Thames beachcombing

Hazards and clay pipes

Stairways to a gruesome past


Thames beachcombing

Cormorants drying out

Cormorants drying themselves out, east of Tower Bridge

Hazards and clay pipes

I've read elsewhere on the Net that people should always beachcomb the Thames in twos. I never did, but it is sound advice. You wouldn't think that idling away on a beach, 20 feet below the rest of the world would be hazardous. However, you're never entirely cut off from the world and its supply of bored 14-year olds.

I was on Deptford Beach one Spring Sunday morning, bent over so that I could better scan the shoreline and spot any potential treasures peeking from the mud.  My hand was reaching out to turn a pebble when a PC monitor smashed onto my trowel and the screen exploded in pieces around me. The force sprung the trowel from my hand and I jumped back instinctively just in case anything else was coming my way. I looked up and saw youngsters looking for more urban rubbish to throw at me. Here I was a sitting duck, hundreds of yards from a ladder, with only the river to run into. I screamed at them something futile like: What do you think you're doing?! - no doubt with some expletives attached. They laughed and looked for other improvised missiles to throw at me.

The sword found under fire at Deptford beachI gradually got my act together, took out my mobile phone, avoided incoming stones, pretended to take some pictures and shouted that I'd sent photos of them to the police. They looked at each other, found a brick, sent it down and shuffled off looking for other games to play. I was shaking, felt cold and was figuring out what to do next. I got a bit of a chocolate bar out of my packet and had a couple of bites to calm me down.

As I looked down by the shattered PC I saw a long unusual metallic curve that had been exposed by the impact beside it. I dug the object out and found an entire dress sword complete with sheath wrapped around the handle. How amazing, how had that got there? Well, my guess is that young lads from the nearby naval college had mischievously appropriated it or drunkenly thrown it in the river on a night out. But here it was, all those years later rusted and blistered but still recognisable and useable as a sword. This particular treasure was too big to put in my finds' plastic bag so I carried it under my arm, all the better to ward off the pesky kids should they return.

I'm not sure that a second person would have helped me on that frightening occasion but having a companion when I was 'combing down by Shadwell Basin might have helped. It was there I got stuck in deep mud up to my knees. I hadn't anticipated that I was walking into danger but I was lucky as I could have walked into waist-deep mud like these chaps who got stuck in Chelsea.

My shadow looking at the tide coming in on the escape ladder that leads to Free Trade Wharf, WappingI was in a right pickle as no matter how hard I struggled I couldn't get enough leverage to get myself out. I was extremely lucky that a big lorry tyre lay alongside me, perhaps thrown in previously to help someone in a similar fix. I lay as flat and evenly as I could across it so that it didn't push it down under the mud. I curled my toes up so that I didn't lose my wellies and with a lot of effort managed to lift one leg, then the other out of the mud. And what did I learn from that experience? I learnt to recognise the tell-tale super-smooth surface that indicates that there's no firmness, no substance beneath, indicating a sharp drop should I step onto that patch of mud.

Other hazards include Weil's disease spread by rats - I always wore a latex glove to avoid touching the water or mud directly. Or getting cut off from ladders is another possibility. I often had to wade through a bit of water because I'd misread the tide timetable or got so involved in my foraging that I'd got cut off - see the photo alongside that shows the view from a pontoon onto the rickety ladder that I needed to climb away from the shore.

Treasures to be found

A typical morning's find (from below Trinity Wharf, Surrey Docks) cleaned and drying on the kitchen tableClay pipes are one of the most common finds made on the Thames' London foreshore. Their shape and off-white tint marks them out against the river's mud and pebbles. It's pretty much guaranteed that if you wanted, you could take a few dozen stalks and a couple of bowls away with you after a 3-hour session at low-tide. It is however, extremely rare to take home a complete pipe with an unbroken stem.

Pipe finds are so common because over the centuries they tended to be only used once and then were thrown away. They were often sold prefilled with tobacco (called 'Penny Pipes') and were redundant once smoked. Sailors, dockers, ship-builders and passers-by would fish their pipe out at break time or even worktime, have a good twenty minutes puffing and then, perhaps, snap the stem when finished, rather like people today crush a coke can once they've drained it.

Beachcombers are usually looking for something new and soon tire of taking broken stems home, however there are some mighty fine bowls still to be found by the Thames. Those that are the most interesting are the ones that are very old or which have an original design on the bowl.

According to Eric G Ayto who wrote the Shire publication Clay Tobacco Pipes, pipes were probably originated by native Americans around the middle of the 16thcentury with clay pipes being made in England in the 1570s for men, women and children who wanted to take up the art and pleasure of 'tobacco drinking'. You can recognise the early pipes of the 17th century because they usually had a small bowl with a flat base, the stems were still chunky and there was often milling/indentations around the rim of the bowl. By 1650 there were a thousand itinerant pipemakers in London, it was a highly competitive trade with vastly varying standards of quality.

The development of very early English pipes from 1620 to 1700. The 'heel' at the base of the pipe was flat to rest the pipe on a table and the bowl shapes were much smaller than the 19th century pipes shown below copyright Eric G Ayto 'Clay Tobacco Pipes' ShiresShortly after 1700, pipes were being made with a smoother finish, a thinner bowl, a more slender stem and a higher degree of brittleness. During the middle of this century, extra long pipes became fashionable and these were called aldermen, and then later, simply straws. In the 1800s, decoration of the bowls became more widespread featuring hearts, faces and decorations and later in the century adverts appeared on them. It was during that century, that factory production started which saw the decline of the pipe trade as a cottage industry.

It was also during this century that short clay pipes became popular. The shorter pipe had the advantage of reducing the load on the teeth which allowed a man to smoke and work at the same time. This changed the tendency of the longer pipes which were more likely to be smoked at leisure with the stem supported in the hand. The shorter clays were often referred to as nose warmers.

Read more about the history of ceramic pipes at Heather's site at DawnMist. And if you wondered what people did with found clay pipes and stems then check out Amelia's efforts at recycling and Jane's.

And especially read Julia's wonderful blog that combines the enthusiasm of Thames' beachcombing with some splendid researching on finds made at the river's low tides. Below are some pics of pipes that I've found on the shore and on the net.

A large clay pipe showing features of 'The Great International Exhibition', London 1862. It was made by Charles Crop and Sons of Homerton, a family business that made pipes from 1856 till 1924 An extra long 8" 'alderman' pipe with red wax (or lacquer) on the mouth piece
Side 1 of a 19th century pipe, where the anchor is labelled 'Victory' Side 2 of the pipe with a ship in full sail and the inscription 'Trafalgar 1805'
A short 5"e; pipe with a harp on one side... ...and a clover on the other. Note the yellow wax on the end. Pipe wax was coated on the nib so that the smoker's lips didn't get stuck to the hot stem
A bird of prey's talons holding an egg. The pipe was made in Onnaing in the North of France, famous in the 19th century for its faience and clay industry And with a pipe whose bowl is in the shape of an acorn. These two pipes were made by Scoufflaire the most famous pipe manufacturer in the North of France