Tobacco Road

On a windy Wednesday in January 2007 Rod and Dyana Fripp, from Perth, Western Australia paid a visit to an exposed hill in Chitterne where, over 350 years ago, Rodís ancestor, Edward Fripp, held a licence to dig clay for the manufacture of clay pipes.

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

For Rod and Dyana it was the first day of a holiday dedicated to visiting sites connected with Rodís English family history. Their itinerary would take them to Norton St Philip, Lulworth Cove and Bristol. Rod has been tracing his English roots for about 5 years with the help of Dave Bridgen of Bristol who runs the official Fripp family website (accessible from and click on the Chitterne People link). The Fripps have a prestigious past and include in their number a Kingís surgeon, artists and two mayors of Bristol.

The very extraordinary deposit of ďthe best clay in England for the making of clay pipesĒ 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. Nowadays the site is part of Josh Strattonís farm and the remains of the pits are covered in trees that shelter pheasant rearing pens. Before venturing out we had gained permission to visit the pits from Josh Stratton, and also cleared it with his gamekeeper, Kevin Barnard. Both were extremely helpful and gave us good directions to the site.

At Clay Pit Hill we had to force open the car doors to get out, as it was extremely windy. I wondered if trees had been planted around the site originally to protect the clay diggers. Having climbed over the stile we could soon see the pits, deep craters, some with steep sides some shallow, one filled with water, but all very obvious despite the undergrowth. I was quite astonished, as we had been led to believe that there wasnít much to see. I tried to take photographs to record the visit, but it needed a better photographer than me to capture the depth of the holes on a dull day under trees. I took a shot as Dyana climbed down into one pit while Rod stayed on the rim, which was the best I could do.

Some years ago I came across a document at the Record Office that mentioned the licence granted to Edward Fripp and Christopher Merewether in 1651. It stated that they could dig 30 loads of clay and cart it 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.

Rod scouted the site for the round pebbles and a glimpse of the clay. He succeeded near the wet pit, where the leafmold had been washed away exposing the white clay beneath, and scooped up a small handful to take home. He was impressed by the texture of the clay, easily moulding it into a small ball, and adding it to the pebble and flint he had already collected, while Dyana muttered darkly about excess baggage.

The agreement that Fripp and Merewether made in 1651 with Henry Paulet, Lord of the Manor, licenced them to dig for one year. As part of the agreement they were to pay him £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.

Some fragments of clay pipes 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 Joseph Brown Morris, curate of Chitterne St Mary 1808-1815, lived at the Round House so perhaps he smoked these pipes.