Much to my surprise the field behind our house hasn’t been ploughed yet. This is good news for the birds: lots of wheat gleanings to forage amongst the stubble. And gleanings for the erstwhile archaeology student too (that would be me). Since late September I’ve been walking back and forth to allotment across Townsend Meadow, and as I go I pick up the remains of old clay pipes; the residue of ploughmen-past.
After rain the bowls look like bird skulls emerging from the mud. I dig them out and bring them home to wash. The bits are mostly quite plain, except for indistinct maker’s stamps on the bowl bases. But then, most unusually, I found a stem with a well known manufacturer’s mark on it: W.Southorn & Co, Broseley.
Clay pipes were made in this corner of Shropshire from the late 1500s when Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the nation to tobacco. In the 17th century there was a pipe works on Much Wenlock’s High Street, but at this period it was the Southorn works in King Street, Broseley, a few miles from Wenlock, that was much more famous. As well as work-a-day models they produced the most elaborate creations including the delicately long Churchwardens (for a long cool smoke). In fact so great was the international reputation of the factory the pipes themselves came to be known as Broseleys. It was thriving trade too, the fragility of the product doubtless stimulating repeat orders. During the 19th century Southorns employed 90 workers.
The works were still in operation until the early 1950s. The pipe kiln there could hold between 75,000 to 100,000 pipes for each firing which lasted 4 days. When the factory closed, the place was simply left, remaining just as it was when the last worker closed the gate behind him. I remember walking past it in the 1970s and ‘80s. It still belonged to the Southorn family then, but remained, much like Miss Haversham’s wedding breakfast* in a time warp all its own. The premises are now in the care of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
There is some extraordinary 1938 archive film of the works HERE.
* Great Expectations Charles Dickens