Last Sunday morning found me bribing my exhausted brother with a roast chicken in return for helping me into doing a bit of DIY round the flat. My two intaglio style boxes from Pentreath & Hall had patiently sat on my card table for nearly a year waiting to be attached to the wall. Why does it take a photoshoot for House & Garden to spur me into action? I’m no stranger to a drill, but I’d suspected chunks of plaster might fly if I attempted the lumps and bumps of the hallway masonry on my own.
Closely inspecting the box filled with clay pipes, he cheekily asked if they were crack pipes. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I laughed snatching the box from him for a closer eyeball. Other spooky theories came from my Mother, who doesn’t like to stand too close to them, believing they were used at plague pits! So like most beginnings of my blog posts, I had to admit that I didn’t know either, except that they were mostly found washed up on the banks of the Thames. I love an unknown beginning starting with a google.
During the Black Death, smoking was encouraged amongst adults and children as it was thought to guard against the plague. Later on unglazed clay tobacco pipes were first smoked in 16th century England when tobacco was imported from Virginia. At first a luxury beyond the means of most except for nobility, by 1680 every city up and down the country was manufacturing clay pipes. The bowl stuffed with tobacco, fashionably grew in size, enabling the smoker a greater puff. Clay was a cheap and plentiful material, which gave an untainted pure smoke. On the downside the pipes got red hot, which gave rise to the long stemmed pipe beloved by the upper classes. These were cooler, but fragile and prone to snapping, they were the ultimate disposable accessory rather like the water bottles, tissues and contact lenses of our time.
Less cumbersome were the short stemmed pipes, used by the working classes who could smoke on the job. There were grim consequences for routine pipe clenchers; a hole whittled through the teeth in the upper and lower jaw - often seen on skulls from this time. A flirtation with snuff taking amongst the upper classes in the 18th century saw the popularity of smoking wain, it wasn’t the only time smoking was deemed bad for your health. By the 19th century the clay pipe was back, and its’ design became an art form, pipes were richly decorated with just about anything you could think of; coats of arms, heraldry, animals, mythology, celebrities of the day. I love the idea of everyday, ordinary things being elevated to be luxurious and beautiful. A world war and the availability of cigarettes put the clay pipe firmly back into retirement by the 1930s.
A quick surf of the web and it would seem I’m not the only one curious about the pipes. There’s a whole army of “Mudlarkers” who go treasure hunting at low tide round the banks of the Thames combing for relics. Favoured spots beinground St Pauls, South bank and the Millenium Bridge. Mudlarking was a recognised occupation up until the 20th century. The rule is, trinkets laying on the surface are finder’s keepers, but you shouldn’t disturb anything under rocks for example without a licence. Make sure you know your tide timetables too and preferably go with someone who has been before. If there are any Mudlarkers out there who would take me out one weekend, I’d love to have a go. Can anyone also tell me what the clay balls are for, marbles?