Clay Tobacco Pipes

My son and I really enjoy beach-combing. We have spent hours at a time on beaches finding stones, shells, old pottery, worn glass… We have several carrier bags full of stuff we’ve found on beaches. One day, we’ll do something with it all.

One of our very favourite places to go is the beach along the Thames, so when my mother was here last week, we went on another expedition.

After forbidding him to take home a cow femur he found and deciding that we already have loads of pre-Fire of London roof tiles, I said that we should concentrate purely on finding clay pipes. From the the 17th century in London, people would use clay pipes to smoke tobacco in the same way as people smoke cigarettes today. The pipes were ‘disposable’, bought mainly for one use only, then tossed away. Seemingly, they threw most of them into the Thames because in certain places the beach is littered with them.

Finding the stems of clay tobacco pipes is incredibly easy as their linear, smooth shape makes them stand out against the stones.

Clay Pipe Stems

After we found about 30 stems of varying size and quality, I told him we should now just concentrate on finding the pipe bowls or fragments of bowls. This is much harder to do, mainly because they are more delicate and easily crushed, but we found some pretty good ones.

Clay Pipe Bowls

The rarest is finding an intact pipe bowl still connected to the pipe. We’ve only found two before. My son was lucky this time. He first found a nice, plain one.

Clay Pipe London

Then he found the very first decorated one we’ve ever seen. Though it’s a bit worn, it’s rather remarkable. Make sure to look at the big versions of the photos so you can see the detail.

Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl
Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl
Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl
Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl

Then that was it. We continued looking and found the odd bowl fragment or stem, but no relatively intact pipes. We even moved locations. Still nothing. I was in the middle of saying, ‘Well, I don’t think we’re going to find anything better than that one.’ When I looked down and saw a little face staring up at me. She doesn’t have a stem connected, but isn’t she beautiful?!

Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl
Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl
Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl
Clay Pipe London- decorated bowl

I don’t know enough about clay tobacco pipes to know when any of these were made, but the plain ones seem to be from between 1660-1760. The decorated ones are later, but I’m not sure how much later. Clay pipes were being made and used into the early 20th century- though the lovely little head seems to be late-19th century. I can’t find an example of her anywhere online. For more info on clay pipes make sure to visit DawnMist who seems to know more about clay pipes than anyone around!

22 Responses to “Clay Tobacco Pipes”
  1. TedC says:

    That’s great. I used to to do this in Canterbury, but you have much better ones than I’ve ever found. :)

  2. Gia says:

    The little head is probably the best thing we’ve ever found. Very, very exciting!

  3. Robert Croma says:

    Wow. Fantastic post. That figure head is utterly beautiful. Brilliant find.

  4. I so want to try this? Where’s a good place to start?

  5. Christian Burnham says:

    That is unbelievably cool.

    I found the perfect cigarette lighter in my local store today. They had astrology-branded designs, and sure enough, one of the cigarette lighters comes illustrated as ‘cancer’.

  6. What a wonderful historical and personal post. Fantastic stuff! Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Steve says:

    Very nice. I was told by an archaeologist that a lot of the more ornate pipes found along that stretch were hand-carved by sailors.

  8. giagia says:

    Not my little head. You can see the seam on the photo from the back.

  9. Steve says:

    It’s rubbish then. ;)

  10. giagia says:




  11. Those are amazing finds. AnnMarie and I took your advice and looked on those beaches when we were visiting London a few years ago. We were lucky enough to find one intact bowl. It is my favorite souvenir from that trip.

  12. Matt Parsons says:

    Nice post about the clay pipes! I love that area, it’s really peaceful down there. I’ve found a few pipes recently, but I’m going to head back and search for some more… Also filmed some beachcombers:
    Great blog

  13. Kevski says:

    I combed the beach at bankside for the very first time on Sunday and found a smooth intact pipe. This is the first site I found in order to find information. Thanks so much. I’m glad it brings as much joy to you as it does me. My beach combing days have begun!

  14. Graydon Doolittle says:

    Hi, I have also ‘combed on the Thames, found numerous stems and one almost intact smooth bowl with an inch of stem. We looked around below the Millenium Bridge after visiting the Tate Modern to see the Rothko show this past October. It’s also a great memory of our visit to London.

  15. James says:

    In all the time I have lived here, I have never noticed that B A N K S I D E sign despite walking along the river more than once. That’s near the Tate Modern, right?

  16. Sophia says:

    Just when you think you’re the only one out there doing this. Congrats on your amazing finds. I’m on the other side of the Atlantic ocean where colonial life meant having a pipe with good old Caribbean rum and sugar. EverySunday I’m off clay pipe hunting with my friend and her 6 year old daughter. We’ve found some wonderful bowls etc. Yours take the cake though. Too jealous!

  17. Evelyn says:

    I love the head, it’s like a little jug – how could something so intricate be disposable? I was collecting pipes last week by Surrey Quays city farm and found a large piece of a nicely decorated one. It’s amazing they survive after all these years.

  18. caroline says:

    I just dug one up today in the patch of ground at my childrens school I’m turning into a veg garden! it’s in Hammersmith quite near, but definitely not next to the thames. very plain, but a long pipe and intact bowl – simple and slim. Any idea how old it may be?

  19. Chris Richmond says:

    That head is beautiful. It’s like finding pirate treasure. I did some scavenging yesterday between Tate Modern and the Globe and found several pipe stems (the best having the bowl ‘stand’ bearing the initials S and A).
    There used to be a pottery in Southwark so plenty of shards. Also nails of indeterminate age and, um, a .303 rifle cartridge! The bullet has gone but the (hopefully inert) cordite is still inside.

  20. Houdini says:

    OOOOh how exciting. I love that little head in particular – stunning! I knew nothing about this at all! Wow – next time I’m in Londond I’m going! ;-)

  21. Wow, amazing that you have found so many. Must be very exciting when you find them.

  22. adam hayes says:

    Hi Gia

    we have a load of pipe heads at home which were left to Georgia by her mum’s first husband. he claimed they were worth loads of money, i’m not so sure, but they are very interesting to look at, i’ll post some pics later…