Clay pipe making
The making of tobacco pipes from clay, historically by press moulding but more recently also by slip casting (see also wooden pipe making).
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|16th century (c.1580-1585), although clay pipes may have been smoked before the introduction of tobacco using herbs and plant leaves from the 15th century or maybe even before.
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|5 volunteers at the Broseley Pipeworks who demonstrate pipe making
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Tobacco was first brought to England during the Tudor period, and was smoked in a clay pipe. Clay tobacco pipe making began c. 1580-1585, probably in London, and spread across the country, springing up in the main cities and towns and especially those with access to suitable clay. Over the next 250 years, almost every city and town and many villages had a clay pipe maker.
The clay pipe industry peaked c.1700, after which snuff-taking became more popular with the upper classes, but the production of clay pipes continued and peaked again in the early-nineteenth century. Until this time, only England, Holland and Germany were making clay pipes but by the 1840s, France had also become world leaders in the craft, and pipe makers also operated in America and Canada and a few other places. In the second half of the nineteenth century the larger, more prosperous firms took most of the business and so the industry became more concentrated in cities and established towns and the cottage industry died out. London, Bristol, Manchester, Broseley in Shropshire, Stockton-on-Tees, Glasgow and Portchester were centres of pipe making.
The onset of World War I brought cigarettes and with wooden pipes and cigars becoming more popular at the end of the nineteenth century only a few clay pipe makers continued into the next century. By 1960 there were only a couple of makers left in England. During the 1970s the collectors boom created an opportunity for one family firm, Pollocks of Manchester, to rekindle interest in clay pipes as collectors’ items. This family firm had operated non-stop since 1879. Alongside Pollocks others revived old tools and some created a modern rebirth of the craft using a mixture of traditional and modern techniques, bringing the craft into the twenty-first century.
However, some of these valuable people have passed away in the last few years and there are only three clay pipe makers left in the UK, none of whom are getting any younger and there is need for the craft to be taken up by younger people.
Today, the main market for clay pipes is for film and TV, reenactments, smokers and collectors.
The traditional techniques for making a clay pipe were practised from the 1580s. Clays were prepared, and blanks or ‘dummies’ were rolled. A wire was inserted along the stem and the dummy was pressed in a pre-oiled, two-part mould. A stopper is then inserted to form the bowl and the wire pushed through into the bowl. The excess clay is trimmed off and the pipe left to dry before the final trimming and firing in a kiln. The pipe stem may then be tipped with glaze or varnish.
Tudor moulds were made of carved wood, but metals such as lead, brass, bronze and iron were subsequently used. In the nineteenth century, three- or four- part moulds were used for more complicated designs such as portrait pipes, and steam-powered presses were developed. Hand-finishing of special pipes in the nineteenth century often involved skills of incorporating coloured glazes or pipe parts of other materials. The craft involved men, women and children either a family with apprentices or a larger factory employing dozens of workers.
The press method is usually seen as the most traditional, but from the mid-nineteenth century the use of slip-casting in pottery was well established. Today, due to the shortage of original tools many people use the slip-casting method in plaster moulds. The advantage of using modern materials is that you can make a wider variety of designs, whereas using original tools means you are limited to the design that was on the original mould.
Historically, the fashions of clay pipes varied from town to town in such a way that it is possible for archaeologists to date a pipe to within a few years and attribute it to a town or region. Generally the clay pipe making craft was universal in its main manufacturing methods, but pipe makers in various towns and cities produced designs for local places and traditions. Broseley in Shropshire was celebrated for making the 25-inch (63 cms) churchwarden pipe. Very few clay pipe makers now produce pipes with local design due to the lack of moulds.
Related products include dolls limbs, fairings (cheap fair pots), small bottles, pottery kiln furniture.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Clay pipe making is a very niche craft with a very limited market – although current makers are kept busy and there is still a demand for TV and film, re-enactment, smokers and collectors, and it is felt that there will always be a demand for clay pipes
- Shortage of tools: Original tools from the late-nineteenth century – such as iron and brass moulds, presses (a special vice) and gin presses (a special vice with a handle) – are virtually unobtainable. Almost of all the original tools are in museums, and when those using the original tools retire or pass away, their tools usually end up in storage or as exhibits. This means that there are very few people who are in a position to practise the craft in the traditional manner.
- Changing practises: The shortage of original tools means that very few people are in a position to practise the craft as it was once done, and have had to find new materials and methods. For example, Heather Coleman press moulds pipes in plaster moulds.
- Ageing population: None of the remaining pipe makers are getting any younger. Rex Key is in his 70s.
- Government discouragement of the smoking of tobacco have lessened the demand for clay tobacco pipes. As smoking indoors in public places is now illegal, orders from Masonic Lodges and RAOB Lodges have dwindled.
- Society for Clay Pipe Research – has world membership of researchers, archaeologists and anyone interested in the topic.
