Telford craftsman, 24, among last clay pipe-makers in Britain

A 24-year-old man is keeping the bygone craft of clay tobacco pipe making alive, as he encourages young people to take up endangered heritage skills.

Oliver the pipemaker at work. Photo by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Oliver the pipemaker at work. Photo by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

Oliver Meeson fell into the craft around four years ago after discovering it by chance.

While most of his peers would be fresh out of university or still figuring out what they want to do, Oliver is encouraging young people to take up heritage trades in order to keep them alive.

Oliver the pipemaker at work. Photo by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

Oliver said: “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 the pipemaker at work. Photo by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

Despite Oliver's passion for his craft, he fears that it could die out with him unless future generations take it up.

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.

“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.

“And if clay pipe making isn’t your thing, why not have a read up on the various heritage skills and crafts, particularly those that are endangered, and see what interests you.

"Learning new skills – and in turn, keeping these skills alive could prove immensely enjoyable – and actually very rewarding – if you’re interested in the arts or history.”

Oliver the pipemaker at work. Photo by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

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.

The majority of Oliver’s pipes are sold at shows and craft fairs. In recent weeks, he sold and displayed his pipes at the Vintage and Handcrafted show at Cosford.

“I mainly sell to collectors or people, who use them as ornaments. I also sell direct to museums, shops and online. They also get a good deal of interest from film and television prop departments, which is pretty cool.

“However, I did recently lose out on a big TV contract simply because I’m meticulous when it comes to not only detail but historical accuracy.

"The production company asked for me to create a Victorian-era pipe for them but they weren’t sold on my design because it wasn’t decorative enough – I had to remind them – that style of pipe wasn’t around during that time.”

Oliver the pipemaker at work. Photo by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

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, which was one of the last clay tobacco pipe factories in the country, closed its doors during the 1950s but was well-known across the world for its pipes.

The museum opens to visitors from July 28 to September 10, 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.

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