Thursday, October 10, 2019


On a recent trip to the Lake District in England, we used a rainy day as an excuse to visit one of the few indoor attractions in Keswick, the Derwent Pencil Museum.

Before I talk about the museum, though, a bit of quick history – Writing instruments of all sorts have been in use for thousands of years, but a sort of proto pencil was a lead-based stylus used since the time of the Romans (which is why we still call them “lead pencils” even though lead hasn’t been used in pencils in hundreds of years).

The modern version of the pencil dates back to the 16th century with the discovery of a large deposit of graphite near Keswick in the Borrowdale Valley. The story says that it was found by accident by a group of shepherds who, on finding that it wouldn’t burn like coal, used the mineral to mark their sheep. But they soon discovered it left marks on their hands and other things that were hard to remove.

People soon discovered that the mineral was too soft to use by itself, but stuffed into a wooden tube, it made an easy-to-use writing instrument.

The World's Largest Pencil
By the early 18th century a cottage industry creating pencils had grown up in Keswick and the surrounding area. In 1916 the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company or sometimes just called The Cumberland Pencil Company was formed to manufacture pencils. The first Derwent color pencil was produced in 1938. The Derwent brand is still recognized for produced some of the finest artist’s pencils in the world.

The factory has since moved, but the museum remains in Keswick. It’s a fascinating place. In addition to displays showing the history of the pencil, there are numerous historical items, a look at the manufacturing process, the varieties of pencil and art supplies now available, and a couple of fascinating, related stories. It also features the world's biggest pencil, as certified by the Guiness Book of World Records.

During World War II, Brittain’s secret service operatives worked with the company to develop ways to incorporate various bits of miniaturized technology into the pencils. They were also used as a method for passing secret messages. None of this has ever been officially confirmed, of course!
The museum gave us each a plain Derwent pencil with our entrance ticket. I was glad to get one.

Personally I use pencils quite a bit. Although all my books are written on the computer, I do a lot of preliminary work and planning using a pencil and paper. I like a pencil that writes fairly dark and has a nice sharp point. There’s something about the physical act of holding a pencil over a blank piece of paper that gives opens the spigot and gives the ideas a channel to emerge and begin to grow.


  1. Hi Karen--
    Thanks for sharing this interesting post. I didn't know the pencil had such a fascinating past! I'll never look at my pencils the same way :-) The museum sounds like a fun day trip. And great photo.

  2. Nice post. I agree that the act of holding a pencil (or pen) in your hand and writing the words directly on the paper can be inspiring. When I get stuck, I turn off my computer and starting just writing. Somehow, thought it's easier to make corrections on the computer, working with a pencil gives a feeling a freedom to try out new ideas.

  3. Interesting history of the pencil. I tend to use a pen more often, but agree that pencils are actually more satisfying particularly since you can erase and start again.

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