Skip to Content.

Kent Archaeological Review extract

Clay Pipes and the Archaeologist.
by Ernest Tilley.

"Surely in my opinion there cannot be a more base, and yet hurtfull corruption in a country, than is the vile use (or rather abuse) of taking Tobacco in this Kingdome. A custome lothesome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmfull to the braine, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomless." So wrote James I in 1604 in his 'Counterblaste to Tobacco,' but then he was no archaeologist. He had never found a clay pipe bowl in the debris of a robbed Roman wall (it happened at Springhead) or in the filling of a pit cut into a prehistoric earthwork and wondered when the dark deed had been done.

Over the last twenty years the study and dating of clay pipes has become of increasing value as an aid to the dating of post-medieval sites and later intrusions into earlier sites. They can be separated into fairly closely dateable groups based on the type and shape of the bowl, and by the diameter of the hole through the stem-generally, the larger the hole, the earlier the pipe. They did not have a very long life; one 17th century writer states that he purchased about 1,000 clay pipes in five years, showing how quickly they were broken and why so many pieces are found.

The first mention of tobacco is in about 1565, "little ladells' for taking in the smoke are noted in about 1573, and pipes made of clay are recorded in 1593 although undoubtedly they were in use earlier. Very little is known of the pipemaking industry in the 16th century and it is a difficult job to trace makers for the first half of the 17th century. From about 1650 records become better and for the 18th century most of the manufacturers are known. In the latter half of the 19th century the number of makers fell drastically due to the competition of the briar-pipe and the cigarette, and by the end of the century the craft was practically extinct.

Because of the high price of tobacco, the early pipes were very small, the bowls mostly being less than an inch high. They leant well forward and the base was usually flattened at the junction of the bowl and stem. A complete pipe of this type in the Guildhall Museum has an overall length of 21 inches. The smoke was expelled, not from the mouth, but from the nostrils, so as to reap the full narcotic benefit of the expensive herb.

Throughout the late 16th century and the first half of the 17th century bowls remained small and were followed by larger varieties of similar shapes. These early pipes had flat heels under the bowls, the majority of which were unmarked, but occasionally this area was stamped with the initials or rebus of the maker. Published lists of these can often help to give a tighter dating to a particular type.

As tobacco became cheaper towards the middle of the 17th century, larger and more bulbous bowls came into favour. These had a stepped or spurred foot and were often pinched in and rouletted below the lip. As the century proceeded these pipes developed symmetrical curves to the front and rear of the bowls and had waists below the lip and at the junction of the stem. These later disappeared and the bowls tended to become straighter and more or less cylindrical in shape, getting longer and narrower as time went on.

As the century drew to a close a major change occurred in the shape of the howls. The tops became parallel with the stem instead of leaning forward, and a spur replaced the flat heel. These spurs were now more frequently marked with the maker's initials. Held with the bowl pointing away from the body the initial of his Christian name is often found on the left and that of his surname on the right. Varieties of this shape lasted throughout most of the 18th century, the later ones being smaller and thinner walled than those made at the beginning of the century. The stem also decreased in thickness as the century wore on. About this time elaborately decorated bowls began to appear, a fashion that lasted right through into the present century.

From the beginning of the 19th century bowls tended to get smaller, stems becoming shorter and decoration more prolific. Masonic emblems, public house signs, political motifs, royal arms, sports, regimental badges, in fact every conceivable design was being used. By the middle of the century the clay pipe was beginning to lose favour, ousted by the more robust and longer-lasting briar. The number of makers fell, pipes lost their individuality and became mere copies of the briar.

Some useful publications on the dating of clay pipes have appeared in recent years. The easiest to obtain is that by Adrian Oswald, The Archaeology and Economic History of English Clay Tobacco Pipes, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, XXIII (1960), reprinted as an off-print in 1967. Also David Atkinson and Adrian Oswald, London Clay Tobacco Pipes, Journal of the B.A.A., XXXII (1969), also issued as a reprint. Oswald in The Evolution and Chronology of English Clay Tobacco Pipes in the Archaeological News Letter (September 1961, Volume 7, Number 3) gives a well illustrated series of dated types. All of these publications have been freely drawn upon to compile these very brief notes.

DRAWING: Pipes found at Gravesend.

Drawing Caption: Pipes found at Gravesend. (Drawn by John Shepherd.)

The pipes illustrated are a selection from the hundreds found in recent years in and around Gravesend, either during excavations or "mud-larking" on the river Thames foreshore. They are all from the collections of Messrs V Smith, F Turner, S Caiger, E Tilley and Gravesend Museum and were drawn by John Shepherd.

Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are common types of the first half of the 17th century. They are all unmarked, and whereas the earlier types had flat bases, the stepped or spurred foot has now been developed. There is generally a rouletted or plain groove below the lip. circa 1610-1660.

Number 4 is a later development, being more bulbous and of increased size. Six of this type have been found on the foreshore, all unmarked. A date between 1640 and 1680 is usually given to this type.

Number 5 is of the same period. It is larger and has a pronounced inward curve of the front of the bowl leaving the upper part protruding well forward.

Number 6 is a new type with straighter sides; the bulbous bowl having been abandoned. A dozen or more of these have been found locally, none of them being marked. A date between 1670 and 1710 can safely be assigned to them.

Number 7. A similar date can be given to this pipe found at Shorne. It is squat, straight-sided and with a fairly wide bowl. The foot-stand is level with the base of the stem.

Number 8 has a thin-walled circular bowl, the lip of which slopes down. The spur, which projects downwards, is marked I H possibly Jonathan Hill, a pipe-maker of Gravesend who was made a freeman of the town in May 1722. This ties up with a mid-century dating for this type.

Number 9. A long narrow bowl with a slight inward curve on the back below the lip. This pipe is marked I M on the top of the stem. Oswald dates the type to between 1680 and 1720.

Number 10 has a thin-walled, circular bowl, slightly curved at the rear. The lip and stem are parallel. Only one has been found in Gravesend and this is unmarked. A date circa 1680-1720 is probable for this also.

Number 11. Numbers of this type have been found, but unfortunately none of them were marked. The bowl is long and circular with the front and back slightly curved. It is of a similar date to Number 10.

Number 12. This type is very numerous in the Gravesend area, more than fifty having been found in the last few years. It is a common standard type in the southeast for the 18th century and had a long life. Bowl sizes varied; the early ones were long and narrow, while towards the end of the century the thickness of the bowls and stems decreased. Nearly all have the makers' marks, identified ones being:

Number 13 is a typical early 19th century plain form with a thin brittle bowl and a flat based spur. Many of this type are marked. No makers of this type have been identified in Gravesend.

Number 14. Fluted bowl with oak leaves down the front and rear by Joseph Sloper of Gravesend, circa 1840-1870. Similar, but less ornate pipes were made by John Bishop and C Yonwin of Gravesend, and Thomas Pascall and William Sandy of Dartford. Many other initials have been found on similar pipes and it seems clear that the different makers obtained their moulds from the same manufacturer.

Number 15 is a late 19th century pipe. Influenced by the meerschaum, the shape of the pipe itself became decorative. Pipes were fashioned in the likenesses of many famous people, but as this one is badly water-worn, having been found on the foreshore, it is difficult to decide whom it is meant to represent.

Although the pipes illustrated here are all finds from the Gravesend area, the dating will be the same for similar forms found elsewhere.

Close Window
Accessed this page via search engine or bookmark? Full K A R Index here.