Home to the world’s largest coloured pencil, the Derwent Pencil Museum was featured in my ‘111 Places’ book along with another place in Keswick which seemed quite intriguing so towards the end of my first week on holiday I decided to pay a visit.
Back in the early 16th century graphite was discovered in the Borrowdale area of Cumbria, with the first documented use of it for writing and drawing being in 1565. In the early days of pencil making a small cottage industry making artists’ pencils by hand started in Keswick, this then became a commercial venture from 1792 onwards. By 1811 the town had three main manufacturers – John Ladyman, John Airey and Jacob Banks, but by 1829 that number had increased to thirteen.
The Cumberland Pencil Company started life in 1832 under the name of “Banks, Son & Co”. This company passed through several owners before becoming the Cumberland Pencil Company in 1916, and in 1932 the first coloured pencil was produced. In 1980 the company was bought by the American firm Acco Brands, known then as Rexel, and the Derwent name became a brand of their product range.
The factory was renovated several times over the years, the last renovation being in the 1950s, but as machinery and production methods changed over time the factory became unviable. In the mid 1990s plans were put forward to redevelop the building but they didn’t meet the criteria for the Lake District National Park Planning Authority so eventually the decision was made to re-locate to new premises in Workington.
The new factory was officially opened by the Queen on June 5th 2008 though the old factory building still stands close to the River Greta in Keswick, with the Pencil Museum, which opened in 1981, situated in a single story building in front of it. In December 2015 the museum was badly damaged by several feet of flood water when the river broke its banks as a result of Storm Desmond; many artefacts were destroyed and although a lot of the exhibits were salvaged one limited-edition collection was completely ruined and couldn’t be replaced. After an 18-month closure the museum reopened to the public in June 2017 with Countryfile tv presenter John Craven cutting the ribbon.
Paying my £4.95 at the door I was given a Derwent pencil as an ‘entry ticket’ then found myself walking through a mock-up of a graphite mine tunnel leading to the main part of the museum. A couple of life-size models represented mine workers and a display case on top of a large wooden box contained three skulls, and while I could ~ maybe ~ see the significance of the models I hadn’t a clue what the skulls were all about. To be honest the whole set-up felt weird and wouldn’t have looked out of place as part of a fairground ghost train.
Emerging from the ‘mine’ I found the rest of the museum to be fairly light and bright, with information panels on the walls showing the history of graphite, the company, and how pencils are made. Several display cases contained examples of various items produced over the years but unfortunately so much glass produced too much light reflection – photography wasn’t easy and a lot of my shots had to be severely cropped or deleted.
One thing I did find interesting was the development of the ‘secret map and compass’ pencil. During WW2 Charles Fraser-Smith was known to be a civil servant in the textile department of the Ministry of Supply but in reality he was a ‘gadget man’ working at the direction of MI6, developing and supplying a wide range of spy and escape gadgets for the Special Operations Executive. Always on the lookout for ways to help airmen evade capture, prisoners of war to escape, and secret agents to get information back to Britain, he approached Fred Tee, the technical manager at Cumberland Pencils, to see if a pencil could be made with a secret compartment.
Tee worked out how to make the pencils then he and his fellow managers, all sworn to silence by the Official Secrets Act, would creep back into the factory after hours to do their work. A box of finished pencils would be taken off the shelf and the insides partially drilled out, then a tightly rolled map would be slipped inside each one, the metal ferrule would be placed on the end, a tiny compass inserted and the eraser glued back on; at the end of the job each pencil looked just as it had at the start.
In 1999, as part of the company’s commemoration of the forthcoming millennium, Clive Farrar, the technical manager at the time, wanted to reproduce the WW2 pencil. It was a job which proved to be very difficult even with modern machinery and technology; the story is told by Clive himself in a continuously running video and an example is displayed on one of the information boards.
Also for the millennium the company produced the Borrowdale Collection, a special edition box containing all the Derwent ranges plus some special edition pencils which had been produced over the years. There was no indication of how much this would have cost to buy but looking at the prices of some of the things in the shop and on the website – some items well over £200 – it would have been extremely expensive.
To commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 Derwent crafted a special Diamond Jubilee Pencil; only two were made, with one being presented to Her Majesty and the other being displayed in the museum. Using previously archived graphite originally taken from the Borrowdale mine where it was first discovered the pencils were meticulously hand crafted by Clive Farrar using the traditional pencil making skills from before 1832. Once painted, the barrels were embellished with caligraphy by Paul Antonio and finished with a crown encrusted with 60 diamonds supported by white gold fleur-de-lys to symbolise royalty.
Also to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee, on the wall nearby was a portrait of the Queen produced by pencil artist Samantha Norbury whose clients include Sir Cliff Richard and well known darts players Bobby George and Phil Taylor. Commissioned by Derwent it was created using only Derwent Artists’ Pencils.
In the centre of the room was the one thing I’d really gone to see – the world’s largest coloured pencil. The idea of technical manager Barbara Murray, the yellow pencil is 26ft long, weighs 446.36 kilos, or just over 984 lbs in old money, and was completed on May 28th 2001.
Once I’d seen all there was to see, which didn’t take very long as the museum isn’t a big place, I had a browse round the shop where I came across a multi-coloured sheep which had been part of the HerdwickTrail in 2016. Full size models of 60 ewes and 48 lambs were sponsored by local businesses, decorated by local artists and dotted around the tourist routes from Keswick to Windermere. Eventually they were all auctioned off to enable The Calvert Trust, a residential centre for people with sensory, learning or physical disabilities, to develop their riding school’s facilities.
Although the museum had been interesting in many ways much of it was given over to displays of different pencils in various tins, tubes and boxes and ‘artistic arrangements’, and while the information boards gave great detail of the discovery and use of graphite and how pencils are made I thought they were rather lacking in the finer details of the history of the place; even the website seems to concentrate more on the products they sell.
With the mock-up of the mine tunnel at the entrance, three random skulls, a seemingly pointless life-size model in a pilot’s uniform standing at the far end, and the multi-coloured sheep in the shop this, to me at least, was a bit of an odd place. It passed 45 minutes of my time though, and having seen the world’s largest coloured pencil in the flesh, so to speak, I can now cross the museum off my ‘places to see’ list.