Royal Navy 1941 to ’46 in order, In Praise of a lost Art

The making of a ‘Prick’ of tobacco. The ration was supplied in leaf form, as the name implied, with stalks and all, and I intended to turn this mass of dried cabbage into a plug of tobacco, which could challenge any in a tobacconists shop. Just writing that has made me realise there are few if any shops these day devoted solely to selling tobacco and the appendages that product needed. Many, like myself, graduated through the lighter tobaccos which burned the tongue but didn’t give you hic coughs, to the heavier tobaccos and finally to plug, the man’s smoke, the smoke of the aficionado and Jolly Jack Tar. It was this tobacco I learned to make from the raw dried leaves when I was at sea. I also learned to role a ‘tickler’, a thin, hand rolled cigarette, without a burning agent, saltpeter, to keep it alight.

The plug, the end product was called a ‘Prick’. Firstly the hard stalks and stems were stripped from the leaves until just the finer textured leaf was left. A strong mixture of brown sugar, rum and water was made and a square of linen about the size of a man’s pocket handkerchief procured. The leaf was then arrayed on the handkerchief in layers and as each layer was complete it was generously dabbed with the solution of rum and sugar, until all the leaf was used up. The tobacco was then rolled in such a way that it formed a cylinder and the handkerchief was tightly rolled round, with the edges turned in – a standard parcel.. This was then wrapped in a square of canvas, and twine was used to tie the canvas in place in the way a hammock is secured, with lashing at intervals along its length and tied in at each end. This was the ‘prick’. Finally, the canvas was lashed in a way similar to the way that one would bind anything in string or rope, except the binding started at the centre. A length of tarred spun-yarn was tied by its ends to the hammock rail so that it formed a slack ‘U’; a loop was made in the spun yarn and set along the length of the prick and held in place while a second loop was wound round it securing the first loop to the prick at the centre. From then on the spun-yarn was looped round, working from the centre out in both directions and after each application of two loops the sailor put all his weight on the prick so the loops tightened round the prick, squeezing out any surplus moisture through the handkerchief and into the canvas . This procedure progressed until the whole length of the prick was encased in tight spun-yarn which was then made secure and detached from the length tied to the hammock rails.

I always assumed that the moisture allowed an element of the tar in the spun yarn to be absorbed into the tobacco as well. The sailor then put the prick in the bottom of his kit bag and forgot about it for about three months by which time it was mature and the tobacco had been transformed into a short length of gnarled wood with all the wrinkles of the handkerchief, the canvas and the bands of spun-yarn permanently fossilised. When the end of the prick was shaved and rubbed in the palm, the aroma was wonderful, totally transformed from the ingredients, and the smoke was better than anything one could buy in a tin ashore.

I write this long description because soon pipe smoking, which is now frowned upon, will be a thing of the past and people will have forgotten the rituals and the simple pleasures the pipe gave, what was it the musical hall artists used to say? A woman is just a woman, but a pipe of baccy’s a good smoke. I remember some of my relatives were not enamoured with me if I smoked in the house, so it is unsurprising if pipe smoking too is a lost art.

1 comment

  1. Fantastic recipe for homemade pipe tobacco. Thank you Gaffer for this great tidbit. I’ve got some homegrown tobacco that has been waiting for such a treatment!

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