Undiscovered Country

A week ago this coming Saturday morning, I attended the New York Pipe Show. While it is a relatively small show compared to some others, I’ve always enjoyed being there, principally because, in addition to artisans and pipe vendors, it is a place where collectors come to show and trade pipes. I’ve found it to be a show where I’ve been able to pick up some marvelous pipes at very good prices or for trade. One of the collectors who I always look forward to seeing is the noted Comoy collector Bob Herbert.

Bob and I had been in touch via email before the show, and I had been looking forward to seeing him because he always brings interesting and unusual pipes. I’ve bought several unique Comoy Blue Ribands from him and one of the most beautiful old BBB silver-inlaid cuttys that I have ever encountered. 

Early Saturday morning, I ran into Bob at the hotel’s Starlight Restaurant when my friend, Jon Guss, and I met for breakfast. Ever the thoughtful friend, Bob invited me to come and share a chair at his table when I tired of wandering the show floor looking at pipes.

Bob has been a reliable and credible source when I have needed to learn about or confirm some Comoy historical esoterica, but his expertise extends far beyond Comoyiana. He also possesses a great deal of expertise regarding old English and French factory pipes. Bob’s knowledge is rooted in his own collection, one that is both high-quality and reputedly rich in both scope and numbers.

There is nothing like seeing, holding, or comparing many pipes, especially when one’s collection is not limited solely to the big names like Dunhill, Comoy, GBD, BBB, etc. There were many other pipe-making concerns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which are relatively unknown to most of us. The fact that they are unknown to us does not in any way minimize the quality of these pipes, however, or the extent to which their owners loved them.

As I milled past Bob’s table, he asked me if I would watch his table while he retrieved some coffee and stretched his legs. I was happy to oblige because I had not yet had a chance to look at the large and varied assortment of pipes Bob had brought to the show for sale or trade. Grateful, I made my way behind the table. My view was now unobstructed, but I had to snatch pipes from his tubs with the speed of a striking rattlesnake; there were so many hands sorting through his pipes.

Because I was seated behind Bob’s table, people assumed that his pipes were my pipes. As I sat there, I heard the same questions repeated over and over again: “Do you have any Barlings?” “Are there any Dunhills?” “Where are the GBDs?” Over and over again, browsers asked for the big names. It was like all the other pipes before me did not exist. Without particular stampings, they were wallflowers and would not be asked to dance, let alone be taken home.

Finally, the crowd thinned out. I began to really look at the pipes before me. While there were more than few pipes that had been nearly smoked to death or had their rims beaten to smithereens while having the ash knocked out of them by their smokers decades before, I found more than few gems hidden in Bob’s well-tossed briar salads. Three of those gems have since made their way into my collection, and one of them – depicted here – is the subject of the post.

For years I have been looking for a small Dunhill Shell or Comoy Blue Riband lovat, but to no avail. As I sifted through Bob’s pipes, I began looking for lovats. Inside one of Bob’s tubs marked “Old English” I found the lovat you see depicted in this post. With “ABERDEEN” stamped boldly across its bowl front, it is more properly a Scottish pipe, not English, although it may have been made in France or England; many pipes sold in the UK early in the 20th Century were, in fact, made elsewhere. (I hope to find out which factory made this pipe by further research.)

At 4.5 inches in length and weighing just 24 grams, this pipe is exactly what I have hoped to find. For all practical purposes, the pipe was likely smoked just one or two times. Possessed of a creamy white, threaded bone tenon, the crisp vulcanite mouthpiece lines up at a perfect ninety-degree angle to the axis of the bowl chamber. The nomenclature stampings are as crisp as one would see on a brand new pipe.

c. 1936 photo of P Mitchell shop in AberdeenThis lovat is stamped “P. Mitchell, Aberdeeen” on the right side and “The Lord Sempill Pipe” on the other. This beautiful little lovat sparked no little interest from both Jon Guss and me. We both started trying to learn more about its origins. Jon’s extraordinary research revealed that the pipe was almost certainly sold by Peter Mitchell:

“A closer review of the Aberdeen city and phone directories shows that Peter Mitchell started business sometime in the very early 1880s, and established first a shop on Market street, and then one on Union.  The business continued at both the Union and Market addresses for decades.  The Union address last appears in the 1962 directory (and then apparently was shuttered), and the Market address last appears in the 1977 directory.  The inference is that the business was closed at that time, and after almost a century of operation. Check out [this] vintage picture that provides a peek-a-boo view of P. Mitchell in its prime. All pure supposition that this is the right “P Mitchell”.  All I can say is that if your “P. Mitchell” was based in Aberdeen, then this is almost certainly the guy.” (Jon Guss)

What is the probability that there was a second P. Mitchell operating in Aberdeen at the same time as the above-referenced Mitchell? Could there have been a second Mitchell who possessed the stature to produce a pipe named after one of Scotland’s oldest peerages? I doubt it. This pipe’s provenance is almost certainly established. What of the other stamping? Why name the pipe after a Scottish laird?

Captain Sempill showing a Gloster Sparrowhawk to Admiral Tōgō Heihachiro, 1921. Sempill mission to Japan. Source: Tōgō Shrine and Tōgō AssociationThe Lords Sempill have an auspicious – and checkered – history. The first Lord Sempill was killed in the Battle of Flodden in 1513, having been made a peer of the realm in circa 1489. Subsequent Lords Sempill have been Ambassadors, aids-de-camp to Kings, representatives of Scotland in the House of Lords, and, in one case (William Forbes-Sempill), a spy and traitor who was not executed because Winston Churchill intervened. 

