How the humble pencil assisted in WWII

The largest pencil in the world - on display Derwent Pencil Museum. Photo: Jane

Regular readers will know I have been travelling in Africa, after which I spent 10 days in the UK, zigzagging along back roads on a conducted tour from London to Edinburgh.

One of our stops was in the small town of Keswick in the Lake District, Cumbria. It seemed of little note until our guide Rachel mentioned that the Derwent Pencil Museum is located here. Keswick was home to many pencil manufacturers including the Cumberland Pencil Company.

When Caroline and I were growing up, it was a dream to own a box of Derwent coloured pencils and when finally Santa fulfilled this dream we treasured them for many years.

The museum chronicles the invention of lead and coloured pencils which are still sold in exactly the same boxes as Caroline and I had way back then.

Display cabinet of pencils. Photo Jane

So how did the humble pencil assist during WWII? Keep reading as first let's look at some history and facts about lead pencils.

The humble lead pencil. Credit:

Graphite (known as Wad) was found in the Borrowdale Valley, Cumbria in the 1550s after a violent storm uprooted a tree high up on the grazing fell in Gallamara.

The shepherds thinking it was coal tried to burn it without success, but it did mark their hands so they wrapped it in sheepskin and used it to mark the ownership of their sheep. This was the first form of what we know today to be a pencil.

In the 1770s a cottage industry began in Keswick and in 1832 the first pencil factory was established. The creation of Derwent fine art pencils are still manufactured in Cumbria today and exported throughout the world.

In the 1700s graphite was extremely valuable - around £1500 per kilo in today’s market. This led to a thriving black market which meant graphite had to be protected and it was transported to the tower of London by armed stagecoach.

Due to its high value, graphite was only available in small quantities for pencil making. Enterprising locals scoured the waste heaps for scraps, which were then sold to Flemish traders who smuggled the graphite across the fells by packhorse to ships waiting on the coast in Whitehaven. The centre of this elicit trade was the George hotel in Keswick.

Oh to own this fabulous pencil set! The envy of every Derwent pencil lover! Photo: Jane

Now to a few fun facts:

  • The word pencil comes from the old French word pincel meaning small paintbrush, while the word graphite is taken from the Greek word graphein meaning to write.
  • Graphite has the same chemical composition as diamond.
  • Graphite was used in nuclear power research because it was resistant to heat and slows down neutrons.
  • The phrase black market comes from graphite marking the smugglers’ hands - everyone could see what they had been up to!
  • A cedar tree can make approximately 300,000 pencils; one pencil can be sharpened 17 times, draw a line 35 miles long and can write 45,000 words.

So how did the humble pencil assist during WWII? Read on...

Let me introduce you to Charles Fraser-Smith:
During WWII, Charles Fraser-Smith, author and one-time missionary worked for the Ministry of Supply, fabricating equipment nicknamed "Q-devices" for SOE agents operating in occupied Europe. He is widely credited as being the inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond quartermaster Q.(wikipedia)

Charles Fraser-Smith was bombarded with requests for devices with secret compartments and conjured up shaving brushes, pipes, pens, golf balls and even shoelaces that contained concealed escape equipment.

During my research for this post, I read he was also involved in coming up with some of the gadgetry required for Operation Mincemeat - an MI6 plan to confuse the enemy that the Allies would launch an invasion off the coast of Spain - when in fact the real invasion by the Allies was intended for Sicily. Two movies were made loosely about this plan - The Man Who Never Was in 1956 and more recently Operation Mincemeat.

A pencil was a standard piece of navigation equipment making it an ideal place to to conceal a miniscule compass and a map in what looked like an ordinary pencil, aimed to assist Lancaster Bomber pilots in their efforts or help POWs escape German camps.

Fraser-Smith enlisted the Cumberland Pencil Company and worked with technical manager Fred Tee to make the pencils ensuring the rest of the tightknit community of Keswick did not find out about this top secret project. The managers were sworn to silence under the official secrets act.

Pencils with secret map and compass. Photo: Jane

After hours and at weekends Tee and his fellow managers crept into the factory, took a box of finished pencils from the shelf and carefully drilled out the inside leaving a short stretch of lead-filled pencil at the working end. The next job was to slide in the map, fix the metal feral to the end, slip in a tiny brass compass and glue the eraser back on top. At the end of the job the pencil looked just as it had at the start.

The maps, about 12cm long, were printed on a fine non-russling tissue paper made specially for the job. This was then rolled around a soft wire which was folded over at the tip to secure the paper. Three cotton ties ensure the map stayed tightly rolled which was no more than 3 mm in diameter.

The map secreted within a pencil. Photo: Jane

What an ingenius invention - which was only revealed to the public in the 1970s.

Fraser-Smith was certain his gadgets saved lives and helped people get home, but there are no official records as officially Charles Fraser-Smith did not exist!

Perhaps those fictional story lines we see in James Bond movies hold more reality than we realise!

1 Wikipedia
Unless otherwise stated photo and details were obtained during my visit to the Derwent Pencil Museum