In 1564 a chance event occurred which became the turning point in the development of the modern pencil.
Local lore tells of a fierce storm in Barrowdale, Cumberland in Cumbria, which uprooted a large ash tree, where shepherds discovered a strange black substance clinging to its roots. The locals quickly realised this to be very useful for marking their sheep, and then gradually its application for writing was developed.
By the end of the 16th century graphite was well known throughout Europe for its superior line-making qualities, its eraseability, and the ability to re-draw on top of it with ink. The substance became known as black lead or plumbago (hence the “plumbers” who mend lead pipes). It was called graphite only in 1789.
During the 19th century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in Cumberland in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite. The Barrowdale deposit remains the only large scale deposit of graphite found in this solid form.
Solomon Cohen was one of the early manufacturers of pencils in the UK, opening a works at Shadwell Street, London in 1803. In 1844 his son Barnet Soloman Cohen took control of the business which became known as B. S. Cohen who developed it to become one of the leading pencil makers in England. The company advertised pencil brands such Prize Drawing Pencils and Eurlite Drawing Pencils in the late 19th century.
In 1920 B. S. Cohen merged with another long-established and prominent pencil manufacturer called E. Wolff & Sons to form the Royal Sovereign Pencil Co. under the management of Arthur Johnson. The company’s factory in Neasden, London, became known as the Britannia Pencil Works and was expanded, becoming one of the largest and best-equipped pencil making factories in the world. The works produced over 500 different types of pencil including graphite, lead, carbon and coloured pencils, crayon and chalk. The average production was close to 1 million pencils a week, the best known brands being Royal Sovereign and Spanish Graphite.
The company was incorporated as the Royal Sovereign Co. Ltd. in 1974 before being taken over by German pencil manufacturer, Staedtler, the following year.