Not the beginning of tongue-twister. 

My grandmother’s maiden name was Pickles. As children, my siblings and I thought that was one of the funniest names we’d ever heard. We assumed it had something to do with making pickles and that the name had to be unique or at least rare. When I started researching my English family’s history, one of the first things I discovered was just how common the name Pickles was in the county of Yorkshire and in particular in the city of Leeds. 

Possibly deriving from "pick-of-the-hill" (meaning top of the hill), the first recorded use of a surname that sounded like Pickles was reported in the 1300s in the Poll Tax Returns of Yorkshire.(1) As time moved forward, names evolved and eventually Yorkshire was full of people with the surname Pickles or a variation thereof — most of whom were no relation to one another.

My next surprise was that the history of this branch of my family was tied to the business of tobacco pipe making. From at least 1830 until the 1950s, many of my Pickles relations, including my great-great-grandfather and his father, made pipes for smoking tobacco. According to census documents even the women in the family had a hand in at times. 

I don’t know when or how the family began making pipes, but this story begins with my three-times great-grandfather David Pickles. David was born 23 March 1811 in Leeds, Yorkshire, and was a pipe maker by age 19. The Leeds parish record for his marriage on 17 August 1830 to Mary Styran shows David’s occupation as “tobacco pipe maker.” 

The smoking of tobacco became common in both Europe and the Americas during the sixteenth century. As with most things, it was initially only the wealthy who could afford to take up the hobby (or habit) due to the high cost. Also as with most things, gradually the prices came down and eventually it was affordable for the lower classes. Since cigarettes were unavailable in the early 1800s, tobacco was typically smoked in pipes. 

Although most pipes today are made from wood, prior to the 20th century, clay pipes were the affordable option for the everyday smoker. During the 1700s and early 1800s in England, pipes were made by craftsmen who had shops and by ‘citizen’ pipe makers who were often poor and sold their wares on the street. As the nineteenth century progressed, factories began to produce pipes. 

Lower-priced clay pipes were made by casting in moulds. Better quality ones were shaped by hand and often embossed or elaborately carved. For some, pipe making was more than a craft, it was an art form. Eventually, clay was replaced by wood because of its durability (although apparently clay resulted in cooler smoke), and finally cigars and cigarettes replaced pipes almost completely in the 20th century. 

When I initially learned of the Pickles pipe makers in my family, I had no idea which type of pipe makers they were. Since I knew most of my ancestors were poor, I guessed they were factory employees or citizen pipe makers. But as I delved into the Pickles family, I began to notice clues that indicated they might have been craftsmen. 

The first hint I had of this was that David signed his marriage registry, which meant he could write. Writing would not have been a skill required for your average pipemaker in the early nineteenth century. And at the time when David was growing up, school was not mandatory in England — mainly it was children from wealthy families who received a formal education. People who owned a business, however, would need to know how to keep books. If David apprenticed in a shop (and was thus a craftsman), he may have learned business skills such as reading and writing along with the making of pipes. 

My second clue came from the 1841 census, which showed that David and Mary had moved from Leeds to the township of Willenhall in the borough of Wolverhampton. This is just outside of the city of Birmingham (currently in the Black Country area of the West Midlands) and about 200 km southwest of Leeds where David was born and was married. 

In the household with David and his wife were their three children and two men listed as pipemakers. So including David there were three pipemakers under the same roof, which could have meant David ran a business and these men were employees. But it could also be that they were all employed in the same factory and that David took in lodgers for extra income. Unmarried men and young couples often lived in the homes of relatives or coworkers. 

However, the census showed that not one person in the household was from that county, so factory workers seemed unlikely. Why would you move 200 km away just to work in a factory when there were many factories in Leeds? They had all moved to that place for a specific purpose. I wondered if that purpose may have been to operate a pipe-making business. 

Late 18th Century engraving illustrating clay tobacco pipe manufacturing tools. (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons) 

By 1845, a baptism record showed that the family was back in Yorkshire, living in Tadcaster, a town between Leeds and York. In 1849 their address was in the city of York. Then in 1851 they were again in Leeds, and along came the next clue. David’s 18-year-old son, Samuel Luke, was also shown to be a tobacco pipemaker. By 1861 the family was living in the city of York, and in that census David had two sons who were pipemakers: 29-year-old Samuel Luke (shown as Luke) and 15-year-old John. 

Were they working in a family business or in the same factory? But again, if several members of a family had jobs working in a factory, they probably wouldn’t move from town to town. I began to wonder if the frequent moves were to either set up pipemaking businesses in different areas or to work in existing family-owned shops. David might have trained apprentices and then moved on. But this was just a guess. 

Sadly, both David and his son Samuel would die in 1870. In 1871, David’s widow Mary was living with her married daughter Caroline Stockdale in the city of York. Although her husband was a coal porter, daughter Caroline was listed as a pipemaker — and this with a one-year old child. Caroline would have probably been breastfeeding so it is unlikely she was working in a factory. But it is possible that she was working in a nearby family business. 

