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Who Made Sherlock's Clay Pipe?
About the Author: Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: About Type. His article, "MacGuffins on Baker Street" appears in the October 2016 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine.


There are questions and there are burning questions. “I always smoke ‘ship’s’ myself,” states Dr. John H. Watson in the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet. Good to know, but hardly a question, yet researchers pursued. To what did Watson refer when he said, ‘ship’s’? Tobacco? A pipe? Not to mention his usage of the Delphic three apostrophes in a five-letter word?

Two phrases, the ubiquitous “Elementary, My Dear Watson,” and the rara avis, “I Always Smoke Pollack’s myself,” never crossed Sherlock Holmes’s lips. But, the latter could (and should) have been the detective’s response to his chronicler’s ‘ship’s’ confession during their first historic meeting.

Sherlock Holmes reached for his clay pipe more than any other type of pipe, yet little effort has been made to identify the maker of the “old and oily clay pipe.” Holmes’s clay is mentioned in six cases. While attempts have been made to identify Holmes’s briar wood pipes, the same attention has not been afforded the “old black (clay) pipe.” Outside the Sherlockian world, a plethora of information and research are available for clay pipes versus all other pipe types. Perhaps too much information exists causing researchers to shy away? With the ever-present renewed interest in Sherlock Holmes, the brand of the detective’s clay is a burning question not being addressed by literature-loving devotees worldwide.

During the 19th century, clay was by far the most common material from which pipes were made. More than 535 makers of clay pipes existed in the city of London alone between the years 1800–1899! It is possible to trace as many as 3,400 clay pipe makers in England during this period. A singular group they were. Included among their number were a murderer (Thomas Morgan), a thief (Daniel Smith), and an escaped felon (Richard Owen). How does one go about narrowing down such an enormous and eclectic field? Let’s key on one of these pipe makers, Pollock.

There are facts suggesting that the Pollock factory produced Holmes’s clay pipes. More accurately, Edward Pollock of the Central Clay Pipe Works (the name was changed to John Pollock in 1928) of Manchester is the likely source for Holmes’s clays. Edward Pollock began producing pipes in 1879, about the same time Holmes was beginning his detective career and the same time a certain Professor James Moriarty (one of two Moriarty brothers named James) arrived in London. Pollock pipes were heavily marketed and advertised. Not only would Holmes have been familiar with Pollock’s advertising, he would have been drawn to Pollock for another, surreal reason. Edward Pollock’s first three children were all named James!  Surely, this is something Holmes would find sufficiently quirky and could not, would not, ignore. Until contrary evidence is presented, let’s assume Holmes reached for his Pollock whenever he reached for a clay pipe.

Clay pipes were often described as black, but the black clay may not be merely discolored pre-smoked white clay. Rather, clay pipes were originally made black in color at the factory. Clays were also produced in a variety of colors, including white, red, brown, and black. These colored pipes helped alleviate the monotony of producing the same standard white clays while at the same time satisfying the needs and wants of the pipe smoking public. Pollock’s Central Clay Pipe Works produced such colored pipes, including black.

Holmes’s oily clay may have come from a faulty mould in Pollock’s factory. Moulds were made to specifications. Four parts paraffin oil (Coleman’s white kerosene) and one part rapeseed oil was used in the clay moulds during the 1800s. The overly oily pipe owned by Holmes may have been formed from a mould smeared with an incorrect ratio of oil types and subjected to a lapse in quality control during production.

“The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” is the source of the famous Sherlock Holmes, “three-pipe problem.” Explanation? Two possibilities exist. First, Holmes smoked three bowls in fifty minutes. Unlikely. That calculates to less than 17 minutes per bowl. In other words, Holmes smoked small-bowled pipes. A second and more plausible explanation is that Holmes smoked a clay pipe with three bowls! “Multiple bowled [clay] pipes were made in late 19th century England … among them is a three-bowled specimen,” writes Richard Le Cheminant in a 1985 article for the Society for Clay Pipe Research.



This story appears in our OCT 2017 Issue
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