Smoking in the Victorian Home – Michael Ruddy

Smoking Pipes source (2)
Figure 1: Sample of the 26 Clay Tobacco Pipes excavated from Boundary Gardens, London  by the Museum of London Archaeological Service in 2009

Smoking was an important activity that took place not just in the public eye, but also within the domestic interior of the Victorian home; particularly in the parlour and other living spaces in the home. For those who smoked tobacco, it provided them with a relaxing activity, which was highly accessible and relatively cheap.  The importance and place of smoking within the Victorian home, however, has been commonly associated with middle and upper-class ideals of privacy and gender.

It was commonly understood that any smoking activity engaged within the living rooms of a Victorian house was usually carried out by middle- and upper-class men, within the privacy of the parlour and similar living areas of the house.  A woman of these classes, on the other hand, was not permitted to smoke inside or outside the home, as it was frowned upon due to its association with obscene sexual behaviour such as prostitution.[1] Smoking and masculinity was conceptualised as a relationship. Jessica Sewell explained that the pipe was ‘the worst rival a woman can have…because it was never nagging or needy and offered calm pleasures’.[2]

A private room for the ‘gentleman’ always had to be included within the Victorian home; one middle-class woman’s diary describes that when purchasing a house ‘a smoking room must be found’ in order to accommodate the needs for privacy for her husband.[3] Furthermore, guidance on etiquette throughout the century advised men of this class not to smoke in the company of women as it would seem ‘at best, an ungentlemanly and dirty habit’.[4] Therefore, as depicted in the painting below by artist John Soden, it is apparent that certainly in middle- and upper-class domestic interiors,  privacy was key, which resulted in gender segregation within the home.

Figure 2: John Soden, Smoking in the Parlour (1862)

With regard to the Victorian poor, it is evident that those living in slum households also enjoyed tobacco within the living spaces of their home.  However, they did not respect or follow the same ideals of privacy or gender roles as demonstrated by the middle and upper classes.  Archaeological evidence of clay pipes, when used with other sources, provides the opportunity to not only challenge existing interpretations of gender and privacy within the living spaces of the slum house, but to open new understandings altogether. The source used to highlight this is a selection of clay tobacco pipes taken from an excavation by the Museum of London Archaeological Service at Boundary Gardens, London, 2009.[5]

Textual sources provided by investigative journalists and novelists during  the nineteenth century indicate that smoking was undertaken by both genders within the domestic interior of the slum home.  An 1857 article ‘Condition of the People’ in Reynolds Newspaper describes two women in one home ‘each smoking a short black pipe…they were in perfect silence, evidently enjoying the soothing weed’.[6] Another article in ‘London and the Poor’ in the Morning Chronicle (1849) illustrates a scene in the living space of one slum home where ‘less than a dozen men and women [were] smoking round a fire’.[7]  Furthermore, in Life in the London Streets (1880) Richard Rowe describes a scene of women clearly ignoring the ‘rules’ of smoking: ‘a sprinkling of ugly, shabbily dressed women, sprawling their elbows on porter-slopped tables…smoking rank tobacco’. [8]

Clay pipes found in the Boundary Gardens excavation confirm how important and accessible smoking was for families living in slum households, and strengthens the interpretation that some have previously noted, that smoking was enjoyed by all genders within the domestic interior. Jacqui Pearce confidently concludes that amid all ‘the poor and underprivileged members of society, smoking offered affordable comfort’.[9] Undeniably, one of the major strengths of this form of evidence is its ability to give insight into the daily domestic routines of families living in slum communities.[10]

The features of twenty-six bowl and stem fragments of clay pipes found at the Boundary Gardens excavation exemplifies the importance of smoking in the domestic interior of the slum house during the nineteenth century.  Boundary Gardens was part of the notorious Old Nichol Slum area of London during the 1800s; Charles Booth’s 1889 poverty map offers a gloomy image of criminality and deprivation associated with this area. The Old Nichol Slum had some of poorest living conditions in London with the number of inhabitants reaching 6000 people. It experienced the greatest crime rates in Victorian London and, more shockingly, infant mortality was one in four.[11] The area was described by numerous journalists; one article in the London Illustrated News described the slum as ‘[a] painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty’ where the dwellers ‘huddled in dark cellars…teeming with disease and death’.[12]

Figure 3: Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of the Old Nichol Slum. Clearly dominated in Blue, which suggests the lives of the people in these areas ‘is the lives of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink’.


