Beth Davies – Building Conservation Officer
Builders working on the renovation of The Crown (former Public House) in Helmsley have discovered an historic clay pipe in the roof space. The pipe stem ranges from 5 to 9 mm in diameter and whilst it is brown with age it appears to be made from white clay. The pipe could be helpful in dating the former coaching inn but it also provides a tangible connection to the people who lived and worked in the building in the past.
The first clay pipes were handmade in Europe in the later 16th century and by 1580 pipes made of fine white ‘ball’ clay were increasingly used to smoke tobacco or ‘drink’ tobacco as it was then known. These whitish pipes were very popular in England and at one point there were about 3,000 clay pipe makers in the country. In the early days when tobacco started to be imported and was scarce and costly the pipe bowls were very small gradually becoming larger after 1620 as tobacco became more readily available and increasingly popular across society.
The pipes consisted of a bowl, a stem and a mouthpiece all molded from a single piece of clay. Pipes were produced in molds then trimmed and finished by hand before being fired in a kiln. The stem was often c. 10-15 cm but could be up to 90 cm!
Only three pieces have been found of the pipe at The Crown so it is impossible to know just how long the stem would have originally been. It does, however, have an undamaged mouthpiece suggesting it was only used by one person.
With the advent of long-stemmed pipes known as “churchwardens” in the 18th century, the enterprising practice of inns supplying pipes to customers developed. A piece of stem would be broken before the next client regaled himself and the accumulated portions of stem were discarded in bulk with pipes treated as disposable items.
It isn’t clear whether the pipe at The Crown was dropped or deliberately discarded by a craftsman working on the roof, or even whether it was placed there as some form of good luck talisman just as playing cards often were. What we do know is that it is a very human link to the early origins of this building.
The builders on site now have revealed extensive timber framing which is incredibly exciting as it suggests that The Crown was originally a timber framed hall house and is probably one of the earliest buildings in the North York Moors still standing. Dendrochronologists will try and date the timbers and we will let you know what they find out. Watch this space!