Clay pipe making

Mid-Ulster Mail – Saturday 17 November 1928

It is not such a far cry back to the time when clay pipes enjoyed a widespread popularity but during the last decade they have been gradually superseded by the briar pipe and the ubiquitous and inevitable cigarette. Consequently the clay pipe-making industry which once flourished to a remarkable extent has gradually declined until today it is merely a shadow of its former self.

Twenty or thirty years ago there was a big demand for these pipes, and this was met chiefly by private manufacturers all over the country who turned out huge quantities of these delicate yet serviceable articles for the use of the disciples of My Lady Nicotine.

Clay pipe-making came into prominence in County Tyrone in or about the years 1848 or 1850, when a man named McGuiggan, of Broughderg, started a workshop. This, as far as I can ascertain, was the first of the industry in the county. Twenty years later another factory, on a small scale of course, was started in Coalisland by a man of the name of Sherry, and about the same period pipes were also turned out by Frank McCullagh at Newmills, who some time later transferred his operations to Agharan where he carried on the industry until about three years ago. There were other private manufacturers in other parts of the country but the decline in the use of clay pipes caused most of them to give up.

There is one factory still in existence in Tyrone, with a good business attached, just a few miles from Cookstown. It is carried on by Mr James Turkington and an uncle, Mr Harper. When I visited the place a few days ago I had the pleasure of inspecting the little workshop where thousands of gross of clay pipes have been made, and also of seeing them actually being formed. The workshop, which adjoins the dwelling-house, is a very interesting place. It contains several workbenches and a rack on which thousands of pipes await their turn to be finished in the burning kiln nearby. Other pipes were lying about in the embryo stage, while in a large tub there was a quantity of pipe clay in a plastic state. In a corner was a heap of pipe clay blocks, which came all the way from Devonshire, England.

Clay pipe making – James Turkington of Lisnanane, near Cookstown, at work at his bench, where he can turn out hundreds of pipes per day. A gross (144) of pipes ready for the kiln are seen on the bench

An interesting comparison of the popularity of the clay pipe, say twenty-five years ago and now, was afforded by figures given to me by Mr Turkington. When the business was started, and onwards for a number of years, the average weekly output was about 40 gross (almost 6,000 pipes). Then, about twenty years ago, the trade evidently received a stimulus for production increased until it reached the neighbourhood of 120 and 150 gross (17,000 to 22,000 pipes) per week, and at that time five men were constantly employed. Today however there is nothing like the demand there used to be. Mr Turkington still devotes a lot of his time to the work, assisted by his sons, and if necessity demanded he could turn out 40 gross a week. In the old days Harper Brothers supplied shopkeepers and others in Cookstown, Stewartstown, Omagh, and as far away as Monaghan and Cavan, Fermanagh and Derry. For many years they supplied by contract Monaghan City Asylum, and Mr Turkington still does. This institution uses between 40 and 50 gross in the year.

Naturally I was curious to know how the pipes were made and Mr Turkington offered to show me. Sitting down at a bench he took up a heap of clay, roughly fashioned into lengths, and, in almost as quick time as it takes to describe the operation, he had half-a-dozen pipes lying before him. It seemed so simple but when I tried my novice’s hand I found that it takes a skilled tradesman to make even a “cuddy” pipe. The process of manufacture is briefly this. The hard clay is softened to the proper consistency (about the same as glazier’s putty). The worker takes a small quantity of this and beats it with a small iron bar, presumably to make it more plastic. He then breaks off sufficient to make two pipes (this can only be done quickly and accurately by experience), sub-divides this equally, a piece in each hand, and rolls them on a board into the shape of a thin carrot, tapering from little more than one inch to about half an inch or less, and about six inches long. After rubbing the surface of each length with a mixture of paraffin and sweet oil, to keep it from adhering, it is put into an iron mould which opens in two halves. This is closed and put into a vice arrangement on the bench which squeezes the halves closed, and which held thus a punch above is pressed down to cut the bowl of the pipe. A snick with a knife to level the head of the bowl completes the operation. It should be mentioned that the hole in the stem is made with a thin skewer rod which is inserted before being put into the mould. The pipes are then placed in grosses on long boards to dry to a certain hardness before being put into the kiln.

The kiln has space for about 150 gross of pipes, and it takes half a ton of coal to burn it for the required time – 24 hours. The pipes are taken out after another 14 hours when the kiln has cooled.

Mr Turkington, when I asked him if there were any other pipe workers in Tyrone, said he did not think there was anyone but himself in the Six Counties, with the exception of a factory in Belfast.

Clay pipes, minus the stems which have been broken

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