Cumberland Pencil Museum

During our holiday in Cumbria last month, one of the places the delightful assistants and I were most looking forward to visiting was the Cumberland Pencil Museum.

One dark and drizzly morning we set off for the town of Keswick to achieve this ambition. It was mid-morning when we reached the museum and we headed straight for its aptly named coffee shop, Sketchers.

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Part of Sketchers coffee shop, adjoining the Cumberland Pencil Museum gift shop.

We chose a table in a ‘drawing room’ next to the main body of the coffee shop.

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I was delighted by the tablecloth, decorated with coloured pencils.

Sketchers table cloth

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Alongside the usual tub of sugar packets there was a pencil holder full of coloured pencils.

sugar and pencils

Delightful assistant no.1 wasn’t very hungry so we ordered two scones between the three of us: one fruit

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and one plain, each accompanied by a cheerful pink napkin.

plain scone

After buttering and jamming the scones I cut them into bits for sharing. They were crumbly but tasty and the jam was first rate.

To sloosh ’em down we chose an Americano (delightful assistant no.1), a cappuccino (delightful assistant no.2) and a hot chocolate (me). I liked the stripy mugs. Had they been on sale in the gift shop, I might well have taken one home with me.

3 drinks and scones

Replete and ready for the exhibition, we toddled off with our tickets. Rather splendidly, instead of individual bits of printed paper or card, each ‘ticket’ came in the form of a plain wooden pencil with the name of the museum printed on it.

cumberland pencil

The entrance to the museum had been designed to look like a cave, and we had to duck our heads as we went through.

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We passed a miner hammering rock to obtain graphite for pencils,

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and on into a brightly lit area where there was plenty to read. I educated myself with some interesting facts, such as the following:

  • Pencils can write in zero gravity and underwater.
  • Pencils don’t contain lead, but are made from a mixture of graphite and clay.
  • An average pencil can write around 45,000 words.
  • The Americans spent millions of dollars developing a pen that would write in space. The Russians took a pencil.

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My favourite bit of the museum was the display dedicated to Charles Fraser Smith. The name may or may not mean anything to you, but if you’ve ever seen a James Bond film you’ll no doubt be familiar with the character ‘Q’.

Ian Fleming, author of the original Bond novels, met Charles Fraser Smith during the Second World War and based the idea of Q, or more specifically Q Branch (the outfit responsible for the development of ingenious gadgets), on his remarkable work. In real life, Charles Fraser Smith created precisely the sorts of gadgets that feature in many a Bond movie. This was what he had to say about his unusual job:

“My piece of the war had been, I suppose, more unorthodox than that of almost anyone alive. I supplied equipment and gadgets to secret agents in the field or to prisoners of war trying to escape… I worked completely underground using as a cover the ‘Ministry of Supply Clothing and Textile Department’. My methods were certainly individual. In most cases I was forced to go well outside the normal channels to get anything done at all. Knowing when something of mine went well – a gadget really worked and out-foxed the enemy, perhaps helping to save a valuable life – was all I needed by way of inspiration.”

His connection with the Cumberland pencil factory in Keswick came about when he had the idea of hiding a miniature compass and a map inside a pencil. The project was so top secret that the pencils were made at night after the factory had closed, and only the managers had wind of the scheme. Each pencil contained a tiny compass and one of a series of maps of Germany. The maps were printed on silk so that they could be unravelled silently, and each pencil was marked with a number relating to the map it contained. The pencils were issued to Royal Air Force pilots, for use in the event of them being shot down over enemy territory.

Other similar pencils were made for British prisoners of war, the maps inside being marked with escape routes and safe houses. These pencils were passed to prisoners by the Red Cross, who smuggled them in unwittingly, having no idea that the pencils were anything other than ordinary writing tools. The pencil designs were such a closely guarded secret that no official records of them exist, and it’s not known how many were made or exactly how they were constructed.

After the war had ended, gadgets such as these were recalled by the British government and destroyed. Very few are known to still exist, but one of them can be seen in the pencil museum, and I must say it’s an admirably dull looking implement. So dull, in fact, that although I inspected it in its glass case, I neglected to photograph it.

I did attempt to take a photograph of another pencil in the museum but I couldn’t get it all into the picture. You can see the pointy end of it at the top of the picture below. It’s suspended on brackets near the ceiling, which makes it a bit difficult to see in its entirety, but I suppose the sheer size of it made displaying it something of a challenge.

big pencil

It is, in fact, the world’s longest coloured pencil (it’s yellow) and, according to the Guinness World Records Certificate on the wall nearby it measures 7.91 metres (25ft 11.5 in) long and weighs 446.36 kg (984.05 lb). It was made by the Cumberland pencil factory in 2001, and 28 men were needed to carry it from the factory to the museum. Not having a pencil sharpener big enough to accommodate it, they had to sharpen the tip with a chainsaw.

Also on display, neatly arranged in glass cases, were various packets of Cumberland pencils produced over the decades since the factory opened in 1832. Some were housed in long, thin cardboard boxes,

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while others were presented in tins or boxes decorated with attractive Lakeland scenes.

