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Shropshire man Rex Key keeping art of clay pipe making alive - watch the video

By Mat Growcott | Telford | News | Published: | Last Updated:

Shropshire's Rex Key has made clay pipes for Johnny Depp and the cast of Lark Rise to Candleford, and today is one of only about three people in the country keeping the craft alive.

Rex, 71, first became interested in pipe making after finding one in his garden when he moved to Broseley some 50 years ago – now he's one of the few people ensuring that the techniques are never completely lost to history.

Rex Key demonstrates how he make clay pipes

When the Ironbridge Gorge Museums started to restore Broseley Pipe Works, it was Rex, a former Shropshire Star journalist, who helped share the history and skills that had made it a major Broseley industry for hundreds of years.

A recent report by the Heritage Crafts Association, with funding from The Radcliffe Trust, discovered that pipe making had become "critically endangered," following in the footsteps of making hand-stitched cricket balls, sieve making and carving lacrosse sticks which had already died out.

Rex Key

With Rex's help, Ironbridge Gorge Museums are looking to train a new generation of artisans to carry on the tradition and save it from extinction.

"It's something that just caught my imagination when I moved to the village about 50 years ago," he said.

"I found one and then another and then another. I started digging my garden and found lots of broken bits of pipe, some with patterns on. I collected them in a tub, then a bucket and then a wheelbarrow."

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But it didn't end there for Rex, who lived in Broseley for nearly 50 years before moving to Leighton.

His passion developed from collecting to creating, and soon he'd figured out the technique himself.

Rex Key

"The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust realised there was this old clay pipe factory here that was closed in 1957 or 1958," he said. "That's when the last pipe maker died and by that time clay pipes were going out of fashion, cigarettes had come in.

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"The industry died and the factory closed, but amazingly it was locked up, abandoned and forgotten about. And that's the way it stayed for more than 30 years until they came along and opened it up.

"Although it was in a terrible, derelict state, everything was still here. The kiln was still here, nearly full with pipes waiting to be fired. It was a bit like the Mary Celeste, there was clay, paperwork and moulds – even ladies' aprons draped over chairs. It was this lovely time capsule of how it was in the 1950s. I'm sure it hadn't changed a lot since it was set up in 1881."

Over the last 50 years Rex has found 14,000 clay pipe bowls. They're from three pipe factories that were in the area at the time. He's made countless more.

He still hasn't ever used one of his pipes, but that does nothing to hamper his encyclopaedic knowledge of the different designs, shapes and how each would have affected the flavour of the tobacco.

Today he is the only person in the world creating pipes with the traditional Victorian methods in an actual Victorian pipe works.

"It's vital to keep the techniques," he said. "It's vital I pass on what I've discovered.

"My skill wasn't inherited, it's something that's taken 50 years to get to the stage where I can turn out reasonable looking clay pipes in the traditional manner with the traditional equipment.

"Because we've got this unique original unspoiled Victorian pipe works, the craft will always be protected. Ironbridge Museums will ensure it's here for future generations.

"People who come in remember someone who used to smoke a clay pipe. It was the working man's bit of luxury; it was his pipe and his pint. He didn't have his smart phone or his Love Island. His pleasure was his ale and his pipe."

Rex still gets requests to make clay pipes today. Along with regular customers, he frequently makes pipes for re-enactment teams and theatre troupes looking for a little bit of authenticity, as well as for groups celebrating anniversaries.

His work has also been seen in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and in countless BBC dramas.

Since the report was released, Rex has found himself with a description he'd never expected – he's been called a "national treasure".

It's a phrase he thinks is perhaps better used for the likes of Joanna Lumley or Julie Walters.

"It's taken from one point of view that I'm maintaining a traditional craft, even if one or two people look at me and think it's an odd thing to do," he said.

"It's quite gratifying, but I don't have any other claim to fame. This is my 15 minutes."

Anyone interested in taking up the craft should call 01952 601044 or email volunteering@ironbridge.org.uk

Mat Growcott

By Mat Growcott
Reporter - @MGrowcott_Star

Shropshire Star reporter

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