Free enamel pin when you buy any two Atlas Obscura products. Shop now.

Keswick, England

Cumberland Pencil Museum

A museum in England’s Lake District dedicated to the trusty pencil wants you to know the story of their World War II spy pencils.  

“Fraser-Smith. Charles Fraser-Smith”.

OK, he wasn’t James Bond. But Charles Fraser-Smith was thought to be the inspiration for the gadget guru “Q” in the Ian Fleming series, serving as an agent for Britain’s military intelligence arm during World War II. Fraser-Smith came up with lots of inventions and gadgets for soldiers and flyers during the War, including a pencil with a secret compartment to hide a map and a compass. Fraser-Smith thought that such a pencil could be used by British prisoners of war, to aid them in an escape. When he needed a company to help produce his James-Bond-escape-artist pencils, he paid a visit to the Cumberland Pencil Co. in Keswick, Cumbria.

Pencil manufacturing in and around Keswick goes back nearly 200 years, but the discovery of graphite goes back much further, to around the 16th century. Graphite was used for all kinds of things besides being stuffed into sticks of wood, including munitions manufacturing. Graphite mining became a major industry in Cumbria, and several factories began to pop up in the 19th century to take advantage of the supply. What was to become the Cumberland Pencil Co. goes back to 1832, fabricating writing implements under the name of Banks, Son & Co. The company changed hands a few times over the years, becoming Hogarth & Hayes in 1875, and finally the Cumberland Pencil Co. in 1916. The factory turned out graphite pencils, colored pencils and artist’s charcoal for another 90 years, finally closing in 2007 and relocating 20 miles west to the town of Workington, where they still make fine pencils and other art supplies under the brand Derwent.

The little museum alongside the Cumberland factory will tell you the whole story, and they have the world’s largest colored pencil too boot. It’s 26 feet long, weighing just under half a ton. Just think what Charles Fraser-Smith could hide in that thing.

 

Know Before You Go

Keswick is a village within the Lake District National Park. You can take National Rail to Penrith Station, then take the bus to the Keswick Bus Station. From there it is only a 5 minute walk to the Museum.

Admission is £4.50 for adults, £4.00 for students, £3.50 for kids, and under age 5 are free.