chance of finding one. Anywhere there were once wharves and warehouses where people unloaded goods from vessels and barges is a good bet.

This is only the second decorated clay pipe bowl I’ve found this year and I probably have about twelve or so in my entire collection. The older, plainer pipes are still reasonably plentiful, although more likely to be incomplete, but decorated ones not so much.

19th century decorated clay pipe bowl with fox and grapes motif – right hand side view
19th century decorated clay pipe bowl with fox and grapes motif – left hand side view

Initially I couldn’t tell exactly what the animal on the bowl was – my first thought was deer – but a fellow mudlark kindly identified it as a fox and grapes design, the fox rearing up on its hind legs in order to eat the grapes on the vine. The vulpine pointy ears, a better view visible in the photo above showing the left side of the bowl, was the clincher.

Most likely this is a Victorian tavern pipe from an actual ‘Fox and Grapes’ public house. Tavern pipes were extremely popular in the 1800s and spawned a variety of different designs, the decorated bowl advertising particular drinking establishments. A customer would usually buy the clay pipe with a pint of ale or beer, the tobacco included in the price, and would smoke it while drinking. Contrary to some thoughts that these clay pipes were smoked once and then thrown away, my own view is that people didn’t just dispose of things casually in the way we do now. Items cost money so were re-used, the clay pipe re-filled with tobacco and smoked again. Only when the pipe broke would it have been thrown away, discarded, much like cigarette stubs are today. This is probably why we see clay pipes at low tide, either the bowl on its own or with a tiny bit of stem attached. I often imagine someone from centuries past, leaning on the embankment wall, clay pipe to hand, puffing away and thinking deep thoughts about life while looking out over the Thames.

The maker’s initials – TF – can be seen on the heel of the pipe bowl. There were quite a few clay pipe makers with these initials and it took me a while to trace the likely maker. I think this ‘TF’ refers to Thomas Fitt, who lived in and ran a pipe making business at Old Ford Road, Bow, East London, during the latter part of the 1800s. A map search of Bow during this period shows a ‘Fox and Grapes’ pub on the Mile End Road, near Thomas Fitt’s clay pipe making business.

Unfortunately, like so many others, this pub has long since been demolished although there were other pubs in London also called ‘The Fox and Grapes’. There is a similar pipe to mine on display in the Gunnersbury Museum, West London, the work of another clay pipe maker called Paul Balme. This showed how popular this design of clay pipe was during this era.

Sir John Hawkins

It’s commonly thought that tobacco was first introduced to England when Sir Walter Raleigh (writer, poet, soldier, explorer and spy) brought it back from Virginia in the Americas in 1586, but it’s more likely that tobacco was probably introduced here by Sir John Hawkins, possibly as early as 1565. Hawkins was a pioneering naval commander and heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade.

Bizarrely, tobacco was initially seen as being good for one’s health. The 16th century Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes had written extensively about the benefits of tobacco and recommended it for the relief of toothache, damaged fingernails, worms, halitosis, lockjaw and even cancer.

By the late 1580s, those sailors and adventurers who had returned from their journeys abroad had started a smoking craze at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and it was even said that the Queen herself had been encouraged to take up the pipe. Whether she did or not is undocumented.

By 1660 the tobacco craze had begun to spread much further afield, popular with all classes of society, and was causing concern. King James I, who had succeeded the childless Elizabeth to the throne of England (in Scotland he was known as King James VI,) wrote a treatise called ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ in which he described smoking as a ‘custome lothesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.’

James went further and imposed an import tax on tobacco to deter smokers and make it more expensive, while the Catholic Church declared the use of tobacco to be sinful and banned it from churches. But, despite this, tobacco’s popularity had taken root and it was a difficult habit to quit.

James I’s ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’

Clay pipes are fairly easy to date when you’re lucky enough to find one while out mudlarking. The high cost of tobacco when it was first introduced in the mid to late 16th century meant that the pipe bowl itself was initially quite small, the clay pipe makers reflecting this expense in the size of the bowl, which only allowed for one smoke of what was still then a very costly product, out of the reach of all but the wealthiest in society.

A guide to the age and ID of clay pipe bowls from the earliest period – late 16th century – to the bigger decorated bowls of the Victorian era

As tobacco became cheaper this was also reflected in the size of the bowl which invariably got bigger, taller, the pipe maker teasing out a more slender shape that contrasted with the more rounded, chunky bowl of the earlier years. By the 1800s clay pipe bowls were often made with a variety of different decorations, not just tavern pipes but also designs that showed a range of crests, masonic emblems, flowers, foliage, hunting scenes and ones depicting famous historical events.

I’m hoping to return to the foreshore soon but I suspect my chances of finding another decorated clay pipe bowl anytime soon aren’t great, although I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year. In the meantime I’m more than happy with my small but precious (to me) collection of pipes found on mudlarks during the last five years.

My clay pipe collection – mostly bowls and stems but a few complete examples too

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