A prosecution would have embarrassed the Royal Family and, more importantly, revealed to the Japanese that British Intelligence had cracked the cypher codes of its diplomatic service.

The traitor Sempill’s father was quite a different stripe. In his lifetime, he rose to become aid-de-camp to King George V. It is this Lord Sempill that had the title when this pipe was produced and sold.

What is the point of this meandering, byzantine yarn?

Had I looked only for nomenclature when I pawed through Bob Herbert’s show pipes, e.g. for Dunhill, Comoy, Barling, etc., it is very likely that this exquisite little lovat would still be ensconced in a dusty white tub in some closet or cabinet at Bob Herbert’s Delaware home. It’s savory Virginias-smoking properties would still be undiscovered country.

TOBACCO, April 1977, number 1155, Page 11Neither Jon Guss nor I would have learned of P. Mitchell’s Aberdeen tobacco shop, a shop that lasted 99 years before its 1977 closing. I would know nothing of a Scottish noble family’s 500-year story of bravery, service, and betrayal.

I am a storyteller, but I’m also a story-lover. To some extent, like many other pipe collectors who troll pipe show floors looking only for pipes from well-known houses, I have been blinded to new stories by old and well-known stories: Comoy, GBD, BBB, Loewe, and Dunhill stories I have come to know and love in this hobby.

It is only when I started really looking at the pipes in those tubs – and not their stampings – that new doors opened. If I see another pipe from P. Mitchell’s shop in Aberdeen, you can bet I will make it mine. I suspect if you come across one that you will give it your full attention, too.

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Reader Comments (8)

You have good taste, Neil, as I recall examining both of those pipes in the Old English tub. Managed to snag a few others though and a couple from the "Old French" tub as well. One in particular was an old tulip with long shank stamped "French Briar" in white. What a fantastic smoker, and considering that it's pre- WWI, it was a real steal.

Vendors like Mr. Herbert make the whole show worthwhile for pipesters like me.
March 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfurious
A great lesson learned and ably transmitted. Many thanks for a good thing to keep in mind. It is the pipe itself not its name that deserves our attention and affection.
March 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterRichard Friedman
I see at least two ramifications of the beautiful pipes Neill picked up from Bob Herbert. The first one he focused on in his post: how much we all miss when we look at the label, not the object (a sin eveyone commits at least once in a while; ever see people whiz through a museum pausing just long enough to read a signature?). The second implication I think Neill was too modest to talk about: the importance of having the right kind of vision to look past an object's current state and see what it was, or might become. How many people had walked by those same pipes before Neill found them late in the day? How many were turned off not just by the lack of pedigree, but by their condition? It takes a special kind of eye to look at a shabby pipe and conceive its beauty when restored. And a special kind of dedication to lavish the time, effort, and affection required to get it there. It's not clear to me how much of this gift is native, and how much acquired. Certainly others in the hobby have it too; I sure don't.
March 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterJon Guss
I'm not sure why, Neill, but this was one of my very favorite of your posts, and that's really saying something. I love finding great yet obscure pipes, I love Aberdeen, "The Granite City", and I so love history. It all just fit together. That is an exquisite little pipe. And btw, we flew from Newark to Charlotte last weekend with Brian Levine, who mentioned having seen you at the show. Once again, so near yet so far.
March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBigAl

You should consider tying together this blog with your recent entry about introducing new pipe smokers to great pipes that don't cost a lot.

I am considering writing something about how to put together a great pipe collection on a tight budget, and finding pipes like this one is exactly where I would start. Great post!
March 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRick Newcombe
I think the philosophy is so true Neill but, in particular, the provenance of the Mitchell fits so well with your researches into Scottish pipes - undiscovered country indeed.
March 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo44

Your post is, as always, beautifully crafted, and the photography superb. I had the good fortune to spend a great deal of time both speaking with Jon about obscure brands as well as perusing Bob Herbert's bins for some soon-to-be-resurrected treasures.

I was able to procure another A.R. Spencer, a brand whose history eludes me yet having had both smoked and unsmoked examples of their pipes in my hands, I can attest the quality of the briar and the skill with which the stems were hand-cut would place this maker in the same territory as Loewe and Dunhill. Spencer closed down all five of their shops in 1951 after opening their doors in 1880. And speaking of Loewe, it was not that long ago that the only thing us Americans knew about Loewe were the Cadogen-era pipes, so Loewe is a good example of how we as a pipe collecting whole can learn a thing or two and expand our knowledge.

There were literally dozens - if not hundreds - of tobacconists, briar pipe makers, and silversmiths creating pipes in the back room and selling them in the front of their shops. These pipes are treasures, both historically, and sentimentally, and each one has a story to tell. I've made it a goal to bring some of these dusty old relics to life again and dig up the histories associated with them. Besides my A.R. Spencer find, I also found a lovely H. Lewis (50 Parliament St. SW) with a blast that would embarrass a Dunhill, an interesting Seltscraper Patent, and a 1920-hallmarked "Diplomat" London Made. There are others, too, and more coming along soon (a 1925 silvermount JP Burns from Glasgow, a 1905 Posener & Co silvermount Calabash among others), all of which will provide a challenge and something of an adventure as I dig up the historical significance of each piece.

Regardless, I just wanted to thank you for rescuing an 'unknown' and bringing it to light. Your pipe looks like quite a gem, and had I gotten to it first, you would have never seen it. Good thing I was busy until the afternoon! Enjoy your pipe, and thanks for the great article.
March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Lindner
Neill, thank you for producing such a fine writing on looking through bins and finding treasures. I have not previously considered this and realize once again how much I have to learn in the pipe collecting world.

Jim O'Connell
March 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterJimchatt725

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