MUSEUMS: Curators choice - The Cumberland Pencil Museum

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Strangely my favourite exhibit is a pencil. This is certainly not because of the pencil's appearance, as it looks very ordinary, but because of the part it played in WWII. During the war, pencil manufacturers were not allowed to paint pencils because chemical manufacturing facilities were specifically for wartime products. Plain wood was the order of the day with the exception of a range of four pencils which the Cumberland Pencil Company produced. These were painted green and were numbered from 101 to 104.

The pencils were made in the factory in the normal way right up to the finished article. But, after work, when the workforce had gone home, the managers and heads of department, who had all signed the Official Secrets Act, got together and converted them. They would drill down the centre for about three-quarters of the pencil's length and a tightly-rolled map of Germany, produced on very thin paper, was inserted in the hole. After that a tiny compass was inserted, which fitted into one end of the ferrule. Finally a rubber was put on at the other end of the ferrule and to all intents and purposes the result resembled an ordinary, everyday pencil.

The pencils were all numbered and the number denoted which of four maps they contained. Each showed a different escape route from Germany. We understand that these pencils were dropped by pilots and crew of the RAF when they flew over Germany and that they were eventually smuggled into POW camps. We have no specific examples of people escaping, but as far as we are aware the Germans never discovered the secret of these special pencils.

Yvonne Gray is supervisor of The Pencil Museum, Greta Bridge, Cumbria (0768 773626)

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