Meet the UK’s last clay tobacco pipemaker

Clay tobacco pipes probably conjure up images of older gentleman in wingback chairs puffing away while perusing the Times - so it usually comes as a shock when 24-year-old Oliver Meeson reveals he’s probably the last clay tobacco pipemaker in Britain. 

While most of his peers are fresh out of university or still figuring out what they want to do with their lives, Oliver is doing his utmost to keep the bygone craft alive by encouraging young people to take up endangered heritage skills to ensure they are passed down to future generations. 

Although clay pipes are now chiefly contained to historic collections, it would be a “grave shame to allow the craft to die out”, says the young artisan from Newport, Shropshire, who will be demonstrating his craft at Broseley Pipeworks every Thursday and Saturday, starting from 28 July through to 10 September.

Oliver, who has been making pipes for four years, was first introduced to the craft by sheer chance.

“I’ve always had a keen interest in art and history - and wanted to make a living out of doing something I enjoyed but I wasn’t quite sure what exactly. I was considering doing an apprenticeship in some form of craft but it was through complete coincidence that I was introduced to clay pipe making,” said Oliver.

“My dad is a long-time member of Newport History Society and at one of their meetings, a local man called Rex Key gave a talk about clay pipe making. When my dad came home and told me about it, I was instantly intrigued - plus the artist in me loved how they looked, so I made contact with Rex, who invited me to spend a day with him to learn more about it. 

“We quickly discovered I was pretty good at it, picking it up from the get-go - and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Oliver specialises in making 19th century tobacco clay pipes using original moulds and historic techniques. The pipes are made using white earthenware clay, fired in a kiln, before each one is individually checked and finished by hand to provide a smooth, high-quality finish.


Despite Oliver’s passion for the craft, he fears that it could die out with him. In recent years, Heritage Crafts Association - the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts - added clay pipe making to its Red List of Endangered Skills. The organisation classifies crafts that are critically endangered as those that are at serious risk of no longer being practised in the UK. They may include crafts with a shrinking base of craftspeople, limited training opportunities, low financial viability, or where there is no mechanism to pass on the skills and knowledge.

 Oliver said: “I’m passionate about my craft - and feel immensely privileged to have learnt from the brilliant Rex Key - but I do worry that this craft could end up forgotten and die out. It’s rumoured that I’m the last clay tobacco pipe maker in the country - and I find that extremely worrying.

 “The difficulty with clay pipe making is finding the moulds and apparatus you need, as well as finding someone with experience that can teach you the ropes. I am more than happy to give anyone a demonstration that’s interested in learning how to do it.”

Every Thursday and Saturday, starting from 28 July through to 10 September, Oliver will be onsite at Broseley Pipeworks, where he will be demonstrating the clay pipe making process from his workshop. 

“If clay pipe making is something that appeals to you - and you’ve got patience, a steady hand and diligent eyes, come along and see for yourself. It takes time to get the knack of but once you’ve cracked it, it’s really satisfying,” said Oliver.

Kate Cadman, Curatorial Officer at Broseley Pipeworks, said: “It’s absolutely wonderful that we’ve got a young man like Oliver keeping this cherished, heritage craft alive. His modern take on this traditional artform is exciting and we’re hopeful that Oliver’s passion will spark some interest amongst the younger generation".

“I would strongly encourage anyone looking to find out more about this historic and fascinating skill to come and pay us a visit at Broseley Pipeworks over the summer months.”

Broseley Pipeworks opens to visitors from 28 July to 10 September, on Thursdays and Saturdays only. Visitors must pre-book their museum tours in advance, with the guided tours taking place at 11am, 12.30pm, 2pm and 3.30pm. Following the tour, people can watch Oliver at work. 

More information about Broseley Pipeworks - including how to pre-book tickets for a tour - can be found here:

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