The history of penmaking around Britain

Colin Waters explores Britain’s penmaking industry, particularly associate with Birmingham.

Rolling steel to make nibs at a Birmingham factory

Vast fortunes were once made from manufacturing the humble pen nib. For example, Josiah Mason and Joseph Gilliot, from Sheffield, came from poor uneducated backgrounds but went on to make their fortunes in the trade. Mason used his fortune for philanthropic purposes, including founding Birmingham University, whilst Gillott became a collector of art and left over £250,000 when he died in 1873 (read a full biography of Gillott at tinyurl.com/pstesqj).

Manufacturing pen nibs was a complicated process, even though they were remarkably cheap to buy. Thin sheets of metal – usually tin, steel or brass – were rolled thinly so that flat blank nibs could be stamped out. Next came the process of piercing each blank with a small hole, after which it was stamped with the maker’s trademark. The nibs would then be heat-treated to make them flexible and finally shaped so as to fit in the penholder. Each batch of new nibs would need to be placed in a vat of sulphuric acid to clean them before moving them to a ‘pebble mill’, containing wet pebbles that would finish the polishing process. By now, the nibs would be shiny and ready for slitting, to allow the ink to flow freely. Even then the manufacturing process wasn’t completed. Batches of nibs would need to be heated to produce the required colour before varnishing or plating with silver or gold.

Who did they work for?

Finding out which firm an ancestor worked for is key to discovering more about them, although you’ll find that records for individual manufacturers and their workers are spread far and wide in official archives, local record offices and private collections. Libraries and websites will help you find details about a particular local manufacturer – a task that should prove easier in larger cities where you’ll sometimes find more than one pen or pen nib maker. Birmingham was one city that was home to move than one maker. In fact, it’s claimed that during the 19th century, 75% of everything written anywhere in the world was written with a pen manufactured in Birmingham. The industry there started with a few small workshops hidden away in back streets, but quickly grew into a giant export industry involving thousands of workers. 

Early workforce 

Early workforces consisted largely of illiterate women but in the late 1800s, around 56,000 females supported around 24,000 skilled males and blue-collar workers, including toolmakers, rolling mill staff and supervisors. In general, women and children pressed the nibs, assembled pens, and packed and despatched the finished goods. Wages varied depending on the factory, but some of the operatives could earn up to seven shillings a week. 

Memories of Birmingham’s once prolific manufacturing industry have been kept alive at the Birmingham Pen Museum, which is well worth a visit. There you can view a collection of quills, nib-pens, fountain pens and even typewriters. What’s more, you can make your own pen nib using original factory machinery. 

Tracking down an ancestor’s workplace will help considerably in finding surviving staff records. To help you do this, there’s a good selection of the main Birmingham manufacturers together with company histories on the Birmingham history website at www.jquarter.org.uk/webdisk/morepentrade.htm. 

London also had its fair share of pen and nib manufacturers, including Thomas De La Rue, a firm more often associated with the printing of bank notes, playing cards and stamps. In 1881 the firm produced its ‘Anti-Stylograph’, but it was the self-filling ‘Onoto’ pens that led to its success in 1905. Thomas De La Rue’s first factory was at Bunhill Row in London, but in 1927, manufacturing was transferred to Fife in Scotland. Luckily, the University of Reading holds archives dealing with all aspects of the company, including pension fund details, benefit fund documents and workers’ rent records. A full list can be found at tinyurl.com/njft8ha. 

Another prominent London manufacturer was the Mentmore Manufacturing Company, later to become better known for Platignum Pens. The company’s first premises were situated in Mentmore Terrace, where it produced a self-filling fountain pen with a gold plated nib that sold for sixpence. The company is notable because in WW2 it manufactured ‘spy pens’ for the War Office. Some were hollow, in order to conceal maps, code sheets and other documents. Another was said to have contained a James Bond style spring mechanism that ejected a poison dart – which, it is claimed, could kill at a distance of 20 feet (nearly seven metres). Read more about it at www.gracesguide.co.uk/Mentmore_Manufacturing_Co. 

Yet another prominent London pen firm was started by Frank Jarvis and Thomas Garner, both of whom had previously worked for the De La Rue Company. The company’s name, Conway Stewart, was said to have been picked out of a hat containing the names of popular music hall performers of the time. If your ancestor worked for them, you may be interested in a book, Fountain Pens For The Million: The History Of Conway Stewart, 1905–2005, by Stephen Hull (Shelly & Peacock, 2010) which can be ordered from public libraries.

Penmaking philanthropist

Josiah Mason was born in Mill Street, Kidderminster, the son of a carpet weaver. He was self-educated, and began work as a street seller of cakes, fruit and vegetables. However, he also earned money from carpet weaving, shoemaking, baking, carpentry and blacksmithing. In 1816, he moved to Birmingham where he bought machinery to manufacture metal split-rings, before being commissioned to make pen nibs for James Perry of London. Growing in stature and wealth, he invested in the copper smelting and electroplating industries. His great achievements as a public benefactor included spending £300,000 in 1860 to establish an orphanage at Erdington, and the founding of Mason Science College in 1875 – later to become Birmingham University. He was knighted in 1872 and died, aged 88, in 1881. A statue was erected in his honour in 1885 but was replaced by a bust cast in 1951. It now stands on a roundabout near Orphanage Road, Erdington.

Production around Britain

Fife manufacturer J.A.Weir was formerly a paper producer, but in 1927 it joined a consortium that had bought shares from the Thomas De La Rue company. Pen manufacturing began in Weir’s disused Strathendry paper mill, although its connection with De La Rue continued throughout WW2. Scottish paper mills were considered safe from the risk of German bombings, so De La Rue began printing banknotes there until pen production resumed in 1947. There are more details at www.onoto.com/history, but perhaps more useful to family historians are the good selection of photographs of staff at www.onoto.com/fife.htm. 

In Newhaven, East Sussex, pen production began in 1921 when Felix Macauley established a ‘worker friendly’ fountain pen factory there. During the 1920s, heated buildings, a canteen and other facilities were provided for workers’ use. Valentine & Son took over the site in 1932 and expanded the factory’s facilities in 1934. At that time around 100 people were working for the Valentine Pen Company. Parker Pens, invented in the USA by George S. Parker in 1889, began to be imported into Britain from Canada. Later in 1941, production began in Newhaven. You’ll find some interesting information about Newhaven production, together with interesting factory and staff photos on the ‘Our Newhaven’ website (tinyurl.com/ocnhrek). 

Liverpool also started pen production, when Lang Co Ltd, which was established in 1899, started the Angloamer brand before becoming the Lang Pen Company. It then joined forces with another pen company, Curzon, Lloyd and MacGregor, to become firstly Curzons, and then, by the end of the 1920s, L. Wilson & Co Ltd. In the mid 1930s or 1940s (accounts differ), the company started producing pens under the Summit Pens name. The names may have changed, but the company was continuing the long pen-making tradition.

Pen Museum, The

Unit 3 The Argent Centre 60 Frederick Street, Birmingham, West Midlands B1 3HS, United Kingdom
Birmingham B1 3HS
Map It

One of Birmingham's great attractions and centres of information about the city's fascinating history. Dedicated to steel pen making in Birmingham. Collections: Current themes are Birmingham manufacturers; pen manufacturing processes supported by social history of workers; the history of writing and methods of communicating. The core collection comprises of items from Birmingham and the Birmingham pen-related trades.