"As the men were lying behind cover, waiting on the 'Charge!' most of them pulled out pipe and tobacco, and smoked as if for life. When the signal came they still kept pipe in mouth, and went up the kopje and into the battery smoking — or at least chewing the pipe-stem. It is wonderful, and not to be explained, how a soldier can carry a cutty-pipe between his teeth, often in full blast, and keep it there all the time of a charge."
-Richard Danes, Cassell's History of the Boer War (1901)
It was, at first glance, a fairly ordinary pipe case. But I knew from the expression on Sykes's face that it had to be something more. I took the set in my hands and read inscribed upon its silver badge:
Sergeant A.W. White, RMLI
By the Officers, N.C.O's & Men
B. Company N.S.W 3rd Contingent
Infantry As a Mark of Esteem
I opened the case and found four smooth, silver-banded Barling pipes, each bearing hallmarks from 1898, along with a silver match case and a cheroot holder. The set had just arrived in an estate batch, and we knew immediately that we had received not only an important piece of pipe history — four excellent representations of late 19th-Century English pipes — but historical artifacts in their own right. The pipe set that I was holding in my hands had originally been presented by an Australian Infantry Company to a Royal Marine during the Boer War. Sykes and I took an immediate interest in the set and undertook what turned out to be an interesting and fairly extensive effort to learn more about these special pipes and the events surrounding their presentation.
While manufactured in 1898, the pipes were presented on May 10, 1900. The inscription indicates that the set was presented during the Boer War — the first large-scale imperial conflict in which Australian units made a significant contribution to the war effort. The Boer War (1899-1902) was a clash between the British Empire and the Boer nations of the Cape Frontier, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The war grew out of long-standing tensions between the British and the Boers, who were the descendants of Dutch settlers in the region, and concerned mining rights in particular.
The first questions that we explored were these: Who was A.W. White and what act of service did this Royal Marine perform that merited such high esteem from an Australian infantry company? The possibilities were (and still remain) intriguing, but our search for answers was ultimately inconclusive. Although we were able to identify several men named A.W. White who participated in the Boer War, it proved an impossible task to link any of them firmly to the set. As for what act of service A.W. White may have performed, it is, again, impossible to know with certainty. But the history of the infantry company itself allows us to advance some plausible theories.
The only Australian infantry company that arrived in South Africa early enough to present the set departed from Sydney on November 3, 1899, finally joining what became known as "The Australian Regiment" on December 9. The men who made up these early units were primarily drawn from Australian militias. They would have, therefore, had a degree of military training, but probably not the sort of training that would have prepared them to participate in an imperial war in the same way that British regulars would. And this company, like so many others, was put to the test. They faced heavy fighting in February of 1900, and went on to assist in the capture of numerous towns in the Orange Free State in March and April. While it is difficult to imagine this Australian infantry company fighting alongside a sergeant in the Royal Marines, perhaps A.W. White's act of service was to assist in training the Australian company; helping to prepare the men for these difficult months, instilling in them martial discipline and skill could have quite literally saved many of their lives.
Beyond the historical circumstances of its presentation, the pipe set speaks to the culture of pipesmoking in Late Victorian England and the British Empire more broadly. At home, pipes were a feature of male social rituals. Pipesmoking itself was pervasive enough that factories like Barling were turning out large numbers of briar pipes. This culture was transmitted, at least in part, to the battlefield. In war, pipesmoking was a reminder of home and offered a brief reprieve from the realities of armed conflict. Soldiers smoked pipes in their leisure time and clenched them in battle. Prisoners of war carved pipes in their captivity. The Queen even sent soldiers in the Boer War a silver-mounted briar as a Christmas gift.
The presentation of the set was, therefore, culturally resonant and materially significant. Barling advertised two- and three-pipe sets as the pinnacle of their offerings. A four-pipe set was rare, indeed. Considering that the pipes were manufactured in 1898 and presented in 1900, they were most likely purchased and engraved locally. Capetown would have likely been the only city in South Africa advanced enough and thoroughly British enough to offer such a set and to offer such fine engraving.
Josh and Sykes discuss the antique Barling set in more detail.
The pipes themselves are among the best examples of early Barling Briars that we've encountered here at Smokingpipes. It's rare enough to find a single pipe of such age that's still intact, and a full set of them, every pipe complete and present, really is something else.
The set includes two bent Billiards, the first of which is distinguished by its tall, cylindrical bowl and deep bend. This first pipe's shape in some respects is similar to the Hungarian, which was, incidentally, favored by the President of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger, and which posterity would thus remember as the Oom Paul. It should be noted that although this general shape type takes its now most common name from the Boer leader, it was also very well represented among troops from the British Empire, both in the pipes purchased for them and in the pipes they carved and decorated for themselves as prisoners of war.
The second bent Billiard is a variant of the English classic. The bowl is rounder and softer; the bend a bit less pronounced. Like the other pipes in the set, this bent Billiard reflects many of the pipe-making conventions of late-19th-century English briar pipes. The vulcanite stems are considerably meatier than what is found on more modern pipes. The buttons are likewise round, and rather than slots, we find a simple circular airway.
The third briar is a straight Bulldog, a substantial pipe yet elegant in its lines. The piece is well-proportioned and nicely balanced. The gentle cant of the bowl and tapered waist lends the pipe a sense of refinement and suggests some inspiration from old French pipe designs.
The final pipe in the set is a Cutty — one of the earliest and most traditional of pipe shapes, but not one that we've seen very often from Barling. Here, it is rendered in a particularly reserved fashion. The bowl is less canted than we find in both earlier clay and later briar renditions, and the foot is quite pronounced.The match case, known as a Vesta, was produced by W.H. Leather for Barling. Vestas were essential pipe smoking accoutrements prior to the rise of the pocket lighter and could be attached to one's clothing with a fob, similar to a pocket watch.
It is unlikely we will ever know for certain who Sargeant A.W. White was, or how it came to be that the men who gifted him this set thought so highly of him. It is clear, however, that they did; in 1900 such a set of silver-accented Barlings would have been as much a prize to the enlisted man and smoker as they are today to a collector.