Detail of a clay pipe decorated to promote the abolition of the slave trade.
An early-19th century pipe depicting an enslaved man in chains on the left-hand side and a personification of liberty on the right. This example has the initials WS on the heel, which identify the maker as William Smith of Lincoln. © David Higgins
An early-19th century pipe depicting an enslaved man in chains on the left-hand side and a personification of liberty on the right. This example has the initials WS on the heel, which identify the maker as William Smith of Lincoln. © David Higgins

The National Pipe Archive

Digital resources and guidance notes made available online.

For more than 40 years the University of Liverpool has been the focal point for clay tobacco pipe research in this country and, since 1993, it has housed the National Pipe Archive. The Archive was set up in response to the loss of several important artefactual collections for want of a dedicated home and to provide a focal point for bringing together and curating specialist literature, research notes and study material.  The Archive now holds an unparalleled collection that offers a unique resource for archaeologists and historians.  

A Historic England funded digitisation project was designed to make some of the key elements available online and to promote best practice by drawing up new guidelines for the recovery, processing and identification of tobacco pipes from archaeological projects.

Why study pipes?

Following the Second World War there was a growing realisation that evidence for our recent past was being swept away without any record.  

It also became evident that archaeological techniques could be applied to more recent sites with clay tobacco pipes becoming the ‘type fossil’ for the Post-Medieval period.  Not only were they ubiquitous and used at all levels of society but they were also very short lived and could be accurately dated and sourced.  

Although there had been several previous studies, it was Adrian Oswald while at the Guildhall Museum (and later a curator at Birmingham Museum) and David Atkinson, a London headmaster and amateur archaeologist, that laid the foundations for systematic modern pipe research.  They dominated the field from the 1950s until the 1970s, establishing regional and national bowl form typologies, compiling lists of makers and publishing numerous papers on the subject.  As a result of their work, clay pipes have become perhaps the most useful tool for dating and interpreting archaeological deposits dating from the late sixteenth century onwards.

With the continued growth of interest in all facets of our recent archaeological past (historical, industrial, colonial, military, etc.), pipes have retained their importance as a key artefact type.   As well as providing an accurate dating tool, their decoration can also allow broader social interpretation.  Allegiance to the crown could be demonstrated during the seventeenth century by pipes featuring the king while late eighteenth ideals were embodied in the Masonic pipes of that period.  Similarly, the abolitionist movement of the early nineteenth century resulted in anti-slavery pipes.

Even one-off events could be commemorated, such as examples featuring Cann and Polkinhorn, who were famous wrestlers from Devon and Cornwall.  They met in front of crowds numbering up to 7,000 during the 1820s and were immortalised on specially produced pipes (Higgins 2003, 76-77).

Other characteristics can be directly related to the social conditions at the time or places where pipes are found.  Work at the military prison at Fort Clarence in Kent recovered fragments from pipes that had been broken and then carefully modified for reuse, revealing the hardships of being a prisoner with a shortage of fresh supplies (Higgins 2002).

On other occasions it may have been too many pipes that was the problem.  A recent Historic England project looking at finds from the 1665 wreck of the London, which blew up in the Thames estuary, has found large numbers of smoked pipes from the gun decks.  There were strict Admiralty regulations about smoking on ships, but does the evidence suggest that these were not properly applied; was it smoking near the gunpowder that led to the loss of this ship and over 300 lives?

The Archive

After nearly a quarter of a century Liverpool has remained the centre for research in this field and the Archive has grown to become a unique resource that holds an unparalleled range of material relating to the pipemaking industry.

At its most basic level the Archive’s holdings can be divided into paper and artefactual material. The paper archive includes primary unpublished notes and company records as well as printed books and articles.  Where possible, notes, photos and offprints are filed on a geographical basis by country, county and then site. Each site file is accessioned and any printed works added to a bibliography of the Archive’s holdings.

Larger paper archives, such as Adrian Oswald’s original notes, excavation records or the company paperwork from Pollock’s, the last commercial pipemaking firm, are accessioned and stored separately, as are books. The artefactual record comprises both the results of formal excavations, such as those on pipe kiln sites from Lincolnshire and Herefordshire, as well as fieldwalking and other pipe collections. Regional groups of seventeenth and eighteenth century pipes from across England are well represented as are collections of decorative nineteenth-century bowls.