The analysis of the clay pipe bowl and stem fragments found in the Boundary Gardens site emphasises the importance and accessibility of smoking for slum families which was most likely carried out in a domestic setting as the fragments were found alongside household rubbish.  Indisputably, the fact that the pipes were heavily smoked before being discarded implies the importance of them for both the male and female smoker; this further suggests that smoking was an important part of domestic life, either for social reasons or for the purposes of relaxation or for easing hunger. Furthermore, the Makers’ initials were found on some of the pipe fragments, such as Nathanield Hebblewhite on Gray’s Inn Road, which indicates that the pipes were bought from local manufacturers and therefore more accessible for slum communities to purchase.

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Figure 4: The site of the 2009 excavation compared to an Survey map of the Old Nichol area in 1872.

These interpretations are strengthened by excavations throughout London where clay pipes were found.  One example is the Limehouse excavations (1993) where the condition of discarded clay pipe fragments found in privies connected to slum homes had stark similarities with those found in the Old Nichol.[13] The fact that the pipes were all made in the same mould, showed evidence of being bought in bulk along with the presence of decorated tobacco jars, further illustrated the importance of smoking by slum family members. [14]

By reviewing the evidence provided by the clay pipes from the Old Nichol and other associated sources, it is possible to establish that within the domestic interior of the slum home, there was a collapse of gender roles and privacy normally associated with the Victorian family. The slum household appeared to have living spaces which were shared by both genders without the restriction of etiquette and tradition found in the ‘normal’ Victorian home.


[1] Amos, A. and Haglund, M., ‘From Social Taboo to “Torch of Freedom”: the Marketing of Cigarettes to Women’ Tobacco Control, 9:01 (2000), p. 3.

[2] Sewell, J., ‘Smoking and Masculinity’, in Moran, A. and O’Brien S. (eds.), Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 65.

[3] Logan, T. The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 32.

[4] Martine, A., Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1866), p. 152.

[5] Telfer, A. ‘Boundary Gardens: Evaluation Report’. Available online: (Date accessed 10th October 2015)

[6] Anon., ‘Condition of the People’ Reynolds Newspaper 16 August 1857.

[7] Anon., ‘London and the Poor: The Manufacturing Districts’ Morning Chronicle, 6 December 1849.

[8] Rowe, R., Life in the London Streets (London: J.C. Nimmo and Bain, 1881), p. 29.

[19] Pearce, J. ‘Living in Victorian London: The Clay Pipe evidence’.  Available Online: (Date accessed: 26th November 2015).

[10] Owens, A. Jeffries, N., Wehner, K., Featherby, R., ‘Fragments of a Modern City: Material Culture and the Rhythms of Everyday Life in Victorian London’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 15:02 (2010), p. 214.

[11] Gorst, T. The Buildings Around Us (London: E & FN Spon, 1995), p. 50.

[12] ‘Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal-Green’ The Illustrated London News, 24 October 1863. Cited in ‘Dwelling of the Poor in Bethnal Green, available online: (Date Accessed 24th November 2015).

[14] Owens et al, ‘Fragments of a Modern City, pp. 219-220.

[15] Owens et al, ‘Fragments of a Modern City’, p. 219.


Figure 1: Telfer, A. ‘Boundary Gardens: Evaluation Report’ Available online: (Date accessed  10th October 2015)

Figure 2: Soden, John, Smoking in the Parlour .  Available Online:

Figure 3: Booth, C., ‘Classification: of Poverty’ Available Online: