Leslie Geddes-brown’s necklace has a suprising history
THE necklace I’m wearing is rather strange in that it consists of five pieces of clay, each about 1½in long. They have a silver wire thrust through their hollow centres, which means they can hang on a leather bootlace. They vary in colour: at the centre is a bluey mottled one rather like marbled paper, but the others are in shades of beige and tan.
My husband thought they were part of an exotic seashell. My initial guess was an arcane artefact found in a pharaoh’s tomb. Perhaps the legs of a tiny model table for him to take into the afterlife? They certainly have that look of age about them.
Well, here’s the secret. They are bits of clay pipe, discovered by the jeweller Amelia Parker (www.amelia-parker.com) from her favourite searching grounds in the Thames, east of Tower Bridge in London. From her scavanges (what could be more Green than this recycling?), she produces a whole range of jewellery made of bits of old pipes. There are bracelets, key rings and necklaces, all using the fragments.
My necklace cost £25, which seems very fair for the work put in, from mudlarking in the river to working the silver hangers and, never forget, the original idea for the jewellery in the first place.
Unlike diamonds and pearls, there seems no shortage at all of bits of clay pipe. What is extraordinary is that there are so many pieces to be found. It seems that our smoking ancestors were constantly smashing up their pipes —too many vehement gestures round the pub table over a pot of ale or carelessly sitting on your pipe in your back pocket perhaps. Then, they just took the broken bits and tossed them into the Thames.
Tobacco arrived here in 1586, thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh. It was so surprising that, reputedly, his servant threw a pail of water over him, thinking he was on fire. Since then, a whole archaeological industry has grown around the clay pipe. The earliest were probably made in about 1570 and, says Miss Parker, by 1619, there were more than 100 pipe-making factories in Lon- don alone. Another major centre was Bristol and both of these cities were known for their elegant designs. One archaeologist adds that country folk smoked thicker versions, not caring about style.
The factories must have thought they were onto a winner: a nicotine-addicted public puffing away on fragile clay and constantly breaking it. What could possibly go wrong other than more and more competition?
Well, some cunning pipemaker realised that the pipe could be a valued item. Pipe smokers wanted something a bit more classy, something that showed they were middle—even upper —class. Thus, the briar pipe appeared and the heyday of clay-pipe smoking (about 1650– 1750) was over. All that was left were the broken shards in the Thames—and, I suppose other large rivers—and, extraordinarily, a whole lot of clay-pipe buffs. There’s even a museum dedicated to pipes.
I don’t suppose anyone today can recall seeing a clay-pipe smoker, not even a straw-covered yokel in some West Country pub. His pipe, his smock and trousers secured with twine have all disappeared as surely as Raleigh’s codpiece.
Now, the briar pipe has gone the same way. When did you last see a pipe smoker? I can remember Harold Wilson employing the inevitable puffing and tamping needed to keep the thing going when asked a difficult question on TV.
I can visualise actors such as Kenneth More champing on the stems in moments of stress at sea, but a real man actually puffing at a briar pipe?
The pipe’s days are gone as surely as the clay pipes’ days. Is another jeweller making necklaces from old briar-pipe stems?
‘All that was left were the broken shards in the Thames