In addition, widow Mary was listed as an ‘annuitant.’ Since pensions were almost unheard of, and since David did not appear to have served in the military, where could this annuity have come from? My theory was that it came from the pipemaking business her husband David owned. 

A check of other family members in the 1871 census showed that son John was a pipemaker in York, while son Samuel Luke’s widow was making pipes in Leeds. Other census records for 1881 and 1891 provided more clues. David’s daughter Angela was married to a pipemaker named Frederick Strong in Leeds. Had he been one of her father’s employees? And another daughter, Sophia living in York, had a teenaged son who was a pipemaker. 

The evidence was piling up in favour of the Pickles family having been craftsmen with their own pipe-making business and possible a chain of shops. But how to prove it or at least find a compelling reason to believe it? 

Turn to Google of course. My search turned up the Society for Clay Pipe Research (SCPR). Founded in 1983 and based in England (but with a worldwide membership according to its website), this organization brings together “pipe collectors, researchers and other interested individuals so that they can exchange ideas and information and further their common research interests.”(2) 

I was thrilled to discover that the SCPR had a list of 17th and 18th centuries Yorkshire pipemakers on its website. Although David wouldn't have been alive then, I hoped that his father had but was disappointed to find not a single Pickles in the list.(3) 

I emailed the SCPR and explained what I had found so far about my pipemaking Pickles family and asked if its members could help me discover if my ancestors had been craftsmen. The volunteer who responded was sure she had never heard of my ancestors and on an initial check of her research, came up with nothing. But she suggested posting a request for information on the group’s Facebook page. 

Within hours of the post I had the answer I was seeking. A researcher replied that David and his family members were indeed pipemaking craftsmen and appeared in directories as business owners. The responder also noted that the family was known to take on apprentices who later became journeymen pipemakers. 

I began searching online directories for David’s time period and eventually found a listing for him under Tobacco Pipe Makers in 1855 on Patrick Pool Street in the city of York. 

1855 Slater’s Directory for Yorkshire 

Patrick Pool is a narrow lane with timber-framed and brick buildings leading towards Newgate Market (also called Shambles Market) in downtown York. The street is near Swinegate and was probably a popular route to the marketplace in the mid-1800s. While I don’t know exactly which building David’s shop was in, this is exactly the kind of street I imagined where a Victorian pipe shop would be located. 

Patrick Pool, York as it looks in 2021 (Courtesy of Google Streetview)

Then came the bonus. The volunteer at the Society for Clay Pipe Research who I’d originally contacted went back through her research to see if any Pickles pipemakers appeared. In her archived material, she found a newspaper article from York in 1861 describing how young John Pickles, son of pipemaker David Pickles, had been stabbed in the leg by a another boy. 

Article recounting the stabbing of David Pickles's son John in 1861 in York
(York Herald 02 February 1861)

The article implied that David had fallen on hard times, having had to move from Duke of York Street to Layerthorpe, known to be a very poor area of York.(4) I know from burial records that the family was still living in Layerthorpe in 1870. 

While this was only the beginning of my research into my Pickles pipemaking family of Yorkshire, I had the answer I was seeking and knew that my ancestors were craftsmen and business owners. And from my association with the Society for Clay Pipe Research, I learned that most pipes had initials or marks identifying their makers. I also learned that clay pipes from that period are found on a regular basis throughout England. Most finds are from the mud along the banks of rivers and canals but also from farmers’ fields, construction sites, and anywhere earth is turned. Maybe some of these unearthed pipes were made by my ancestors and maybe, just maybe, one day I will have the opportunity to see one. 

Post Script

Since writing the original article in 2015, I discovered a distant cousin in England who was researching the same family. Our shared direct ancestor was 3X-great grandfather David Pickles. My cousin informed me that one of his family members continued to make clay pipes until the 1950s. When he retired, a museum in York acquired my distant pipemaking relative's workshop tools for a display in their living exhibit. I have been unable to confirm if and where this exhibit exists, but if anyone knows, please send me a message using the contact form.

Top photo 19th century clay pipe from the north of England circa 1855. (Courtesy of: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum via Wikimeda Commons)


1) Poll Tax Returns of Yorkshire during the reign of King Richard of Bordeaux (1377-1399) “House of Names,” n.d. (last accessed 17 May 2015), <> 

2) “Society for Clay Pipe Research,” n.d. (last accessed 17 May 2015), <> 

3) White, S.D., “The Dynamics of Regionalisation and Trade: Yorkshire Clay Tobacco Pipes c1600-1800,” edited by Peter Davey and David A. Higgins, 2004 (last accessed 20 May 2015) < SDW%20Yorkshire%20Makers%20List.pdf> 

4) “York Herald,” 02 February 1861; The British Library Board via Findmypast Limited <http://> (last accessed 20 May 2015) 

Originally published in the Victoria. Genealogical Society Journal, Summer 2015 edition. This and all material on this website copyright KM Lowe and the Relative Writer unless stated otherwise.