Academics pipe up with a new interpretation of history

Dr Angela Muir, left, and Dr Sarah Inskip

The historic misuse of the humble smoker’s pipe has led to two University of Leicester academics’ realisation that we might be missing a trick when it comes to interpreting history.

While Dr Angela Muir and Dr Sarah Inskip were looking into the role tobacco played in crime between 1600 and 1900, they noticed tobacco pipes were cropping up in criminal records, newspaper reports and historic medical texts in a range of different contexts other than for smoking tobacco. They found repeated patterns of pipes being used as weapons, as well as improvised medical instruments.

It dawned on Dr Muir, a historian, and Dr Inskip, an osteoarchaeologist (someone who scientifically examines human skeletons excavated from archaeological sites), that despite a significant amount of research on the material culture of the past, few studies have considered the ad hoc and alternative use of objects, and the evidence that these uses can provide about everyday life. In their article, which is published by Oxford Academic they assert such studies as this are possible only through interdisciplinary approaches to material culture.

Dr Muir said: “By combining the archaeological and archival records related to this particular object, we discovered we could not only uncover new evidence about tobacco pipes, but also about the material worlds and lived experiences of the individuals that encountered these objects, which includes perspectives on gendered and class-based use of tobacco. It’s quite exciting because this provides so much new potential to explore material culture by reading objects against the grain.”

Dr Inskip added: “Our research also reveals key reasons as to why people might have adapted things and why they were innovative, whether this be financial, practical, or through social pressures. They also give important hints about everyday life and issues that ordinary people had, the people we often know the least about.”

The experts’ research found 66 instances of pipes being involved in threats to life, injuries or death, from sample cases from between 1615 and 1904. Most of the cases are from London, which is due to the size and searchability of the Old Bailey records, and the frequency with which London crimes were reported nationally. However, there were cases from across Britain, including cases in Scotland, Wales and regions throughout England, indicating that it was a widespread and common occurrence.

One example cited in the study is the case of Sylvanus Owen, a yeoman from Caernarfonshire, Wales, who was found guilty of the manslaughter of John Williams, in 1788. Williams perished a few days after a drunk Owen stabbed him in the eye with his pipe.

Dr Muir added: “Perhaps most notably, in 1842 seventeen-year-old John William Bean attempted to shoot Queen Victoria with a pistol loaded with gunpowder and pipe fragments while she was in her carriage, but the gun misfired.”

The study also found medical literature would recommend the use of tobacco pipes as makeshift catheters or to express breast milk.