The Archive has a publicly accessible display in the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the university, but the majority of its holdings are in reserve collections, which are available by appointment.  In order to make key elements of the reserve collections more accessible, Historic England funded a digitisation project. The project’s  principal aim was to provide a ‘one stop shop’ where the most useful resources for identifying pipes could be made available for other researchers, together with guidelines for dealing with pipes archaeologically.  

Online resources

The digitisation project has scanned more than 2,700 pages of information, most of which have already been made available online via the Archive’s website. The main emphasis was on making available regional and national bowl form typologies and lists of makers’ names so as to allow other researchers to date and identify their pipes.  

To aid finding relevant material, an interactive map was devised with links through to lists of the available resources for each particular area. These resource lists provide direct access to relevant typologies and makers’ lists as well as to a bibliography of other published works held by the Archive for that area.

As well as making key published works available, the project also aimed to raise awareness of the range and nature of the Archive’s other holdings. The bulk of the holdings have been acquired from individual researchers and these collections often contain a particular range or type of research material depending on the original researcher’s location and specific interests.

A series of summaries has been prepared to provide an overview of principal collections acquired by the Archive, together with scanned samples from some of the key resources that they contain. David Atkinson, for example, focussed his research on pipes and pipemakers from London, Shropshire and central/southern England. He amassed important reference collections of pipes from these areas and compiled 17 notebooks containing drawings and notes on the bowl forms and makers’ marks. An overview of the David Atkinson collection contains links to digital scans of his original notebooks.

Similarly, Adrian Oswald compiled a massive index of all the maker’s marks that he has encountered.  His sketches of these were very poor, but they often refer back to the published examples and provide a key resource for identifying marks and finding parallels for them. It has not been possible to digitise the entire set within the confines of this project, but a sample has been made available so that other researchers know that this resource exists, accessible primarily via the interactive map.

Pipe guidelines

The second principal component of the project was to produce new guidelines for dealing with pipes from archaeological projects.  These cover everything from project planning and fieldwork to cleaning and illustrating pipes.  In particular, there are sections giving step-by-step guidance on dating, identifying and recording pipes with a view to enabling others to undertake some of this work themselves. There are also sections on report writing and curating pipes as well as a glossary of specialist terms.  This information has been set out as a series of ‘How to ...’ pages to take people to the relevant section as well as a complete downloadable pdf for those wishing to file or print the full guidelines.

This project has been designed to promote best practice in the subject as well as making available the key resources needed for others to undertake work in this field.  It has collated these resources on a county-by-county basis and highlighted some of the Archive’s other holdings that are available for researchers.  The new guidelines provide an overview of the subject as well an access point for anyone who has to deal with pipes on an archaeological project. It is hoped that the results of this digitisation project will not only see a raising of existing standards but also encourage new practitioners to work in this field.

About the author

Name and role

Dr David Higgins

Title and organisation
Honorary Research Fellow at University of Liverpool, and freelance clay tobacco pipe specialist
David is a professional archaeologist with a particular research interest in the recording, analysis and interpretation of clay tobacco pipes. He studied archaeology at the University of Leicester and worked as a finds manager before becoming senior archaeologist for the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust. He has since directed the Field Archaeology Unit at the University of Liverpool and worked on archaeological projects in Britain, Europe, the Middle East and Central America but now spends most of his time preparing specialist pipe reports for a range of different archaeological organisations in this country. He is Chairman of the Society for Clay Pipe Research, Chairman of the National Pipe Archive and General Secretary of the Académie Internationale de la Pipe.

Further reading

Atkinson D. & Oswald A., 1969, 'London Clay Tobacco Pipes', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Third Series, XXXII, 171-227

Higgins D A, 2002, ‘Clay Tobacco Pipes from Clarence Tower’ in P Pattison, Fort Clarence, Rochester, Kent: Napoleonic Gun Tower and Defensive Line, English Heritage (Archaeological Investigation Series 40/2002), 62-70 (83pp)

Higgins D A, 2003, ‘Tobacco Pipes from Excavations at Dung Quay, Plymouth’ in P. Stead ‘Excavation of the Medieval and Later Waterfront at Dung Quay, Plymouth’, Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society, 61, 63-95 (21-133)

Oswald, A., 1975, Clay Pipes for the Archaeologist, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 14, Oxford, 207pp

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