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After enjoying the display about Charles Fraser Smith I had been hoping (and, I admit, assuming) I would be able to buy a book about him in the gift shop. However, virtually all of the books on sale were concerned with drawing techniques. I think the shop missed a trick there because I’m sure the wartime pencils fascinate many visitors.

Our minds well filled with pencil-related information, we skipped through the rain and got into the car to head for our planned lunch stop. Before we left I took a picture of a little old truck sitting in a corner of the car park.

pencil bus

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19 thoughts on “Cumberland Pencil Museum

  1. Lakeland and Cumberland. Names to conjure with 🙂 and two of the earliest words I learned to read too! It’s very cool that there is a museum! More people making efforts. I like it. I looked up The Book Depository to see if there are any books on the real Q, but they all seem to be out of print, sadly. So it may not be all the museum’s fault. I’m sure they’d be a fascinating read … and it would be a nice challenge to trawl second hand bookshops for them, and a thrill to find one!

    • I take it you had the Derwent coloured pencils as a nipper? I’m sure for many visitors the museum is a bit of a trip down memory lane. I apologise to the museum re: the books. I didn’t realise his biography was out of print. Mind you, even if they had produced a small leaflet containing the information on display I would probably have bought it, it’s such an intriguing story. It would be wonderful to find a book about him in a second hand bookshop, I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes peeled from now on, thanks for the tip.

  2. Well I must say that is just fascinating information — you also made me feel better, as when I was in elementary school, a piece of pencil “lead” got stuck in my leg…I still see the piece of “lead” that I now, after decades, know that it is actually graphite, not lead. I feel much better now. also, fyi, I saw a show recently that reflected there is the man in the U.S. who will sharpen your pencils for you for a fee…you send him your pencil and he is masterful at sharpening them…not sure about this, but he gets many sent to him weekly…kind of a niche business I’d say.
    Thanks for the history lesson Lorna, loved it!

    • That sounds as if it was a nasty accident, getting a pencil stuck in your leg, but I’m glad if you now feel less distressed about it. I was amazed to read about the pencil sharpening man. Is it David Rees? I searched online and found him. Hard to believe he really sharpens pencils for a living. His website says that not only will he sharpen your own pencils for you but he can send you a brand new perfectly sharpened one for the bargain price of only $40 (or $55 outside the US). At that price I wouldn’t want to blunt it by using it.

  3. Love this, Lorna! How interesting. I had never heard of Charles Fraser Smith. I would certainly be interested to read more about him! I shall have to look him up. That’s funny about the pencil and the space pen! 😀 The museum sounds like a great place for a visit.

  4. This is as cool as a chocolate factory. Loved the story about Charles Fraser and the secret pencils. So interesting. You find the most interesting places to visit.

  5. Delightful post. Loved the Russian one-upmanship with the pencil and the stories of Charles Frazer Smith. I remember watching a Bond movie with my father and being amazed by various unlikely devices, but he said he thought they were all based on real items. He had works in MI10 (technical intelligence) after WWII

  6. Fantastic, Lorna! I absolutely must take my daughter there. She is a pencil connoisseur, and also loves tales of subterfuge. Like an earlier commenter, I was relieved there’s no lead in pencils, as I too have in me a blue dot of pencil from childhood – in my forehead, where in frustration during a test, I accidentally jolted my head down onto the tip of the sharp pencil I was holding! Perhaps you should write the book on Q!

    • I think she’d love it, in that case, Christine. It’s a fascinating business, how pencils are made.I had no appreciation of how complicated a process it is. What a terrible injury with the pencil in your head, I hope it hasn’t had any lasting ill effects, other than the blue dot. I don’t know that I have what it takes to write a book about Q although it is an enticing idea. There was a biography of him brought out in 1989 so I’d like to find a copy of that. The reviews I’ve read of it rate it highly so perhaps reissue of that is what’s needed.

  7. I claim to be an amateur geologist, Lorna, but I had no idea as to where graphite comes from. I assumed it would have been mined from Ordovician mudstones found in the Lake District, but it turns out it’s found in metamorphic rocks. That kind of makes sense, if the original rocks were organic rich mudstones, it would take the metamorphic processes to transform the carbon to graphite.
    It’s amazing that an average pencil can write 45,000 words, and I love the fact about the Americans and the Russians. Only in the USA could they waste millions of dollars instead of using something as simple as a pencil!!
    That’s fascinating about the pencils being used during the Second World War by the RAF for the pilots etc, no wonder you were looking forward to that bit of the museum 🙂
    It’s a museum that I wouldn’t have considered visiting before now, but since reading your excellent post Lorna, I would definitely go now!!!

    • Thank you for all the geology information, Andy. I must confess, I had never given any thought to where graphite comes from before. The museum was full of fascinating information, but as usual with such places there was far more than my small brain could take in. I just liked the idea of a whole museum dedicated to pencils. 🙂

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