This is quite a detective story. It all began when an angler came across the bowl of a clay pipe. In the middle of the afternoon on 9th January 2008, he had been carefully watching whilst a mole proceeded to dig a hole in the east river bank at Trammels, which is a little way downstream from the Great Weir at the top of the Fishery. The mound gradually grew until unexpectedly a clay pipe bowl popped out at the summit! Of interest were the initials carved upon it: RAOB standing for the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. This is a charitable organization that operates in the form of a brotherhood with a network of lodges. Details are readily available to anyone interested and can be found by using the initials RAOB for an internet search.
The Curator of the Royalty Museum, Tony Timms, duly looked into the provenance of the find, apparently it was from the period 1870 to 1925. Now for some reason which has eluded me, it was a common custom for smokers of these white clay pipes to treat them as somewhat expendable. They would break the bowl off from the stem and discard them after use. Quite apart from this custom, such a breakage was also part of a particular ritual of the brotherhood of the RAOB. Thus far, it is reasonable to conclude that a member of the local lodge had been smoking one of the brotherhood’s specially made and initialled clay pipes on the river bank. He must have discarded the broken pipe either as a matter of ritual, or more likely, as a matter of normal custom. The first illustration is of the pipe bowl find.
I am indebted to officers of the RAOB and also to West Country pipe expert Heather Coleman for further information. It appears that clay pipes became popular from the early 1800s and were often smoked by women. When used in one of the RAOB ceremonies, a pipe might for example be broken over the head of the initiate, wrapped in a tobacco leaf and then kept. At least twenty-five pipe designs have been identified, including two particular versions mentioned later – the Cutty having a thick stem and length of some 4.5 inches and the Straw having a thinner stem, a length of 7 inches and a more elegant bowl.
Clearly, it was now necessary to find out all about the boot! The research was duly carried out by a specialist known to the Fishery in antique tackle and clothing, resulting in an estimated manufacturing date of around 1900. At this stage, the realisation set in that around the time the pipe had been discarded, the same had happened to this good quality boot. Yet there was still not a good reason to make any connection.
A third distinct event brought things together. As part of the ongoing research into the heritage of the Royalty, all the River Keepers, or Water Bailiffs, were being identified. In doing so, on 19th June 2008, a photograph (below) was obtained of a certain Henry Joseph Preston, dated to approximately 1900. He was the keeper from 1873 to 1913. His job at the time was similar to the work still done by the current keeper David Burgess, involving river maintenance, cutting weeds to improve flow, shoring up banks, repairing habitats to help ducks, bats etc. Clearly, in the photograph, he is dressed for carrying out such duties in rainy weather. However, of particular interest is the fact that he is smoking a RAOB pipe and wearing a boot – at first glance identical to both of the items found in the river!
Reverting to the two pipe versions, a close look at the picture of Preston reveals that he was probably smoking a Cutty version whilst the find is likely to be a Straw. Nonetheless, it was normal at the time for a smoker to have a number of pipes. Indeed, another picture of this keeper shows him smoking a third type of pipe, known as a Thorn and closely matched to the Thorn number 130 made by John Pollock & Co. of Manchester. Wilsons of Sharrow in Sheffield, who took over from Pollocks in 1990, tell me that although this clay pipe is definitely a Thorn from Pollocks, it is unknown now whether the mould still exists for it. Incidentally, these Thorn pipes had various designs on them including one which even had a witch on a broomstick on the base with thorns on the bowl. It cannot be conclusively proved on this evidence alone that the pipe and boot found at the River Avon were indeed once the possessions of this keeper. As for Preston’s very probable membership of a local lodge, RAOB records are not sufficient to confirm this. Yet it is certainly for consideration – the dating and the photographs are persuasive.