An extraordinary deposit of “the best clay in England for the making of clay pipes” is to be found above the chalk on Chitterne St Mary Down between the Codford and Shrewton roads. The hill is known as Clay Pit Hill. The almost pure white clay is mixed with round pebbles varying from small to about 5 inches across.

Clay Pit Hill the clump of trees covering the clay pits

On a windy Wednesday in January 2007 I accompanied Rod and Dyana Fripp, from Perth, Western Australia, to Clay Pit Hill where, over 350 years ago, Rod’s ancestor, Edward Fripp, held a licence to dig clay for the manufacture of clay pipes.

Edward Fripp, Rod’s 12 x great grandfather, was born in Chitterne about 1616. He married Mary Merewether around 1650. Edward, and Mary’s brother, Christopher Merewether, were in business supplying clay from Chitterne to the Gauntlet family of tobacco pipe manufacturers in Amesbury.

The site of the old clay pits are on private land and covered in trees that shelter pheasant rearing pens. Before venturing out we had gained permission to visit the site.

At Clay Pit Hill the pits are deep craters, some with steep sides, some shallow, one filled with water, but all very obvious despite the undergrowth. I was astonished, as we had been led to believe that there wasn’t much to see, but we found the white clay and pebbles exposed near the wet pit, where the leaf mold had been washed away. Unfortunately the conditions for photography were poor.

Clay pit filled with water

Some years ago I came across a document at the Record Office (Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre) that mentioned the licence granted in 1651 to Edward Fripp and Christopher Merewether by Henry Paulet, Lord of the Manor. As part of their agreement they were licenced to dig for one year and permitted to remove 30 loads of clay and cart them to Amesbury. But it is obvious that many more than 30 loads of the clay have been dug from the pits, as some of them are deeper than a man is tall, even after 350 years of erosion and filling by leaf mulch. So presumably the clay pits were in use long before tobacco was ever brought to England. The clay is said to have been used in the building of Chitterne St Mary Manor, and the round pebbles decorate many a Chitterne garden, but it would be interesting to know who thought of using the clay to make tobacco pipes.

Fripp and Merewether also agreed to pay Henry Paulet £10 for the licence and give him 8 gross of pipes. That makes 1,152 pipes if my reckoning is correct. Lord Paulet must have been a heavy smoker.

Fragments of clay pipes

The fragments of clay pipes in this photograph were dug up in the Round House garden. None of them have the Gauntlet identification mark so I suspect they are of later manufacture, but I like to think that they are made of Chitterne clay. Traditionally clay tobacco pipes are associated with curates and one Joseph Brown Morris, curate of Imber 1808-1815, lived at the Round House so perhaps he smoked these pipes.

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