Mudlarking: The Art of Smoking

river thames clay pipes

By Jason Sandy

Imagine finding an incredibly long clay pipe just laying at your feet, untouched and unbroken after 300 years. That’s exactly what happened to Sara Cannizzaro as she was mudlarking on a freezing, cold February morning along the Thames foreshore in London.

thames mudlark church warden pipe

“Suddenly a large boat went past, causing a large wave and making me jump backward to avoid wet feet. As the wave retreated, I quickly checked whether it had left anything behind. It was then that I saw it, trapped by a rock—the longest clay pipe I had ever found on the River Thames!” explains Sara. 

It truly is a miracle that it survived intact despite the turbulent and rough conditions at the bottom of the river. The longest clay pipes ever produced were 18-36 inches long and are often referred to as “churchwarden” clay pipes. In the 18th century, church buildings were open all night, and churchwardens were responsible for watching the church premises. To pass the long hours, they would smoke their clay pipes. The exceptionally long stems of the “churchwarden” clay pipes would keep the heat and smoke away from the face so the line of sight was not obstructed as they kept watch.  

Clay pipes are some of the most interesting objects found on the Thames foreshore in London. Although the pipes are made of thin, fragile clay, the soft Thames mud has protected many of them for centuries. The famous Elizabethan explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, is credited with introducing tobacco to Tudor England, and he supposedly tempted Queen Elizabeth I to start smoking. 

clay pipe sizes

In the late 16th century, the price of tobacco in London was very expensive as only small quantities of tobacco were imported into the country at that time. Only wealthy individuals could afford to smoke, and the clay pipe bowls were therefore very small. As the imports increased, the price of tobacco dropped, and common people could afford to smoke. The size of the pipe bowls increased steadily through the 17th and 18th centuries as the price of tobacco sank due to increased tobacco production and well-established trade routes to the American colonies. 

Considered to be the cigarettes of their day, clay pipes were often pre-filled with tobacco and sold by shops for a single use before they were discarded. It is no wonder that thousands of clay pipes are still found along the Thames foreshore where workers would smoke as they went about their business. The locations of the busiest ports in Georgian and Victorian London can still easily be identified by the number of clay pipe stems and bowls which litter the Thames foreshore to this day.

lion unicorn clay pipe

In the 16th and 17th centuries, clay pipes were mostly undecorated, but in the mid-18th century, clay pipe makers began to use molds with decorative designs. Based on the Royal Coat of Arms of the British monarchy, an English lion and Scottish unicorn were often depicted on opposite sides of the clay pipe bowls made in London between 1730-1770. As it was considered a dangerous beast, the mythical unicorn is chained and restrained. The traditional legend of hostility between the two heraldic animals is recorded in a children’s nursery rhyme, which goes like this:

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

The Prince of Wales feathers were also a common design on 18th century clay pipe bowls. In the 19th century, the Victorian pipe makers became incredibly creative and imaginative with the designs of their clay pipes. The pipe bowls and stems were highly decorated with very unique motifs, depicting almost every topic imaginable: mythological scenes, Masonic symbols, military crests, regimental badges, livery company arms, sporting activities (like soccer and cricket), sailing ships, and natural designs such as fruit, flowers, vegetative patterns, tree bark, branches, acorns, oak-leaf patterns, thistles, shamrocks, grape vines, roses, and thorns. Figural clay pipe bowls were shaped to represent famous personalities, monarchs, military heroes, comedians, jockeys, and even cartoon characters. Many of the clay pipes are beautiful works of art, and it is difficult to understand why the owners discarded them in the River Thames. Mudlark Nick Stevens has found a huge number of clay pipes in the Thames, illustrating the incredible variety of different designs.

chicken claw pipe

Many clay pipe bowls were also decorated with animal themes. Mudlark Julian Farge found an incredibly detailed clay pipe in the shape of a chicken’s foot holding the pipe bowl. A clay pipe bowl in the shape of an egg clutched by sharp eagle’s talons was found by Mudlark Monika Buttling-Smith.

clay pipes with animals

Some pipe bowls were formed in the shape of cockerel’s heads, foxes, dogs, and other animals. Dogs and an otter are depicted on two clay pipes found by Mudlark Steve Brooker. Clay pipe bowls in the shape of cute dogs’ faces were found by Mudlark David Hodgson.

In 1652, the first coffee shop opened in London, and the owner imported the coffee from Turkey. The symbol of a Turk’s head (with a beard and turban) became synonymous with coffee, and many coffee houses in London used an illustration of a Turk’s head as the advertising image for their shops. Drinking coffee and smoking clay pipes became a popular past time in London in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mudlark Nicola White has found many clay pipe bowls in the shape of Turks’ heads. 

Character or portrait clay pipes were often produced to commemorate famous personalities, military dragoons, and members of the royal family in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mudlark David Hodgson has found many figural clay pipes including pipes that look like the popular Victorian author, Charles Dickens, and the famous British general, Field Marshal Wolseley. 

queen victoria pipe

In 1887, Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee (50-year reign), and many clay pipes depicting the Queen were produced to commemorate this momentous occasion.

pipe decorated with slave

Sadly, tobacco played a major role in fueling the African slave trade. Professional photographer Hannah Smiles has beautifully captured thought-provoking images of these somber clay pipe bowls. These figural clay pipes are a poignant reminder of the African slaves who were shipped to the British colonies in America and the Caribbean to toil in the tobacco fields. While these slaves suffered under horrendous conditions, British gentlemen were leisurely smoking tobacco from pipes that looked like the plantation slaves.

pipe tamper

When filling the clay pipe bowl with tobacco, a metal tamper was often used to compress the tobacco at the bottom of the bowl. While mudlarking along the Thames foreshore, Nick Stevens found a beautiful Georgian pipe tamper. In the 18th century, many of the tampers depicted erotic scenes. Nick’s pipe tamper illustrates two lovers engaged in a sexual embrace. Several years after finding the tamper, Nick discovered that the bottom of the pipe tamper unscrewed, releasing a pointed implement for cleaning the tobacco residue out of the bottom of the pipe bowl. The Georgian pipe tampers were both decorative and functional.

Perfectly preserved by the soft, dense mud of the River Thames, mudlarks have discovered a huge variety of clay pipes, which give us unique glimpses into the social history and popularity of smoking in London. The numerous styles and designs of clay pipes display the creativity and craftsmanship of the pipe makers and the “art” of smoking. Through the wide variety of motifs depicted on the pipe bowls and stems, we can also learn about the popular culture and interests of Londoners throughout the centuries. 

Learn about a modern craftsman making clay pipes using Victorian pipe molds in Clay Pipe Making: The Victorian Way.

Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›

View more of Jason Sandy's collection of mudlarking finds

Learn more about mudlarking


Learn more about the experiences of mudlarks, who search the shores of rivers, bays, and seas for historical finds and other objectsArticles ›

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2019 issue


would like to purchase a 1590s 1610 type bowls with inch or so stem

roger hoagland April 16, 2022

Before matches were invented, and the smoker was in a remote place, like ploughing a field, how were pipes lit ?

Steve December 27, 2021

I am from central america Belize I found some pieces of clay pipe in my village couple days ago I would like to know how these get here 🤔

Craft February 11, 2021

Fascinating! I learned some stuff I didn’t know; pipes were sold pre-filled, and the dates when tobacco became cheap for the common man. Also, coffeehouses were marked with bearded Turk visages. Great job!

Len February 11, 2021

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