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My Wonderment at One Derwent

During a visit to our daughter’s home in England a few years ago I was able to convince everyone that we should take a day to make a short pilgrimage to the Derwent Pencil Museum, located in the beautiful market town of Keswick in Cumbria. Of course, everyone readily agreed (who wouldn’t want to spend a day at a pencil museum!), so off we went… (at least that’s the level of enthusiasm that I recall…)

While my pencil collecting interests are primarily in the realm of 19th century mechanical pencils, I had still wanted to visit this museum for some time to learn more about the graphite (wad) industry in the UK, which dates back to the early 16th century (Borrowdale Mine), as well as the history of pencil-making in the Keswick area, which began in the 1830’s.

The museum is small, but quite fascinating, and I would highly recommend a visit to anyone passing through that part of England, or that has even a marginal interest in the history of pencils, pencil manufacturing, and graphite mining.

One particular display that caught my attention described the secret map pencils of World War II. I had never heard of these prior to visiting the museum and I found the backstory fascinating…

In 1942 the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company received a visitor from the British Ministry of Supply with a special top secret request – to manufacture pencils that to all appearances were identical to other pencils, but would contain an escape map and a compass. 
These were to be provided to RAF pilots and crew to assist in their escape should they be shot down over enemy territory. As it turns out, the special visitor was Charles Fraser Smith, the creative inventor of all kinds of speciality gizmos and gadgets for MI6 and MI9, which he called “Q” devices. He also worked with Ian Fleming, and he is believed to have been the inspiration for the “Q” character in Fleming’s James Bond stories.

To help ensure that the secret pencils remained a secret, only a few members of the management team were involved in their manufacture, and production of these was done after all the regular staff had gone home. There were 4 different coded pencils made, each with a different escape map. They were all painted green; the only war-era pencils to be painted at all as all paint had been requisitioned for the war effort.

It is unknown how many of these pencils were made, and after the war items such as this were recalled by the War Department and most were destroyed, including any original design diagrams that explained how they were to be made.

The Pencil Museum recently released a reproduction of the secret map pencil and being a sucker for interesting pencil stories, I immediately snapped one up. The “escape map” included in the reproduction set is actually a map of the area around the Pencil Museum.

It is believed that very few of the original World War II map pencils still exist other than those in the Pencil Museum, so if you have one of these lying about from the Second World War that you’d like to get rid of, call me!

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