- German Society for Clay Pipe Research
- Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Broseley Pipeworks – The museum has been actively recruiting volunteers to demonstrate pipe making at the Musuem. This is intended as a way of disseminating the skills but not necessarily at a professional level. Two pipe makers, Rex Key and Oliver Meeson, share skills with the musuem and the volunteers. Following Covid, Broseley Pipe Works opened in 2021 and 2022 on a limited basis during the main summer season only, with a one day opening for Heritage Open Days in September. In 2023, the site is intended to open over the Easter weekend, then two days per week during the main summer holidays. The intention is to give all volunteer guides pipe making training, and encourage any who are interested to demonstrate pipe making as part of the guided tours of the site.
Craftspeople currently known
- Rex Key at the Broseley Pipeworks in Ironbridge Gorge, an original 19th century business owned by the Southorn Family which closed in 1964 and was boarded up but later discovered and reopened. Rex uses original tools and moulds belonging to the Southorn Family, and makes pipes as part of his living. He is now based in Stafford.
- Heather Coleman in Exeter, Devon. Heather makes pipes using modern materials for tools. She makes them as part of her living.
- David Higgins is one of the UK’s leading archaeologists in this subject and has access to original tools. He occasionally makes batches of pipes.
- Oliver Meeson – having a lifelong interest in history and a background in art, through an accidental introduction to pipe making and learning of its decline, Oliver was inspired to learn the craft of clay pipe making and thereby hopefully ensure this aspect of social history is not forgotten. Oliver makes 19th century clay tobacco pipes using traditional techniques and moulds, producing Briars, cutty’s and bubble pipes. He currently produces around 1000 pipes a year, for private sale and museums, and also demonstrates pipe making at Broseley Pipeworks.
- James Ashwell makes slip cast pipes
- Some pipe making takes place at the Nantgarw Porcelain Museum in South Wales.
Makers who are no longer producing pipes:
- Wilsons of Sharrow, snuff makers in Sheffield, have many original tools which they were using up until about two years ago but stopped. They were originally the tools from John Pollock & Co of Manchester who began in 1879 and this firm closed in the 1990’s. It is believed that Wilsons have the tools in storage at this time of writing but are not producing.
- Eric Ayto. Eric made slip cast and pressed pipes in the 1970-80 period and retired long ago.
- Stephen Illidge
- Tony Mugridge made pipes from original iron and aluminium moulds. Until recently he was making about 200-500 pipes per year mainly for the re-enactment and collectors market, as well as for dedicated traditional smokers. Tony learnt from Graham and Ivor Southorn. He is now retired.
Several of the last remaining UK clay pipe makers have passed away in recent years:
- Gordon Pollock, whose family business, John Pollock & Co. of Manchester, had been making clay pipes since 1879. The firm closed in the 1990s.
- David Cooper in Kent. David was trained by Gordon Pollock in the 1990s and made pipes using original tools.
- John Griffiths of Bewdley Pipes and Pottery in Gloucestershire. John used slip-casting methods.
There are another five craftspeople making pipes internationally:
- Ethel Kelly in Knockcroghery, Ireland. She makes one design and uses original tools.
- Sebastian Reith in Germany. He makes pipes using original family tools, and hopes to buy as many moulds as possible to keep the business going.
- Benjamin Lampe, Oberammergau, Bavaria, makes pressed pipes with moulds and know-how from Tony Mugridge.
- Arne Akerhagen in Sweden. He demonstrates clay pipe making using original tools.
- Sanctuary Traders in the USA. They make about a dozen styles by slip-casting and sell to shops in the USA.
Clay pipes not only tell the story of smoking and its evolution, but also reflect social and cultural changes. As tobacco became cheaper, the pipe bowls became bigger and the fashion of the pipes changed over the decades. They are exceedingly valuable to archaeologists and cultural historians because the designs and styles of the pipes help to date other finds, as well as revealing moments in time in our social history.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century pipes incorporate subjects such as: royalty, military events and wars, regiments, everyday life scenes, politicians, places, pubs, buildings, societies, masonics, working men’s clubs, advertising, celebrities, musicians and singers, poets, other famous people, peoples from across the world, story book characters, comedians, clowns, devils, monsters, cherubs, plants, abstract designs, and many more. There were tens of thousands of designs and the possibilities were almost endless.
It is known that in the seventeenth-twentieth centuries clay pipe makers also produced wig curlers, clay toys, whistles, shooting gallery shapes and beads, as well as pipe-clay figurines and some tiles. Clay pipes were also well known as being used in traditions such as morris dancing and other ceremonies as by the Masons, Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes etc. Another use was as a tool for blowing bubbles which was popular right up until the 1950s.
- Cambridge Archaeology Field Group (2012) Evolution of clay tobacco pipes in England
- National Clay Tobacco Pipe Archive at Liverpool University – the UK’s main archive of material and pipe making tools and archives.
- Dawnmist Studio clay pipes and clay pipe study by Heather Coleman
- Society for Clay Pipe Research
- Rex Key pipes
- Amsterdam Pipe Museum
- German Society for Clay Pipe Research
- Archaeology – Pipe Aston Project
- Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust