Derwent Pencil Museum, Keswick

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.
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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.
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Paint cart and pots
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Painting machine
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.
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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.
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A set of 72 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.
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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 Herdwick Trail  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.
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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.

16 thoughts on “Derwent Pencil Museum, Keswick

  1. We’ve visited the pencil museum while on holiday in the area. We must have seen the world’s largest pencil but the only memorable thing I can say about the museum is that we’ve been in there 🙂


    1. You’ve just made me giggle with that statement 🙂 It isn’t a particularly exciting place is it, although someone with a pencil fetish would probably enjoy it and serious pencil artists would love the shop. The mock-up mine tunnel at the entrance was odd and there was no explanation for those random skulls – very weird.


  2. I’ve heard of this museum but wasn’t sure it would be that interesting to visit. I started reading your post expecting to be enlightened about its wonders, but having finished I see my original assumption was correct 😆 But that secret pencil does sound interesting, I agree!


    1. To be honest I think ‘museum’ is the wrong word for it, ‘collection’ might be more appropriate. Reading about the discovery of graphite and how the pencils are made was quite enlightening and the secret pencil bit was interesting but other than that there’s not really much fascinating ‘history’ there to hold anyone’s attention for long.


  3. I’ve never visited the museum and I’m not sure I would want to now 🙂
    It looks an unusual rather than interesting place. I wonder if all those glass cabinets are perhaps to safeguard the contents from possible future floods. X


    1. My suspicious mind rather thinks they are to stop people pinching things from the displays – a lot of the items are small enough to easily tuck into a pocket. It was a pleasant enough place to look round for half an hour or so though not the sort of place you would want to go back to once you’ve seen it. I’m glad I went as it was something a bit different but I wouldn’t return.


  4. Eileen made me giggle too – I was trying to think of how to (politely) say the same thing. It is years since we visited and doesn’t look like it has changed much. I think you found more to look at in the museum at Banks’ in Cockermouth.


    1. You’re probably right Jayne. Banks’ is what you can call a museum, loads of old and interesting things with much history, everything labelled, nothing enclosed in cases and a very informative website but this place? – not a patch on it. I’ve been trying to find ways of writing a Tripadvisor review without being too brutal but at the moments words fail me 🙂 🙂


  5. On all the times we have been to the Lake District we have never visited the pencil museum. It has always been kept in reserve as a rainy day activity – which says something about how lucky we have been with the weather. Having read your review I don’t think we’ve missed that much!


  6. Haha, we visited here with Hugo once on a rainy day. The giant pencil was the highlight! I have a picture somewhere of Hugo looking unimpressed. :b
    The museum appears in British black comedy film Sightseers , which is totally bonkers. Have you seen it? A slightly odd couple become serial killers on a roadtrip round Northern England. The giant pencil is only used to write a postcard, not kill anybody, thank goodness! X


  7. I haven’t seen the film and from your description I don’t think I would want to, it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing at all. The museum was okay-ish but not somewhere you could write home about 🙂 🙂 🙂 I won’t be going again anyway, one visit was enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It was a bit of a disappointment regarding the actual history of the place. As well as the workers’ lives I would have liked to know about the different people who owned the place, when the different renovations were carried out and what was done etc. If you want to make a comparison have a look at my post about J B Banks hardware shop, now that does have a lot of history behind it.


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